The Just Communities Protocol is Launched

On January 12, the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE) released the new Just Communities Protocol 1.0, to help communities build pathways to a more equitable and resilient future. All communities – regardless of race, class, and ethnicity – should be able to provide the essential needs for a healthy and secure life.

The Protocol is a comprehensive and practical implementation framework and verification standard to unlock the power of resident leaders, community-based organizations, developers, and municipalities in advancing racially equitable and environmentally regenerative development of our built environment. It is designed to help deliver meaningful social, economic, and environmental outcomes in the areas of civic participation, housing, economic development, transportation, public health, safety, food, parks and open space, energy, water, and environmental protection. The release of the Protocol represents the next generation of EcoDistricts – reimagined with the input from over eighty leading equitable and sustainable development practitioners.

PSE kickstarted Just Communities two years ago with the acquisition of EcoDistricts, a Portland-based NGO that created a well-regarded standard and credentialing program for equitable and sustainable neighborhood development. And in doing so, PSE becomes the country’s first Black-led organization to develop and manage an international sustainable development standard.


What is Just Communities?

Just Communities is a comprehensive and practical initiative to unlock the power of resident leaders, community-based organizations, developers, and municipalities in advancing racially equitable and environmentally regenerative development of our built environment. It includes three

key elements:

A Framework for Fostering Neighborhood Equity and Regeneration.
Just Communities is an implementation tool to guide the planning and implementation of neighborhood development projects.

A Rigorous Standard to Measure Results.
The Just Communities Certification program provides verification services to communities looking to successfully apply the framework in their neighborhood. Certification is a mark of leadership and a global peer-to-peer learning network.

A Learning Platform to Promote Leadership.
The Just Communities Accredited Practitioner (AP) program is a continuing education platform to support community leaders, city officials, and planning, design, and development professionals committed to promoting Just Communities.

Just Communities is a proactive agenda of capacity building, training, and technical assistance that integrates the advocacy of the environmental and climate justice movement with technical planning, design, and development best practices. We focus on the creation of collaborative tables to build shared values and capacity, resulting in partnerships and practices to drive systems change. While public-private partnerships (PPP) are well understood as a method of procurement and structuring deals to leveraging public and private investment, Just Communities helps to broaden the planning and implementation table to include local organizations, institutions and resident leaders often shut out of land use and development decision making. It starts with a belief that within every community lies the opportunity to design truly innovative solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing city leaders today: racism, income, and health disparities; blight and ecological degradation; the growing threat of climate change; and rapid urban growth that benefits only the most upwardly mobile in our society.


Why Just Communities?

Across the United States and globally, our communities are facing a number of overlapping challenges from the lingering impacts of the pandemic to climate change, calling into question our assumptions about how we approach economic growth and local development.

After decades of unprecedented urban investment, fueled by a real estate and tech boom, cities and communities are struggling to provide housing affordability and economic mobility to their local residents. In the US, the impacts are felt most acutely by Black and other historically disinvested communities of color that have suffered from generations of racist land use policies and predatory development practices – resulting in neighborhoods with higher levels of concentrated poverty, environmental pollution, food insecurity, health disparities.When it comes to the growing climate crisis, our frontline communities that have been overlooked are feeling the impacts most acutely.

We believe the urban planning, design, and development sector’s most innovation approaches for smart, green urban reinvestment are not only insufficient in tackling racial inequity and climate change, but they continue to perpetuate harm by positioning Black and other historically disenfranchised communities to be passive recipients of reinvestment, not the agents and drivers of reinvestment. While they may elevate the needs of our most vulnerable, they do not change power dynamics, leverage community wisdom and solutions, nor interrogate and change the approach to redevelopment.

Environmental and racial justice leaders have long called out the devastating paradox of “growth.” As the pace of urban redevelopment and reinvestment grew, low-income and majority Black and other historically disenfranchised neighborhoods have been repeatedly passed over or harmed by disruptive real estate and infrastructure investments lauded as “innovative” or “best-in-class.” Today, frustration and distrust have reached a fevered pitch as the disproportionate impacts of pollution and climate change on vulnerable communities have laid bare the widening wealth gap, housing insecurity, concentrated poverty, and health disparities among people of color. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made these health and wealth inequities worse, as the disproportionate impacts to Black and Brown people continue without end.

The Biden administration and congress has ushered a generational opportunity to change the narrative and outcome of urban and community redevelopment. The President’s Justice40 Initiative requires, for the first time, that “40 percent of the overall benefits of certain Federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.” The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is unleashing a tidal wave of federal investment to our cities to simultaneously address our crumbling physical infrastructure and growing climate emergency. Just Communities provides a comprehensive suite of services and tools to help communities organize, plan, and implement the kind of investments that these laws are intended to make, and are solely needed to bend the arc of urban and community development towards social, racial, and ecological healing and repair.


Our North Star

How we reinvest in our communities—from large-scale infrastructure projects to neighborhood revitalization efforts— requires a comprehensive reexamination. To kick off Just Communities, PSE worked with a group of national equitable development leaders to create the Manifesto for Just Communities. We knew that for Just Communities to be successful, we first had to articulate our values, and to provide an opportunity for practitioners and advocates to make a personal commitment to a global paradigm shift towards new forms of equitable and regenerative land, property, infrastructure, real estate, and community development. The manifesto states:

We recognize the lasting impact of structural racism.
Neighborhoods are a central element of our national economy, and our economy was built on the commodification and exploitation of enslaved Africans, immigrants, tribal nations, and low-income workers, along with our natural resources.

We operate on radical truth and understanding of history.
While some communities have flourished and some have stagnated, almost every place was built on stolen land, with stolen labor. Just Communities offers an alternative approach that relies on alternative assumptions, beginning with this fundamental truth.

We honor the wisdom of neighbors and the power of community.
Residents have the right and responsibility to organize- build relationships with each other and with decision-makers in land use and development, and assert their knowledge, experience, and values in decisions that impact their community.

We commit to healing and liberation.
Land development can be a healing, not harmful process, and development projects can promote the full expression of our humanity.

We are committed to strategies that facilitate a just climate transition.
The urgency of climate change must be met with innovative, fact-based, community-centered solutions that not only mitigate the disproportionate threat that Black and Brown communities face but also shift the burden of reducing carbon emissions from those on the front of the crisis to the biggest polluters.

We leverage public policy for reform, repair, and reconciliation.
Every land use policy and investment today must account for the harm of past policies and practices.

We assert racial equity as the superior growth model.
The communities we envision for ourselves grow through developments that generate shared benefits, like better air quality or internet access, for everyone, and that unlock economic opportunities, like homeownership, specifically for those left out.


An Important Shift in Leadership

PSE and EcoDistricts were founded 2,000 miles from each other, but with a common mission of radically reimagining a new way forward in our cities. PSE is a pro-Black organization that works to advance policies and institutional actions that realize racial equity and shared prosperity for all in metropolitan Atlanta and the American South—with a focus on supporting leaders and organizations in historically disinvested communities of color to amplify their voices in how their communities develop over time. EcoDistricts was a white-led organization that elevated sustainability, equity, and resilience in urban neighborhoods, as well as district-scale development throughout the US and beyond, by promoting impact-focused community-based partnerships among local governments, community-based organization, and development entities.

In 2020, EcoDistricts began to search for a long-term home to carry its work forward, rather than remaining a freestanding nonprofit. The sustainable development landscape is dominated by white-led nonprofits, professional associations, trade groups, and firms. And while EcoDistricts was founded to provide a space between urban sustainability, community development, and equity practitioners, we realized we needed to intentionally cede space and lead in a different way to put our values into practice to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are more than lip service. What began as an exploratory conversation with PSE quickly turned into an opportunity to reimagine EcoDistricts inside a dynamic and fast-growing NGO dedicated to advancing racial equity in the areas of urban and economic development, energy, and health. Generative conversations among staff and board members revealed an opportunity to do something big, and within a few months, PSE put an exciting offer on the table to acquire EcoDistricts as a first down payment for Just Communities.

The launch of Just Communities represents the beginning of a long-term investment and belief that we are not alone in wanting to disrupt racially unjust and ecologically destructive land use and development practices and replace them with healing and mutually beneficial practices. We look forward to working with our funders, partners, and community of practice to put our vision into action.

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