Consider this familiar pattern, easily recognizable in cities around the United States today:

A group of well-meaning urban planners, city leaders, conservationists, and businesses restore an urban watershed with parks, trails, and greenspace. Water quality improves; the potential for well-being, health, and climate resilience is widely celebrated. But, as the neighborhood improves, property values spike, and a wave of gentrification and displacement ensues. On top of that, most of the jobs go to people who live outside the community.

But, in one neighborhood in Atlanta, we are seeing a different pattern play out:

Leaders of the watershed restoration project commit to community involvement, to holding meetings at times that residents can attend, and to making space for community perspectives. The planning process involves partners with knowledge about equity and affordable housing. They stand up for community self-determination and racial and economic equity, even with large corporate partners who have the potential to support (or drop) the project. The resulting restoration plan includes a commitment to protect against displacement and steer the benefits—and jobs—to those who need them most.

Complex systems theory suggests that, when undesirable patterns are the status quo, the way to generate more desirable patterns is to shift the underlying conditions of the system—particularly the skills of individuals, their networks of connection, and the values from which they operate.

No system shift is the result of a single intervention. But leaders in the Atlanta watershed restoration project have told us that their project is turning out differently because they are acting differently. And they are acting differently, in part, because of their participation in an equitable growth coalition called the Just Growth Circle, which promotes cross-sectoral collaboration at the nexus of health, water, climate, housing, jobs, and racial equity.

The Just Growth Circle grew from an unusual collaboration between the Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE) and Climate Interactive, an international organization that specializes in systems-level work. The Circle is helping Atlantans understand the complex urban systems they inhabit and identify opportunities to promote equitable outcomes. To that end, members of the Circle participate in diverse networks based on a solid foundation of trust. These are not temporary, transactional alliances; the Circle aims to build relationships that will endure as the city grows and evolves, seizing opportunities for meaningful change along the way.

Relationships forged in the Just Growth Circle are changing the way its members think and work. As one founder of the watershed restoration project said, “[When I first came to a Circle meeting] I was nervous and intimidated because I didn’t know anybody….Now I work very closely with [some of them] and they have been profoundly influential on me personally. Specifically, in this project, they have helped me steer it toward advocating for community benefits and…thinking ahead about community impact.”

This approach produces results. As noted above, Circle members helped shape the watershed restoration plan, securing commitments to protect against displacement and to benefit marginalized neighborhoods. Circle members were also instrumental in helping update a city agency’s $1.2 billion capital improvement plan, winning provisions for equitable hiring and procurement.

Results like these show the potential to leverage modest investments—in convening and supporting people’s learning, development, and networking—to influence spending that is orders of magnitude larger. The few hundred thousand dollars invested in the Circle have helped shape the deployment of a billion dollars in capital improvements. Add to that the millions that will be invested in watershed restoration, additional millions contemplated for parks, and further millions for historic district development, and the scale of the opportunity becomes clear.

The full impact of the Just Growth Circle won’t be known for decades, but early results are promising. So, we want to share what we’ve learned with the hope that our approaches might be useful elsewhere.

Synergistic Solutions Are Feasible in Theory, Difficult in Practice

We know from groups such as the World Health Organization and Transport for London, as well as an article in International Labour Review that—at least in theory— you can promote sustainability, resilience, and climate protection, while also creating jobs and improving health, well-being, and racial equity.

However, what is possible in theory often remains out of reach in practice. A (non-exhaustive) list of obstacles includes:

  • Incentives that work against collaboration get in the way, including lack of time and capacity to pull collaborations together, battles over jurisdiction, and budgetary mechanisms that prevent pooling funds.
  • Lack of partnerships wide enough to span all the expertise needed; for example, when experts in conservation don’t know anyone who works on affordable housing, or vice versa.
  • Lack of trust or shared vision. When opportunities arise to work across sectors, there may not be time and space for the listening, learning, and working things out required to truly move together.
  • The legacy of structural racism, which influences everything from voting rights, to access to capital, to educational opportunities—all of which influence how innovative projects like those described above play out and who is able to participate in them.

Given ample time, sufficient resources, and facilitation and skill building on issues like racial equity, these challenges are surmountable. But under the pressures of time, heavy workloads, and competing priorities, many opportunities slip by.

A Novel Approach to Generating Synergistic Solutions

Launched in 2016 and supported with funding from the Surdna Foundation, the Just Growth Circle brings together almost 70 people from frontline organizations, city government, business, health, conservation, philanthropy, housing, universities, and more. A small grants program administered by the Circle helps support the participation of smaller, community-based organizations. Knowledge, learning, and resources flow within the Circle; at any one moment, the “expert” addressing the group may be a city official, a nonprofit leader, or a member of a frontline community group.

The Circle began as a much smaller group, with members focused solely on water, conservation, and equity. It has since grown to include members focused on health, jobs, housing, and more. We anticipate it continuing for many years, building and strengthening relationships between the many different sectors whose common interests meet in decisions about infrastructure, racial equity, sustainability, and green space.

The Just Growth Circle relies on a three-part facilitation/design team:

  • PSE brings a focus on equity, values-based organizing, and deep knowledge of local politics, and provides ongoing stewardship of the Circle.
  • Climate Interactive helps the group develop maps that pool the knowledge of Circle members and shapes the project design from a systems perspective.
  • Anderson Smith Consulting plays an adaptive learning and evaluation role, helping participants and the facilitation team reflect upon what is emerging and flagging instances where participants ask for changes in content or process.

Our approach treats the evolving city as a complex system, shaped by thousands of decisions—about investment, policy, hiring, design, and affordability. This complex system can’t be controlled or managed from the top, but it can be influenced by:

  • Supporting the development of relationships among previously disconnected groups;
  • Focusing on racial equity as an explicit value;
  • Building shared understanding of the whole system, how it works, where it is subject to influence, and where unanticipated side effects must be guarded against; and
  • Supporting the development of skills and courage to enable people to take bold action in moments of opportunity and resistance.

The Atlanta Context

Atlanta faces multiple challenges. The city has, over recent years, earned the unfortunate distinction of being the most economically inequitable city in the US. It has set ambitious climate change mitigation goals that will require large-scale retrofitting and new infrastructure. There is also ongoing litigation about unequal access to the ballot in Georgia’s 2018 elections. Atlanta is vulnerable to climate change impacts, especially stormwater flooding from increasingly intense precipitation. All of these challenges must be tackled against the backdrop of rapid population growth that is expected to continue for decades.

Each of these challenges is complex and difficult. And they are interconnected: sometimes the solutions to one challenge (say climate resilience) make other challenges (say equity) more difficult, as when investments in green, sustainable infrastructure contribute to rising housing costs, gentrification, and displacement. These situations, where a solution to one problem worsens another, can rarely be resolved without skillful multi-sectoral collaboration.

At other times, a solution to one challenge (say climate change) may help address another (say a need for good local jobs), as when infrastructure projects that reduce carbon also provide opportunities for job creation and wealth building. These solutions, too, require skillful multi-sectoral collaboration.

The interlocking nature of these issues is a feature (not a bug!) of the complex systems we live and work within.

Atlanta, like all cities, is a complex system. The city and region could move forward into many different possible futures. The Just Growth Circle intends that over time—via sustained, strategic engagements—we can help tilt the city towards health, equity, and sustainability.

Assumptions Driving Our Project Design

We see infrastructure investment—from planning to allocation of funds to construction to use of the finished product—as a key area of intervention. Infrastructure built today determines greenhouse gas emissions and resilience for the future. How infrastructure is implemented could provide new opportunities for wealth-building and improved health—or set off a wave of gentrification.

Within this process, we recognize moments of opportunity may arise to steer towards outcomes like equity, climate protection, and health. Those moments may arise when making decisions about finance, design, local hiring, job training, affordability, sustainability, and/or resilience.

Wielding influence at these critical moments requires aligning multiple interests (say, a health group and a conservation group joining forces to fund the expansion of green space). These moments are often fleeting; unless groups with common interests are connected in advance, the moment can pass before enough trust and shared vision are established. Effective intervention, in short, requires prior community-building.

Relationships built over time have enabled Circle members to seize the moment to insert equity principles into Atlanta’s Green Infrastructure Strategic Action Plan. “A window of opportunity opened up,” says one Circle member. “The timing was right…We put the Shared Equity Values that the Just Growth Circle developed into the plan because several members of the Green Infrastructure Task Force are also members of the Circle.”

The timing of openings is influenced by elections, technological advances, and—increasingly— extreme weather events. We know that moments of opportunity will come, but we cannot know what they will be or where or when they will happen. Therefore, intervention design must be flexible and adaptive.

Finally, when transforming systems to promote new patterns of behavior, it matters who acts. True solutions will incorporate the wisdom and desires of groups with the most at stake, particularly local community groups, people from low-wealth communities, and people of color. In status quo systems, these groups often lack a voice in infrastructure decisions that will affect them. Effective interventions must support the leadership of members of impacted groups.

Design Elements of the Just Growth Circle

The Just Growth Circle has evolved a set of practices, ways of convening, and shared understandings that boost effectiveness in the midst of systemic complexity, uncertainty, and rapid change. Like the complex system itself, all of the elements are mutually interconnected and reinforcing, but for clarity we will name them by category:

Connecting an ecosystem

Because no one group has the funding, power, or political clout to direct investment or policy towards sustainability, resilience, and equity, we aim to foster partnerships and relationships among unlikely partners. And, because of disparities in influence and access to decision-making, we work to ensure that those relationships include a mix of groups and individuals with traditional access to power and decision-making, as well as groups and individuals typically outside of those formal decision-making processes.

Such relationships can help members understand—and utilize—their place in the civic ecosystem. As one participant from a conservation-oriented organization said, “I better understand my own gatekeeper role.…[Now I am asking] ‘how do we leverage our own power and influence?’ I see that I can use my role to create opportunities and a platform for those that do not have the same [opportunities].’”

Each group meeting includes a “project clinic” where members present on their work in the context of the consensus values (below).

The Just Growth Circle Shared Values:

  • Respect Communities. Value communities as critical partners, inviting meaningful participation, leadership, and input during all phases of the project.
  • Strengthen Communities. Improve the quality of life for current residents as well as the overall wellness of the surrounding communities.
  • Heal Environmental Injustice. Prioritize investment in communities that have felt the cost and burden of poor infrastructure in the past.
  • Anticipate and Protect Against Displacement. Partner with others to manage the impacts of increased surrounding property values on vulnerable neighbors.
Growing relationships

Because relationships take time to grow, we aim to “pre-grow” relationships and networks that are flexible and adaptable. The Circle is a space where members can share honestly about successes and failures—and explore issues like structural racism and how it impacts their work.

“I think the success of the Just Growth Circle is all about the diverse mixture of the people who attend and the leadership style of the meeting facilitators,” said one participant, who is active in her predominantly African American community and who works on homelessness issues in Fulton County. “In the last session we discussed race and our individual histories. That brief conversation was so powerful, it has motivated me to plan similar discussions in my neighborhood.”

By sharing stories about confronting racism and structural inequity in their own work, Circle members improve each other’s skills and comfort in such conversations. Many have mentioned how Circle conversations have built their own courage for speaking out about racial equity.

Guiding action with shared values

Because the Just Growth Circle operates over long time spans against a backdrop of constant change, there is a need for coherence and continuity. Shared values are also important to enable Just Growth Circle to challenge norms within systems—capitalism, the US, the South, to name a few—that for centuries have not reflected or resulted in racial equity. In short, since we seek transformation, our work focuses on values to catalyze that transformation.

The Just Growth Circle consensus values (see inset) are four principles that emerged from the group in its first year and which have been refined slightly over time. While group members work in different sectors and employ different strategies, these shared values help potential new members determine if they are aligned with the group and provide focus for everything the group does.

Creating shared conceptual maps

Seizing moments of opportunity often requires coordination across different parts of a system or over time. For example, initiating job training early on in project planning will ensure that workers from the local community are ready for work when construction begins. To help draw out these interconnections, we have used systems mapping techniques. These shared maps provide a common language, offer a vehicle for talking about strategy and gaps, and have driven the expansion of the Circle’s breadth of membership.

Learning, but also acting

For most of us, steering complex systems requires new skills and capacities. Project clinics and small grants offer two ways for participants to access new ideas, tools, and resources. But not all needed capacities are technical. Some are about encouraging participants to reflect and act on their own deepest values, even (or especially) when that is not comfortable. By providing the support of committed fellow risk-takers and allowing space for uncertainty, questioning, and informal peer coaching, we help participants bolster their own courage. In a system shaped by historical inequities, where the status quo points to a slow improvement in equity at best, individuals empowered with courage and commitment are a necessary part of steering systems towards transformational change.

Self-steering, yet also nurtured

The Just Growth Circle is a self-organizing system, steered by the questions, interests, and needs of participants. For instance, a six-month exploration of gentrification and displacement emerged from the group’s desire to better understand strategies to avoid gentrification. At the same time, a design and facilitation team, anchored by PSE and Climate Interactive, meets regularly in design meetings. PSE conducts continuous outreach to support current members and connect with potential new members between formal meetings.

Looking Forward

The impacts of the Just Growth Circle are only beginning. We expect many of the subtle changes we observe now to continue creating ripples long into the future. The Circle will continue to meet, grow, learn, and evolve, making new connections and digging deeper into complex topics—from public finance, to climate change, to gentrification and displacement. We expect that impacts from the Just Growth Circle will continue to spur conversations that might not otherwise happen, bring equity into conversations and policies, and change the way that future investments are made. We expect that these decisions will in turn shape the complex, dynamic ecosystem that is Atlanta.

In a time of tremendous need and constrained budgets, the Just Growth Circle process can be powerful. A modest amount of a constrained resource (grant dollars) unlocks a complex adaptive process that maximizes human creativity, network effects, knowledge pooling, and learning. Like Buckminster-Fuller’s trimtab or Donella Meadows’s leverage point, the Just Growth Circle process allows small groups of people with limited resources to transform much larger, better-resourced systems.

Many indicators suggest that the future will be less stable and more uncertain than the past, and the flexible, adaptable, and self-organizing nature of the Just Growth Circle is a key advantage under conditions of uncertainty. The topics under consideration, the participants, and the emerging opportunities have all shifted during the short lifetime of the Circle and will certainly continue to evolve. But the values, relationships, skills, and personal capacities the Circle has nurtured will endure and grow—as will the potential for transformational change.

The authors appreciate comments on the manuscript and help nurturing the Just Growth Circle from Suzanne Burnes, Kirsten Cook, Stephanie McCauley, and Cassandra Ceballos.