Cities, Climate and Inequalities

Key considerations for addressing the equity deficit in municipal climate action

April 2024

Jennifer Dobai, PhD student in Community Psychology – Department of Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University and Viessmann Centre for Engagement and Research in Sustainability (VERiS)

Manuel Riemer, Professor of Community Psychology and Sustainability Science – Department of Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University and Viessmann Centre for Engagement and Research in Sustainability (VERiS)


Municipalities play a crucial role in addressing climate change. Often, their initial attempts to face this challenge consists of developing climate action plans (CAPs), either at the corporate or community level. However, these plans tend to have a narrow focus on environmental issues and bracket out other major challenges which cities are facing. Among other unintended consequences, this narrow and isolated approach has led to an equity deficit that exacerbates existing inequalities for marginalized communities.

In determining effective approaches to addressing the equity deficit in municipal CAPs, it is helpful to understand it as one symptom of a much larger problem. As Homer-Dixon et al. point out, what our global society is facing is much more complex and impactful than a series of independent challenges. Indeed, we are facing a global poly-crisis. That is, “a single macro-crisis of interconnected, runaway failures of Earth’s vital natural and social systems that irreversibly degrade humanity’s prospects” (2022, p. 3). Dealing with this complexity adequately at the local level requires a significant transformation at the core of the municipal organization rather than incremental changes at the periphery (Posselt et al., 2022). In this paper, we present insights from two studies examining the same municipal context. The first study looked at how municipal sustainability actors perceive the equity deficit and its causes, and the second study investigated the first stage in moving towards transforming the core of a municipality.

State of Scientific Literature

CAPs are outlines and associated strategies developed by municipal governments and other local actors to reduce GHG emissions (mitigation) and/or adapt to climate change impacts through reducing vulnerability and strengthening resilience (adaptation) (Boswell et al., 2019; Guyadeen et al., 2019; Ouranos, n.d.). While municipalities’ CAPs may have well-intended actions and solutions, these efforts can inadvertently worsen pre-existing disparities or even give rise to new inequities. For example, the establishment of light rail transit systems to encourage the use of public transportation frequently results in a phenomenon known as “green gentrification,” which can result in the displacement of marginalized low-income and racialized communities from the urban center to suburban locales (Rice et al., 2020). These inequities in climate action are what Agyeman referred to as the “equity deficit” (2005, p. 44). The equity deficit is used to highlight how sustainability discourses (present in climate action planning) often lack consideration of social justice and equity, which adversely affects marginalized groups. According to several scholars, the oversight of climate action’s effects on these communities in existing planning could be attributed to the lack of genuine and meaningful involvement, coupled with the inadequate representation, of crucial stakeholders and rights-holders, particularly those belonging to equity-seeking groups (Champagne, 2020; Guyadeen et al., 2019). Another potential explanation is that the current way municipal system structures are organized and operated is prone to siloing, whereby municipal projects and tasks are separated across certain departments/sectors (Oseland, 2019). For example, municipalities tend to put one peripheral office in charge of climate actions and another in charge of diversity, equity and inclusion initiativesgenerally with a lack of collaboration across departments. Working in silos is seen as a critical barrier to climate action planning, along with limited staff capacity, resources, knowledge, funding as well as public knowledge and awareness of climate change issues (Oseland, 2019; Oulahen et al., 2018; Philp & Cohen, 2020). While the equity deficit is a growing concern for municipal actors, there is limited knowledge of how municipal actors understand the connection between climate action and social justice and of how they address the equity deficit.

Inadequately considering interconnections in an increasingly “hyper-connected world” (World Economic Forum, 2013) poses critical risks and vulnerabilities (Helbing, 2013; Raworth, 2017; Steffen et al., 2015). Complex environmental and social systems interact with each other resulting in non-linear, cascading effects that are difficult to predict and manage, as evident during the COVID-19 pandemic (Helbing, 2013; Homer-Dixon et al., 2022; Jones et al., 2022). While there is an increasing awareness of these complexities, municipal leaders are challenged to adequately deal with them because they operate within a paradigm of public management that is no longer fit for purpose (Jones et al., 2022; Posselt et al., 2022). The Centre for Public Impact (n.d.), for example, points to key deficits in governments’ management of complex challenges and points to a need for a new vision for government, one that is founded on a new set of beliefs, values and principles that reflect the increasing complexity of our world. Similarly, the report from the first Innovate4Cities conference in 2021 identified an “implementation gap” between the ambition expressed through climate action planning and target setting and the actual progress being made, which remains largely incremental (Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy & UN-Habitat, 2022). These reports and an increasing number of scholars (e.g., Jones, et al., 2022; Posselt et al., 2022) highlight the importance of applying systems thinking and systemic approaches and more fundamental transformative changes to manage complexity. Turner and Wills (2022), however, highlight that local governments have been daunted by the complexity associated with operationalizing integrative systemic frameworks, such as United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Doughnut Economics Model (Raworth, 2017). There is currently a lack in practical and empirically grounded approaches for municipal leaders to manage the poly-crisis in a systemic way as well as a lack of a corresponding mindset and commitment on the part of leaders to adequately utilize such approaches (Posselt et al., 2022).

Original research case(s)

Objectives. We present the findings from two connected case studies which we conducted on the Waterloo Region that explored the equity deficit and the process of transformation within a municipality from two different angles. The first case study sought to understand how municipal actors currently understand and address the equity deficit in their climate action planning through an exploratory descriptive qualitative study. The second case study investigated a facilitated co-productive process intended to lead to a mindset shift among municipal leaders as a first necessary step in a longer transformation of municipal governance and management.

Context. This research took place within the Waterloo Region (WR), an upper-tier municipality located in southwestern Ontario, Canada. The region consists of eight municipalities, including three cities and four townships. The region has been recognized as a prominent leader in addressing climate concerns (Guyadeen et al., 2019) and is home to a variety of grassroots movements and groups, such as LandBack Camp, Sustainable Waterloo Region, Faith Climate Justice and the 50x30WR campaign. The second case study focused on one of the three cities in WR, Kitchener. Kitchener has been recognized for its leadership in public engagement, climate action planning, financial stability, continuous improvement and community well-being.

Methods. In the first case study (Dobai & Riemer, 2023), we conducted seven semi-structured qualitative interviews with members of the management team for the regional community CAP, which includes sustainability-focused staff from various municipalities and members from two prominent environmental groups in WR. We then analyzed the data using template analysis, a type of thematic analysis (Brooks et al., 2015; King, 2012). For the second study (Jones et al., 2022), the team conducted five semi-structured interviews with four administrative leaders of the City of Kitchener who participated in the EE Introductory Workshop series (the project lead was interviewed twice) as well as interviews with the three members from the organization REFOCUS who led the workshops. In addition, we reviewed a variety of relevant documents from the City and the project. The research was supported by a Partnership Engage Grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (PI: Jones, Co-PI: Riemer).


Study 1: For the first study, six major themes emerged from the interview data (Figure 1). Theme 1, moving from background to foreground, described how municipal actors engaged in climate action planning understand justice, equity and sustainability issues as connected, yet experience barriers in moving this understanding to practice and everyday actions. Themes 2 and 3 spoke to the challenges faced by municipal actors when addressing the equity deficit, such as structural and capacity challenges. As part of structural challenges, participants perceived bureaucracy, administrative and electoral processes, mandates and departmental silos as contributing to the equity deficit, or at least as hindering their efforts to address it. Additionally, capacity challenges of limited time, resources, funding and knowledge were seen as another barrier to implementing justice and equity considerations and a facilitator for the equity deficit. Themes 4 and 5 highlighted potential pathways that municipal actors see in addressing the equity deficit. Participants also identified the need for systems thinking in addressing the equity deficit and other related interconnected issues. Participants also perceived the need for connections and relationships (Theme 5) as a potential pathway not only to overcome capacity challenges but also to meaningfully address the equity deficit. Lastly, Theme 6, a minor theme, highlighted the importance of the community’s awareness and knowledge of justice, equity and sustainability issues to municipal actors’ decision-making and goals regarding climate action planning.

Figure 1: Concept Map of Major Themes from Dobai & Riemer (2023) study
(Dobai & Riemer, 2023)

As one of our findings indicated a need for systems thinking and given that the equity deficit poses a complex multi-layered challenge of interconnected issues, we discuss the results in the context of the iceberg model, which is a practical application of systems theory and thinking. The iceberg model consists of four levelsevent, patterns and trends, underlying structures, mental modelsthat help to visualize and understand how an event (what is visible in an iceberg; see Figure 2) is influenced by different invisible patterns, structures and mental models (Academy for Systems Change, 2019). Using this model, we highlight the need for transformative change at the deepest level, in the mindsets of leaders.

System analysis: In applying the iceberg model to the equity deficit in municipal climate action planning, the event level highlights that the value of social justice and equity in climate action planning are being recognized and considerations are being integrated, but that the integration and implementation of these considerations are still in their infancy. When trying to better understand the trends and patterns that have led to the equity deficit in municipal climate action planning, the lack of meaningful and authentic connections and relationships with marginalized groups emerged as an explanation. To work towards meaningful engagement, municipalities can support and work with grassroots movements and bridge partnerships through existing community initiatives (Niehaus, 2022). This implies moving leadership and control over the engagement process from the municipality to the local equity-seeking groups, something that can be difficult for municipal actors given their expectations regarding risk control and impression management (Bevan, 2022; Niehaus, 2022). The third level examined underlying structures (e.g., institutions, policies, processes) that influence the trends of the equity deficit. This level highlighted how the municipal organizational and governance structure creates structural (e.g., departmental silos) and capacity challenges (e.g., limited resources) for municipal actors in addressing the equity deficit. To overcome these challenges, strengthening connections and relationships with the community is necessary, as is a systems thinking lens to ensure justice and equity are seen as central components of sustainability and climate action planning. At the deepest level, the mental models level, we investigated what values, beliefs and assumptions uphold and perpetuate the equity deficit. Individualistic, capitalistic and colonial beliefs and assumptions were seen as explanations or justifications for the current way municipalities in many countries are structured. For example, municipal leaders in North America used planning in order to achieve colonial objectives, such as the displacement and erasure of Indigenous peoples (Porter et al., 2017). Thus, different ways of thinking and planning are needed to integrate and make space for Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, beliefs and planning as well as for non-Indigenous people to unlearn and reflect on their privilege and mental models grounded in colonization (Latulippe & Klenk, 2020; Porter et al., 2020).

As such, it is critical for municipal actors and other stakeholders engaged in local climate action planning and implementation to apply systems thinking and embark on a paradigm shift away from mental models influenced by neoliberalism and the colonial legacy in North America. As we work towards transformations for resiliency and sustainability in addressing these complex challenges, it is critical to ensure that existing injustices are not further perpetuated or even exacerbated. For this to happen, racial justice, Indigenous sovereignty and reconciliation, and other social justice issues need to become a priority for those who develop and implement strategic plans for addressing the challenges. This shift in mental models is the first step in the needed transformation, which brings us to the findings from the second study.

Study 2: The facilitated co-productive process we applied in the City of Kitchener is part of Enterprise Evolution (EE), a relatively new organizational development and learning program grounded in systems theory. EE applies leverage theory (Murphy & Jones, 2020), which holds that the further the layer is down the system, the greater its potential as a leverage point for enabling long-term and transformative change. As noted above, at the deepest level are mental models, which include the mindsets of municipal leaders. As a first step in the EE journey (see Theory of Change in Figure 2), a series of workshops were co-developed by REFOCUS and staff from the City of Kitchener.

Figure 2: Iceberg Model, EE, Theory of Change.
Source: Jones et al. (2022, p. 12).

Together, they were able to shift the mindsets of leaders and with that set a strong foundation for a significant transition in their strategic management approaches. The first workshop included a guided self-reflection on the gaps in current strategic management using concrete and specific examples from the Kitchener context. As workshop facilitators, we estimatedand this was confirmed in our interviewsthat the insights which leaders were able to generate in this self-reflective way was much more powerful than what could have been produced by a lecture given by an outside group on the general shortcomings of current strategic management practices. Macro-economic sustainability systems models, such as Doughnut Economics (Raworth, 2017), were also introduced and participants were given the opportunity to explore together what these models might reveal in their current situation and how they might be integrated into strategic management practices. The intention of the second workshop was to provide an opportunity for an initial exploration of systems-based management tools and methods, such as the MultiCapital Scorecard® and the Flourishing Enterprise Strategy Design Method (FESDM). This provided the leadership team with a way to better understand and assess the value of adapting strategic management practices so as to be more systemic (a paper on these systemic management innovations is forthcoming). The final workshop served as an opportunity for the leadership team to reflect on the new knowledge and experience gained as well as on how it might enable them to better deal with the emerging complex challenges. 

As a result of the workshops, the leaders had a better understanding of the ability of systems thinking to manage complexity and of how they might need to adapt their management practices. According to one participant, the experience was akin to “having an extra mind, that was thinking differently, and was questioning how we did things, in a respectful way.” Success factors for the workshops included co-creatively tailoring the engagement, finding a common language, experimenting with possible new methods and tools to understand their value for Kitchener-specific needs, and a respectful, supportive, and safe learning environment. Given the success of this first stage in the journey, the municipal leadership team engaged in a two-year co-production process with REFOCUS to develop a new strategic plan that is more integrative, collectively oriented, adaptive and aligned with their insights from the initial engagement. This Stage 2 process is now almost complete and the new plan will be presented to the city council and the public soon. 


While municipalities increasingly embrace their role and responsibility in addressing climate change at the local level, they are challenged by its complexity and interconnectedness with other emerging challenges. As a result, well-intended municipal climate action can have unintended consequences, such as the equity deficit discussed in this summary. Without transformation at the core of the municipal organization, sustainability and climate offices will be significantly constrained in overcoming the equity deficit, even if they recognize the importance of this task, as the participants in the first case study did. Municipal leaders are called upon to fully embrace a systems perspective, to approach the interconnected challenges they are facing in an integrated way, and to see themselves as one of many interconnected actors in the system within they operate (i.e., the city). In this way, they can become key facilitators of engaging the full system, including those community members and organizations who are traditionally on the margin. This significant transformation requires change at the deepest system level, the mental models level, which guides the decision and actions of the key actors. To avoid equity deficits, leaders need to shift towards mindsets grounded in decoloniality, human rights and anti-racism in addition to systems thinking. This foundation will allow for more significant relational, structural and policy changes to evolve and empower municipalities to recognize the poly-crisis and thus move above and beyond mere incremental changes when tackling climate change. While action to address climate change is urgent, in the age of the poly-crisis we can no longer afford to solve one issue at a time.

To cite this article

Dobai, J., Riemer, M. (2024). Key considerations for addressing the equity deficit in municipal climate action. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

Reference Text

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