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Social Impact Assessment

Social impact assessment (IA) is a tool used to assess the social impacts—both positive and negative--resulting from planned interventions (such as policies, programs, projects or actions), as well as any social change invoked by those interventions. The goal of social IA is to help decision-makers produce more socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable results. Social IA draws on knowledge gained through collaborative, community-based tools, and is therefore complementary to many other sustainability tools discussed in this document.[124, 125

How can Social Impact Assessment contribute to sustainability?

Social IA primarily reflects social impacts and allows for a more sustainable approach to decision-making by complementing other sustainability tools that analyze environmental and/or economic impacts.

What are the main steps in a Social Impact Assessment?

There is no single, formal framework for social IA.[126] Like other sustainability tools, social IA should be structured based on the context in which it will be applied; substantial flexibility exists for adapting this tool to specific variables, data requirements, and analytical approaches based on the nature of the issue being studied.[124, 127-129] Segmentation analysis can provide valuable input when conducting social IA.[130]
General steps for conducting social IA include:

Social Impact Assessment
  • Step 1—create and implement a public involvement process to help identify possible social impacts and provide feedback throughout the social IA process;
  • Step 2—identify alternative policies to be considered in the social IA;
  • Step 3—identify and describe the baseline state of the social systems expected to be impacted by the policy. This baseline step is sometimes called a profile or social factor analysis or social assessment, and is essential for estimating potential changes to the social system;
  • Step 4—identify and analyze likely impacts. The identification of likely impacts relies substantially on interpretive understanding and quasi-causal analysis;
  • Step 5—analyze direct and indirect impacts of policy alternatives, typically using anthropological and/or sociological methodologies. This step – identifying analytical variables, collecting data, and developing projections – is the step in social IA with the most substantial variation;
  • Step 6—compare impacts. Methods of comparison include matrix-based analysis of the impacts and/or ranking of the alternatives; and,
  • Step 7—identify options for modifying policy proposals.

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What are the strengths and limits of Social Impact Assessment in a sustainability context?

Social IA can help to assess the potential impacts that policy alternatives may have on the social system.[128] However, social IA relies upon the outputs of other analytical tools and approaches derived from disparate scientific disciplines.[126, 131] In particular social science traditions tend to be critical and discursive rather than predictive and explanatory.[132]

Social IA typically requires both quantitative data, such as census population records, and qualitative data, such as focus group interviews.[133] The type, validity, and availability of data needed vary substantially based on the problem being analyzed.[124] Additionally, many of the data resources needed for social IA are not publicly available, existing only in consultancy reports or private surveys.

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How could Social Impact Assessment be used to support EPA decision-making?

Social IA is not extensively used within EPA. Social IA is synergistic with environmental justice analysis which calls for examining the impacts of environmental policy actions on affected subpopulations to ensure equity.[83]  However, social IA can be useful to the planning process by capturing costs and benefits that are not readily quantified. These types of costs and benefits may not always be adequately captured by scientists, decision makers, or regulatory authorities. By identifying potential impacts in advance, better informed decisions can be made. Hence, employing social IA could help EPA and its partners better understand and categorize the connections between human and natural systems and promote a more complete consideration of social factors in regulatory and administrative decision-making, thus advancing sustainability.

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Where to Find More Information about Social Impact Assessment

  • A “Guidance for Social Impact Assessment,” (PDF) (3 pp, 343K) developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, may offer a good starting point for EPA practitioners. The document provides background information for the use of social IA, and discusses methodological approaches in the context of environmental issues (i.e., the development of fishery management plans).[128]
  • EPA practitioners may also wish to explore the concept of Social Life-Cycle Assessment, a product-centered approach emerging in both the social IA and environmental life-cycle assessment fields. The United Nations Environment Programme and the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry have prepared “Guidelines for Social Life Cycle Assessment of Products (PDF) (104 pp, 2MB) ” that introduces new users to the topic.[134]
  • In 2000, a team of researchers funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service undertook a social IA, "Combining Science and Technology in the Tortugas Ecological Reserve” (PDF), (164 pp, 50MB) using GIS to analyze socioeconomic data, to support the implementation of the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, a fully protected marine reserve within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
  • Additional information on social IAs can be found at the SIAhub Exit EPA Disclaimer, an internet portal designed as community of practice for social IA practitioners where they can network, access resources, share ideas and promote good practice.

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Illustrative Approach Applying Social Impact Assessment

  • Collaborative Problem Solving Supporting Environmental Justice

    Source: EPA, Office of Policy [26]
    Sustainability tools: collaborative problem-solving; environmental justice analysis; social impact analysis; design charrettes

    A low income, African American community in Spartanburg, South Carolina used EPA’s Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Model (PDF) (44 pp, 1MB) to address a myriad of environmental and health concerns. The community is located near abandoned textile mills and industrial facilities, two Superfund sites, several brownfield sites, and an active chemical facility. In addition, the community faced a 25 percent poverty rate, a lack of adequate health care, public safety problems, substandard housing, transportation problems, and a lack of social services.

    The community took the following actions to confront its health and environmental challenges and stimulate community revitalization:

    • Issue identification, community visioning and strategic goal setting. Design charrettes is a sustainability tool that may assist in identification.
    • Community capacity-building and leadership development;
    • Consensus building and dispute resolution;
    • Multi-stakeholder partnerships and leveraging of resources;
    • Constructive engagement by relevant stakeholders;
    • Sound organization and implementation; and
    • Evaluation, lessons learned, and replication of best practices.

    The CPS process enabled the community to engage all of its stakeholders to identify problems and set priorities, build the capacity to address its needs, take steps to resolve longstanding disputes, establish a leadership structure and develop strategic partnerships. As a result of the collaborative effort, the community has been able to leverage more than $200 million in government and private sector funds to cost-effectively address its environmental threats. Ongoing stakeholder meetings and annual status reports allow the community to continue to evaluate its progress and assess future needs.[26]

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  • Green Report: District of Columbia

    Source: ECOS Green Report: Case Studies on State Efforts to Achieve Sustainability, March 2012 [254] [Used with permission from the Environmental Research Institute of the States (ERIS), the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), and the District of Columbia]

    Suite of sustainability tools: segmentation analysis; social network analysis; social impact assessment; environmental justice analysis; life-cycle assessment; futures methods; benefit-cost analysis; eco-efficiency analysis

    Sustainability that matters to our community

    The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) is currently coordinating a citywide sustainability planning effort for the Mayor. The Agency does not have an “official” formal definition of sustainability at this time. However, the Agency frequently uses a working definition that defines sustainability as the nexus of the environment, economics, and equity. DDOE also describes sustainability as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. These definitions are intended to be grounded in environmental protection, but inclusive of the critical connections between environment, economy, and equity.

    DDOE is home to core state and local programs that are simultaneously addressing sustainable practices including water and air quality protection, wildlife preservation and restoration, land remediation and toxics reduction, energy efficiency, and conservation. The Agency is working to integrate traditional regulatory programs into citywide sustainable efforts to strengthen programs and achieve the greatest possible environmental, health, economic and other equity benefits of cross-media coordination.

    Sustainable DC

    DDOE is co-lead (with the DC Office of Planning) of the Mayor’s sustainability planning process called Sustainable DC.

    Sustainable DC was launched in September 2011 with an intensive community outreach program. Throughout September and October, staff attended 50 community meetings and events to hear people's visions for a sustainable DC and actions the community can take to realize those visions. In November 2011, nine working groups (focusing on the built environment, climate, energy, food, nature, transportation, waste, water, and the overall green economy) were launched to develop recommended goals, actions, and indicators. These recommendations will be integrated into a draft plan in summer 2012.

    In this role, DDOE is playing a coordination function among the Green Cabinet, representing more than a dozen key agencies directly affecting citywide sustainability, including transportation, public works, health, public schools, real estate, economic development, employment services, and water and housing authorities.

    STAR Community Index

    DDOE also is coordinating with a national effort to develop the STAR Community Index Exit EPA Disclaimer. This is a framework for gauging the “triple bottom line” of sustainability and livability of US communities. STAR is intended to transform the way local governments plan and develop policies in the way that the US Green Building Council’s LEED program transformed the building industry. STAR will measure a jurisdiction’s sustainability across measures in specific categories. Through these standardized measures, cities will be able to more objectively assess their progress towards sustainability and compare themselves to other cities across the country.

    Because of the size and complexity of STAR’s scope, ten jurisdictions were selected to serve as beta communities (Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Boulder, CO; Chattanooga, TN; Cranberry Township, PA; Des Moines, IA; King County, WA; New York, NY; St. Louis, MO; and the District of Columbia). These communities will test and review the measures for appropriateness and feasibility.

    Benefit-Cost Analysis and Eco-Efficiency Analysis

    DDOE implements stormwater management projects on public sites. When evaluating project proposals, DDOE staff evaluates the cost/benefit of each proposal. The evaluation includes an analysis of the dollars per gallon of stormwater retained or treated, and whether the proposal will implement new technologies that may be beneficial to the District’s water quality efforts. At a much larger scale, staff is analyzing the relative environmental, economic development (jobs), and social equity benefits of digging huge tunnels to manage stormwater flows versus a large-scale deployment of green infrastructure (i.e., Low-Impact Development). Whereas traditional analysis might only look at the relative environmental performance and costs of these systems, this new sustainability-driven analysis will assess job creation, social support (i.e., unemployment and other social services) investment reduction, heat-island effect mitigation, community beautification, property value enhancement, and the costs and environmental performance of these systems.

    Environmental Justice Analysis

    DDOE considers social equity as a cornerstone of sustainability. Like many other states and local jurisdictions, DC, through DDOE’s Office of Enforcement and Environmental Justice, reviews major development plans to assure that no disparate environmental harms are imposed on minority and low-income populations. Under the Mayor’s evolving sustainability strategy, EJ will likely evolve into much more than a risk assessment/risk management process, and will become a means of assessing the relative benefits of District investments on the distribution of opportunity and hardship across the city. A good example is the new program incorporated into the DDOE’s proposed stormwater regulations, which would allow off-site stormwater mitigation for projects that cannot meet the city’s aggressive 1.2 inch rainfall retention standard. These off-site projects likely will occur in less-developed portions of the city, which tend to be DC’s lowest-income communities. This option will bring substantial investment in tree planting, bioretention, green roofs, and other practices that will not only allow more and better stormwater management, but also will create jobs and beautify neighborhoods– and reduce the significant social disparities across DC. And the program will increase stormwater management by over 50 percent, while reducing costs by 30 percent.

    Future Scenario Analysis

    During the next year, DDOE will forecast the impacts of the District’s revised stormwater regulations. The purpose of this analysis is to determine how future development will lead to improvements in water quality and how DDOE’s new off-site mitigation program will impact EJ issues in the city.

    Life-Cycle Assessment

    The District's revised stormwater regulations will include a payment-in-lieu option for sites that cannot otherwise meet their regulatory obligations. To determine the appropriate price for this option, DDOE staff developed a life-cycle cost assessment to capture the full cost of implementing stormwater practices.

    Segmentation Analysis, Social Impact Assessment, and Social Network Analysis

    The District has developed a new social marketing campaign to reduce litter. The campaign includes significant social and psychological (focus groups and interviews) analysis to determine the root causes of litter and to develop effective messages and approaches that will have an impact. Additionally, the program has surveyed residents to evaluate the impact of the marketing campaign as well as the new Bag Law that requires a 5-cent fee on disposable paper and plastic bags. 

    In addition to the tools mentioned above, DDOE has developed some new tools to measure the District’s sustainability activities:

    • Green Dashboard
      To help residents understand the District’s progress in becoming a more sustainable place in which to live, work, visit, and play, DDOE’s Office of Policy and Sustainability developed an online interactive Green Dashboard containing approximately 60 indicators in six categories (air quality and climate, energy and buildings, nature, transportation, waste and recycling, and water). Users are able to manipulate the data by time period and metric to suit their interests and will be able to also download raw data and image files of graphs for later use. Additionally, the Dashboard provides contextual information for each indicator, including information on what the data mean, why they are important, how the District compares to other jurisdictions, and ways users can get involved. Information is presented in an easy-to-read style with images and links to make the information engaging and digestible.
    • GreenUp DC
      DDOE developed GreenUp DC, an interactive web tool that teaches property owners how to reduce their energy footprint and stormwater releases. The tool tracks energy reduction and stormwater activities, and creates reports that allow DDOE to fulfill its legal obligations to US EPA. GreenUp DC allows DDOE to be transparent and responsive with up-to-the-minute statistical reporting on energy performance and stormwater reductions.

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