Three Dynamics of Sustainable Communities: Economy, Ecology, and Equity

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“A sustainable community uses its resources to meet current needs while ensuring that adequate resources are available for future generations. It involves all its citizens in an integrated, long-term planning process to protect the environment, expand economic opportunities, and meet social needs.” —CONCERN, Inc.

While many community dynamics are at work, three are particularly important to building healthy and prosperous communities over the long term: economy, ecology, and equity—the three E’s.

Economy is the management and use of resources to meet household and community needs.

Ecology is the pattern of relationships between living things and their environment. We all know our shoe size. How many of us know the size of our “ ecological footprint,” the amount of air, land, and water it takes to support us?

Equity is fairness. Ideally everyone in a community shares in its well-being. Where there is equity, decisions are based on fairness and everyone (regardless of race, income, sex, age, language, sexual orientation, or disability) has opportunities and is treated with dignity.

The three E’s—economy, ecology, and equity—provide a framework for libraries and their communities to explore and anticipate how the choices they make today affect tomorrow.

Libraries and Sustainable Communities

Many libraries have worked actively to improve and sustain their communities with special projects, new collections and services, and major community initiatives. Even though many library activities have not been defined as part of the sustainable community movement, they meet the above definition. The library’s service mission clearly supports this aspect of community involvement.

While ongoing, library involvement in building sustainable communities can always be enhanced. Many library projects have been built around one or more of the three sustainable community dynamics. The following are some suggestions for additional programs and services that your library might wish to implement. The project committee recognizes that some library staff will feel most comfortable taking an action that has a singular focus on one of the three E’s, and we support such steps. However, because in one way or another, everything and everyone is connected as a part of a living system, we encourage you to consider the challenge of acting with all the three E’s—ecology, economics, and equity—in mind.

“We’ve been in business for 114 years and for all that time we’ve been sustaining our community, ranging from empowering neighborhoods to making change, to providing equal access regardless of race, color or creed.”—JoAnn Mondowney, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, Md.

The Three E’s: Projects for Libraries


  1. Host a workshop or series on consumer credit counseling or socially responsible investing.
  2. Offer library facilities for meetings concerning local economic issues and how they affect your community.
  3. Build collections on affordable housing, job creation, and small business issues.
  4. Attend community meetings to learn about local economic issues and offer the library’s assistance in providing information.


  1. Host programs such as an environmental video series, an ecology book review and discussion group, or an environmental lecture series.
  2. a contest for the best children’s poster, poetry, or essay on the subject of the environment.
  3. Build collections on organic gardening and composting, and on technologies and strategies for energy conservation.
  4. Bookmark ecological footprint Web sites so library users can calculate their own ecological footprints.
  5. Visit local groups and agencies that are working on ecology issues to determine their information needs and how the library can help them.
  6. Invite school classes to participate in library projects supporting ecology, e.g. a paper mural or model of a rainforest.


  1. Host programs that spotlight community equity issues, such as workshops and training that address racism.
  2. Offer facilities for groups that are addressing local equity issues such as racial equality, rights of persons with disabilities, pay equity, and ending hunger in the community.
  3. Build collections on tolerance, equity, and the history and culture of all local populations.
  4. Provide outreach activities to local groups who are dealing with equity issues.
  5. In collaboration with local teachers and school librarians, develop a children’s reading list on the subject of equity.

All Three E’s

Suggestions for library projects that combine the three sustainability dynamics in clude:

  1. Expand on bibliographies from this project and develop displays that highlight existing materials on the three E’s of sustainability—ecology, economy, and equity.
  2. Build collections on sutainable business practices, sustainable agriculture, sustainable development, smart growth, sustainable communities, and environmental justice.
  3. Compile and publish a directory of public and private agencies, organizations, and institutions addressing issues for sustainable communities.
  4. Invite representatives from groups working separately on environmental, economic, and equity issues to a meeting to discuss what each can contribute to a holistic sustainable community.
  5. Identify individuals and groups who want to redevelop abandoned or contaminated local sites (“brown fields”); provide information on eco-industrial parks and job creation for unemployed or underemployed neighborhood residents.
  6. Contact librarians or information specialists in sister communities around the globe to see what challenges to community sustainability they are facing or have recently overcome; share this information through your newsletter, bulletin boards, or Web site.

“The public library has been called ‘one of the seven sustainable wonders of the world.’ The written wisdom of the world at the fingertips of anyone with a library card! The average American pays $20 a year in taxes to support public libraries and can save that much by borrowing instead of buying just one or two books. A book that is loaned ten times cuts not only cost but paper use per reader by a factor of ten.”—Donella H. Meadows, Dartmouth College