Return on investment (ROI) of investing in equitable communities

community space in park in a city

Underserved communities are diverse and occur in rural, island, tribal, urban, and other settings. Lessons learned in one area may be applicable to others; one size does not fit all, but there are potential lessons to be learned from each. Similarly, diversity exists within each community, let alone between communities, and understanding the community where one is working is a foundational first step. Communities are made up of individuals with their own priorities, and grouping them can be problematic or difficult. These resources and talking points provide examples that may be adaptable to a variety of circumstances and aims to provide a base-level understanding about the financial opportunities and benefits of working in equitable communities to help support architects and those they serve.

The Urban Institute suggests using the term “priority communities” to describe communities that “have been historically marginalized, overburdened, and underserved. This includes communities facing persistent poverty, communities burdened by environmental stressors, and communities with high rates of racial and ethnic residential segregation.” The group also recommends asking the community itself to identify its preferred language since there is likely no single term that resonates with all the communities that are being addressed1. Other terms for such communities include the federal government’s description, “disadvantaged communities,” “marginalized communities,” or AIA’s usage, “underserved communities,” “equitable communities.” For the purposes of this research, we have chosen to utilize the terms “equitable communities" and “underserved communities.” The AIA's Guides for Equitable Practice includes a glossary of terms, as does Illume Advising. These may be useful guides and references for this work.  

The AIA has developed several excellent guides for developing, creating, and advocating for equitable communities and firm-wide equitable practices, including AIA Guides for Equitable Practice, Architect’s Role in Creating Equitable Communities, Equitable Development Frameworks, and the Framework for Design Excellence: Design for Equitable Communities. The following provides equitable development strategies for architects and others seeking to increase investments in communities and firms.

Literature review completed by University of Washington’s Integrated Design Lab for AIA in 2023.


  1. Fu, Samantha, Ladi Williams, James & Shipp, Anna. “Advancing Equity, Climate Action, and Economic Health in Communities: Challenges and Opportunities for the Justice40 Initiative.” Urban Institute. 2022.

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community space in park in a city