The Triple Bottom Line in Local Government Community Economic Development

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Lexi Herndon

Lexi Herndon is Director of Communications and Business Operations at the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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North Carolina Triple Bottom Line1

A central tenet of community economic development is the belief that in fostering a healthy economy, we are working towards building healthy, vibrant communities. But many would contend that a healthy economy is only one piece of the puzzle. Local governments are increasingly paying attention to other elements of community development work in order to build healthy communities, realizing that they cannot foster a strong economy in isolation from social and environmental factors. One approach to development that addresses these issues is the “triple bottom line”, a method that integrates three dimensions of performance: social, environmental, and financial. Under the triple bottom line approach, growth and development should consider not only economic factors, but also social and environmental impacts of any initiative.

The triple bottom line framework has been adopted and championed by a wide variety of actors, including large corporations, community based nonprofit organizations, environmental groups, and international development agencies. Experts say that triple bottom line sustainability is most achievable at the regional and local scale, so it seems natural that local governments would adopt this approach in their economic development efforts. But what strategies can local governments in North Carolina use to foster triple bottom line impacts?

Local Strategies to Achieve the Triple Bottom Line

Local governments are well poised to influence economic development practices to advance economic, environmental and social goals by influencing the nature and location of business and real estate investment to promote triple bottom line goals. Municipalities can set policies and standards for development projects that advance environmental and social equity goals. A natural starting point is to include a focus on the triple bottom line in the city’s comprehensive plan, but on a smaller scale, cities and towns might encourage triple bottom line considerations in development initiatives by:

  • Adopting ordinances to encourage low impact development (for example stormwater ordinances, flood plain ordinances, zoning ordinances or tree ordinances)
  • Crafting plans to encourage social equity and environmental health (for example a hazard mitigation plan, parks, recreation, or open space plans, residential development plans, or affordable housing plans)
  • Providing incentives such as reduced fees or taxes, grants, or loans to development initiatives that meet triple bottom line goals

What Local Governments in NC (and beyond) are Doing to Reach the Triple Bottom Line

The City of Raleigh

The City of Raleigh incorporated the triple bottom line in its 2030 Comprehensive Plan by including a commitment to sustainability:

“Raleigh’s commitment to sustainability is a cornerstone of its vision for the future. That vision is broad and comprehensive and focuses on the interdependent relations of environmental stewardship, economic strength, and social integrity. These three elements define the vision and will serve to guide the choices and decisions Raleigh will need to make as a 21st Century City of Innovation.”

How has this plan translated into action? Quality of Life and Sustainability are prominently featured as part of the city’s economic development strategy. The city currently requires all developers to build affordable housing to energy star standards and requires efficient LED street lighting in affordable housing projects. The city encourages sustainable infrastructure, including electric vehicle charging stations, affordable transit, and greenway trails, leading to a cleaner and healthier environment. The city also adopted a sustainable purchasing policy that prioritizes environmental, economic, and social attributes and supports re-investing in the community and boosting local employment. You can read more about Raleigh’s many sustainability initiatives in their 2013 Sustainability Report.

Town of Cary

Through its sustainability program, the Town of Cary is committed to “operating efficiently and effectively, reducing its environmental footprint, and preserving the fiscal and environmental health of the community”. Cary’s efforts include a Neighborhood Improvement Grant Program that awards small grants to residents for projects to improve their neighborhoods or the community at large, a land use ordinance that guides development, an open space plan to preserve natural resources and engage the community in conservation, and a Sustainable Neighborhood Planning grant from the U.S. EPA to support sustainable urban development.

Town of Huntersville

The Town of Huntersville, a rapidly growing community outside of Charlotte, created a 2030 Community Plan that reflects a triple bottom line approach in its vision:

“In 2030, Huntersville will be a vibrant and visually attractive community defined by high quality growth and development…Land use and transportation planning practices will be responsive to a world that is changing, will be fiscally responsible, and reflect an appropriate balance of economic, environmental, and social factors.”

This plan bears out in a variety of policies around housing, environment, transportation, and economic and commercial development. For example, the town adopted a mixed-use policy to support and encourage self-sustained developments where commercial and employment uses are in close proximity to residential uses and an energy efficient design policy to encourage LEED practices in residential construction. The town also adopted a policy to encourage development to maximize land use and transportation efficiencies while minimizing environmental impacts.

Washington, DC

Though not in North Carolina, Washington, DC serves as an example of one of the most ambitious local government efforts to incorporate a triple bottom line focus. In late February 2013, the District of Columbia released a comprehensive 20-year sustainability plan known as Sustainable DC. The vision for the District’s more sustainable future is:

“In just one generation—20 years—the District of Columbia will be the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States. An international destination for people and investment, the District will be a model of innovative policies and practices that improve quality of life and economic opportunity. We will demonstrate how enhancing our natural and built environments, investing in a diverse clean economy, and reducing disparities among residents can create an educated, equitable and prosperous society”

The plan focuses on all aspects of triple bottom line, with specific goals around jobs and the economy, health and wellness, and equity and diversity. These include (but are certainly not limited to) goals to grow and diversify business sectors for sustained economic prosperity, requiring all new housing projects to meet “Healthy by Design” standards, and encouraging vibrant neighborhoods that provide a variety of amenities and services with in a 20-minute walk of all residents. 


The four cities and towns described above are just a few examples of how the triple bottom line can be incorporated into community development efforts. What is your city or town doing to implement the triple bottom line into its community development efforts?

Related Post:

A New Tool for Assessing the Triple Bottom Line in Economic Development

Lexi Herndon (4 Posts)

Lexi Herndon is Director of Communications and Business Operations at the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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