Sustainable Cities and Communities

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Opportunities for All: Inclusive and Equitable Sustainable Development

  • Yanjun CaiEmail author
Living reference work entry



According to the 12th Edition Collins English Dictionary, equal opportunity is defined as “the offering of employment, pay, or promotion equally to all, without discrimination as to sex, race, colour, disability, etc.” (2014). This definition of equal opportunity focuses on economic inclusion and equality among people to promote shared prosperity. In addition to the monetary perspective, the equality of opportunity is a complex and contested concept in the field of political philosophy, often associated with the metaphors of “levelling the playing field” and “starting gate equality” (Anderson 1999; Rawls 2009; Roemer 2009). Furthermore, beyond that of political theory, the concept of equality of opportunity has been applied in various domains, including sociology, education, psychology, public health, and economics. Also, equal opportunity is often linked with antidiscrimination, fairness, egalitarianism, morality, security, inclusion, justice, and social mobility.

Beyond equal opportunity, the notion of opportunities for all has become increasingly prevalent in multiple fields across sectors at various scales. The ideal of opportunities for all emphasizes various chances for advancement through recognizing a great variety of challenges among different populations, paying additional attention to less advantaged populations. Meanwhile, growing numbers of scholars and policymakers argue that promoting justice is the core of essentially achieving sustainable development (Agyeman et al. 2016). In the context of sustainable communities and cities, this chapter defines opportunities for all as leveraging, mobilizing, and promoting socioeconomic resources of actors across geographical boundaries and sectors, including the current and future generations. It emphasizes economic, social, environmental, cultural, and political opportunities in achieving sustainability with inclusive and equitable outcomes.

Introduction: Concepts and Contexts

For the past two decades, sustainable development has been a fundamental indispensable and controversial concept in the academic research and policymaking arena (Castro 2004; Sachs 2015). It is also becoming one of the key policy objectives facing numerous countries, especially those with noticeable environmental issues (Holden et al. 2014). In the context of severe climate change challenges, the urgency of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) collaboratively at various levels has significantly increased (Watts 2018).

The SDGs emphasize critical socioeconomic and environmental challenges for countries and regions around the world, which also present tremendous opportunities, such as the economic opportunities from both external and internal funding (Giddens 2018). However, are these economic opportunities really for all regardless of age, sex, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, ancestry, and physical and mental disability? In the era of neoliberalism, the opportunities related to achieving SDGs do not practically maximize the potential for all populations and regions under the forces of globalization and technological innovations. Often, these opportunities intensify the unjust distribution and redistribution of socioeconomic and environmental resources among households, communities, cities, countries, and regions rooted in the current social systems.

When one talks about opportunities for all, what does he or she actually mean? What kinds of opportunities are the focus of political and economic policies? It may be an opportunity for someone, but it can be a hazard for another person. Different populations would like to have different opportunities based on their socioeconomic backgrounds and environmental conditions. Also, it can be an excellent opportunity for an individual but not so much an opportunity for the group he or she belongs to. It can be an opportunity for certain individuals or groups, but it can result in intended or unintended negative consequences for others. There can be winners and losers.

Numerous scholars, practitioners, and policymakers have made great efforts to provide and increase access for people with different socioeconomic backgrounds to support inclusive and equitable societal development. For most international and governmental agencies, the vision of opportunities for all is often limited to the domain of economic development, such as inclusive employment and poverty reduction. For instance, the World Bank interacts with the concept of equal opportunity for all through analyzing quantitative indicators on business regulations, property rights protection, and labor market to explore critical actors of enhancing and constraining business activities and regulation reforms across 190 economies (World Bank 2016). The International Monetary Fund (IMF) argues that promoting opportunity for all is critical in further operationalizing inclusive growth through addressing a number of key issues in the Middle East and North Africa region, such as job creation for young people and women (Purfield et al. 2018). This notion of opportunity for all aims to emphasize the country-specific inclusive economic growth, which is regarded as the foundation of political stability and conflict resolution. In Canada, “Opportunity for All,” proposed as the first nationwide poverty reduction strategy, is defined by the Employment and Social Development Canada as “working together to end poverty so that all Canadians can live with dignity, have real and fair access to opportunities to succeed, and be resilient enough to get through difficult times” (Employment and Social Development Canada 2018). As presented in the definition, even though the framework of opportunities for all is considered as the poverty reduction strategy, it implies that a great variety of socioeconomic issues should be addressed in order to achieve the goal, emphasizing disadvantaged conditions or events.

Cultivating inclusiveness and equity is critical to achieve SDGs through recognizing challenges and generating opportunities accordingly. Additional attention should be paid to the less advantaged representative populations, such as women and children. These disadvantaged populations are often with insufficient socioeconomic resources, in the face of severe challenges, such as extreme poverty and climate catastrophe. Opportunities for all, especially for the disadvantaged populations, include the economic, social, political, cultural, and environmental aspects, creating choices for promoting education, economic development, public health, cultural conservation, environmental governance, and social practices.

Thus, opportunities for all is defined as leveraging, mobilizing, and promoting socioeconomic resources of multiple actors, such as local populations, NGOs, academics, governmental agencies, international organizations, and private sectors, to advance actions of inclusiveness and equity through tackling sustainable development challenges. Therefore, creating opportunities for all requires an integrated system of partnerships across fields at various scales.

In the context of sustainable cities, sustainable communities are envisioned as places that provide economically, socially, and environmentally inclusive, equitable, and sustainable settings for long-term human activities and interaction (Dempsey et al. 2011). Following a European approach, the UK government defined sustainable communities as “places where people want to live and work, now and in the future. They meet the diverse needs of existing and future residents, are sensitive to their environment, and contribute to a high quality of life. They are safe and inclusive, well planned, built and run, and offer equality of opportunity and good services for all” (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 2006, p. 56). This governmental definition addresses the social goods and services that can be accessible for current and future citizens with diversity. It argues that inclusion and equity are the essential values of a truly sustainable community, emphasizing opportunity for all through tackling exclusion and disadvantage.

In the public sector, opportunities for all means creating and enhancing a wide range of services and resources among diverse populations and groups to achieve equity. To expand opportunities for all to different sectors, services and policy programs include but are not limited to:
  • Poverty reduction and business toward sustainability (Holliday et al. 2017)

  • Grassroots innovations (Seyfang and Smith 2007)

  • Gender equity (Koehler 2016)

  • Quality education, friendly access to information, and sustainable technology development (Weaver et al. 2017)

  • Public computers and Internet access (Becker et al. 2010).

  • Food security (Béné et al. 2016)

  • Immigrant integration and affordable housing (Copiello 2015)

  • Water access and sanitation (World Health Organization 2015)

  • Just development of renewable energy (Cowell et al. 2011)

  • Urban mobility and transportation (Sheller 2015)

  • Inclusive environmental governance (Brondizio and Tourneau 2016)

  • Just urban climate adaptation (Shi et al. 2016)

The ideal of opportunities for all is rooted in the core value of inclusive and equitable sustainable development. Everyone, beyond the current generation, should have the choice to access various environmental, social, cultural, and political resources. The adoption of SDGs by the United Nations General Assembly and national governments is criticized for failing to realize the transformative potential: the limited intergovernmental efforts, as well as top-down approaches alone, will not adequately solve the urgent global issues (Hajer et al. 2015). The interconnectedness of governance and social innovation is pressingly needed. The notion of sustainability requires different actors, including governmental agencies, private sectors, NGOs, civil society, and teaching and researching community, to bridge analysis and practice across fields at various scales (Robinson 2004). Therefore, creating opportunities for all in building sustainable communities and cities involves the related actors, both public and private ones, to connect and collaborate for linking knowledge with action.

The Notion of Equality of Opportunity

The concept of equality of opportunity is one of the fundamental notions in the discourse of social justice. Political philosopher John Rawls (2009, first published in 1971) emphasizes justice as fairness, recognizing the equality of opportunity as one of the core principles to achieve justice (p. 83). “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (Rawls 2009). The principle of equality of opportunity ensures the system of cooperation as one of the pure procedural justice, addressing egalitarianism with rationality and impartiality. Specifically, Rawls rationalizes the egalitarianism about the injustice of receiving resources through the luck of the birth lottery, the “original position”; he also embeds personal responsibilities into the theory (Roemer 2009). His viewpoint of egalitarianism has been challenged: allowing incentive payments to the more skilled produces inequality with the intention of the just income distribution. Based on the greatest liberty principle, the work of Rawls has been criticized for failing to account for the injustice rooted in capitalist social relations and market economy (Wolff 1990). The just distribution based on an unequal social system cannot lead to justice.

Elizabeth Anderson introduces the term “luck egalitarianism,” another significant concept regarding equality of opportunity, the central element of distributive justice (Arneson 2015). Luck egalitarianism is also known as the level playing field ideal, which indicates that justice requires equal-opportunity policies with an initial level playing field and then individual choices and efforts lead to different while ethically acceptable outcomes (Anderson 1999; Roemer 2002). It is an attempt to coordinate the systematic just distribution and individual incentives of social performances. Despite different positions, prominent moral philosophers and political theorists identify that improving the condition of people with pure bad luck who are worst off as the moral imperative is the core of social justice (Cohen 2009; Dworkin 2002; Roemer 2009).

Social systems are operated in accordance with complex mechanisms, and the implementation of levelling the playing field is beyond statistical indicators. Market-driven incentives are often criticized in failing to address the equality of opportunity and fortifying the unjust social systems. Morality is raised as a key component to closely connect with the complicated humanity and social structures. The civilization of humanity is not built based on pure incentives of individuals driven by the free market. The ethical ideal is crucial. And there should be a distinction between factors that hold someone accountable and elements that do not, the cut between a person’s preferences and his or her resources (Dworkin 2002). While social policy and programs should be structured to address the equality of opportunity, individuals have the capacity as well as accountability to some extent to act on the opportunity creation and distribution.

Both the structure and agents are critical in revealing and impacting social positions and related events. The structure is served as both the medium and outcome of agents’ social action; agents and structure interact with each other to generate a system of norms as the process of structuration, the reproduction and reinforcement of social systems (Giddens 1979, 1984). To explore the quality of opportunity, structure systematically influences the available opportunities, while agents, such as individuals, have some sort of capacity to impact the structural arrangements of opportunities. Scholars, practitioners, and policymakers have to explore these two dimensions as well as their interactions to design and implement policies and programs of opportunities for all.

Furthermore, the current discourse of equality of opportunity mainly emphasizes the perspectives of various individuals and populations while a spatial aspect of the equal opportunity is not sufficiently shown. Situated in a global spatial context, communities, cities, and countries act as the agents to play a role in the worldwide political and cultural structure; and such a global system has been adjusted and reinforced through the structuralized interaction with different levels of spatial agents. Thus, the dialogue of equality of opportunity would not be completed without considering the spatial components at various scales.

Socio-spatial Just Sustainable Development: Inclusiveness and Equity

As the concept of sustainable development evolves, more and more scholars have agreed that achieving sustainability extends far beyond its roots in environmental issues, embracing the socioeconomic dimension of sustainability with increasing attention to inclusion, equity, and justice (Agyeman et al. 2016; Agyeman and Evans 2003; Blanc 2015; Dempsey et al. 2011).

There are important power dynamics that exist between populations and geographical areas. A community, city, and country can operate like a person regarding the exclusion and inequality of opportunity. Exclusion takes place in the areas of deprivation, which individuals or groups reside in the places where they have much-limited access to public services and facilities compared to peers living in other geographical regions (Kay 2005). In the urban context, the socioeconomic process and spatial organization between poorer and richer neighborhoods are initiated and strengthened by technological applications and political procedures toward greater injustice (Harvey 2010). Neighborhoods and cities are designed, planned, and divided for various functions in order to maximize the efficient accumulation of ecosystem services, human resources, financial investments, and social capital.

There are competitions regarding such distribution processes and spatial organization within communities and cities. Some megacities, such as Beijing and Tokyo, become the hub for multidimensional resource distribution, whereas numerous surrounding areas exist under the shadow of mega cosmopolitan areas at the expense of natural resources deprivation, air pollution, shrinking neighborhoods, and insufficient public services. The linkages between populations and geographical territories for the equality of opportunity are not well addressed. The voices of certain communities, cities, and countries have been less present in the critical dialogues of sustainable development compared to those of other communities, cities, and countries. Such variation in discourse results from area size, population, climate, economic status, political impact, cultural tradition, historical context, and of course power relations. Imbalanced discourse and related knowledge generation reconfirm and intensify the inequality of opportunities for the less representative regions.

From the global standpoint, universal inequality occurs in the domains of dramatic income difference around the world, urban-rural division, and unequal wealth distribution or redistribution within communities, cities, and countries (Sachs 2015). Under the forces of urbanization and globalization, environmental threats, such as climate hazards, have been caused and intensified by problematic economic development that generates an unequal world. The territorial injustice exists and prevails where access to public services and socioeconomic resources of quality have not been equalized among countries due to the history of global development and political power structures.

Under the umbrella of sustainable development, inequality is closely connected with the unequal social well-being and growth dynamics of food systems, energy security, education, climate change, ecosystem services, and public health (Sachs 2015). Toward the socio-spatial justice, achieving SDGs requires the reduction of barriers and elimination of exclusion from the less advantaged populations as well as their spatial locations.

Equal opportunities are clearly not available in all or even most cities and countries. There is no policy existing that can precisely equalize the advantages or resources for all the citizens of various socioeconomic conditions (Roemer 2009). Variations are common in humanity and human society. The notion of promoting opportunities for all seeks to address socioeconomic and environmental exclusion, such as racism and deprivation. Such inequity in both everyday life and extreme events, especially in the context of achieving just sustainability, is rooted in the social systems; it continuously impacts the lives of the less and least advantaged populations (Agyeman et al. 2016). An equitable place should be one in which there are no socioeconomic and environmental exclusions and discriminatory practices that hinder individuals or groups from participating in the society socially, economically, politically, and culturally (Dempsey et al. 2011). However, exclusion and inequity are prevalent, organically connecting individuals with different layers of spatial units to reinforce the unjust social structures. Without addressing the reproduction of urban injustice sufficiently, it is impossible to achieve opportunities for all substantially for sustainable communities and cities.

Opportunities for All in New Zealand and Canada

Various aspects of opportunities affect equal and unequal outcomes through cultural, social, and political perceptions, norms, and policymaking formation. Recently, there has been increasing attention from both private and public domains in terms of integrating opportunities for all into their institutional agendas. Most private organizations address the notion of opportunities for all through more inclusive employment and customer services as a business strategy. The engagement to interact with critical social issues through providing project and research grants is becoming more and more prevalent. The emerging social enterprises that address socioeconomic and environmental needs through entrepreneurial approaches are also another reflection about how individuals and private actors intend to utilize market forces to solve critical problems, exploring the role of agency in impacting structure. Governmental agencies are more likely to influence the policymaking and implementation of opportunities for all to mobilize different forces and actors. The case studies of New Zealand and Canada demonstrate how federal governments apply the notion of opportunities for all as a national strategy across multiple sectors.

In New Zealand, the national government recognized Opportunity for All New Zealanders as a strategic coordinating framework for sustainable social development, with an emphasis on justice (2004). The vision under this social policy is described as “an inclusive New Zealand where all people enjoy opportunity to fulfil their potential, prosper and participate in the social, economic, political and cultural life of their communities and nation” (Ministry of Social Development 2004, p. 5). The New Zealand Government policy framework is under the Government’s overarching strategy for sustainable development, in alignment with achieving SDGs. Ten domains of social well-being are identified by the New Zealand Government: “knowledge and skills, employment, economic standard of living, health, social cohesion, safety, civil and political rights, national identity, leisure and recreation, and physical environment” (pp. 6–7). Under this light, the notion of opportunity for all is officially embedded in achieving sustainable development by promoting critical aspects of social well-being. Even though the opportunity for all is identified as a critical strategy for the national policy, the operationalization of this policy framework is not specified or available according to current policy and procedure documents. The followed-up actions are identified in the proposed governmental documents, but none of the actions are further demonstrated. The holistic measurement or evaluation of such a policy framework is also missing.

In 2015, the Canadian federal government released and started to develop “Opportunity for All – Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy.” Under this national strategy, three pillars are identified:

Dignity: Lifting Canadians out of poverty by ensuring basic needs – such as safe and affordable housing, healthy food and health care – are met; Opportunity and Inclusion: Helping Canadians join the middle class by promoting full participation in society and equality of opportunity; and Resilience and Security: Supporting the middle class by protecting Canadians from falling into poverty and by supporting income security and resilience. (Employment and Social Development Canada 2018)

Based on the pillars, such a strategy is involved with affordable housing, public health, food system, economic development, community organizing, inclusive employment, and indigenous issues. The federal government recognizes that the multiple dimensions of poverty eradication require joint actions and investments across sectors at various levels. However, the core evaluation of the strategy lies in certain statistical indicators, such as the poverty line. The linear evaluation is not sufficient enough to reveal the complexity of different dimensions of opportunities for all. A more comprehensive measurement framework to address the nuances of social systems, such as dimensions that are not easily reflected through quantitative analysis, is not available. Also, how the federal government can mobilize different actors across multiple scales remains ambiguous. What would be the incentives for these different actors with various interests and potentially conflicting interests to develop and act on partnerships?

Challenges: Implementation, Measurement, and Deviation

SDGs should be regarded as a network of targets, an integrated system that links different goal areas at various scales (Blanc 2015). It suggests a collaborative network of partnerships. The examples of the policy frameworks of opportunities for all in Canada and New Zealand also indicate that the implementation of such a notion involves a great variety of policy programs that are planned, built, implemented, and monitored by a network of partners. Furthermore, goals or targets have been identified, whereas the efficient operationalization process, a critical component of policy formation, is often missing (Hák et al. 2016). Therefore, it is challenging to motivate and mobilize different agencies, organizations, and groups to act on substantial inclusion and justice by creating opportunities for diverse populations. For one thing, coordinating different actors, including public and private agencies at various scales, remains ambiguous under those national and regional frameworks. For another thing, balancing different values, cultures, and interests among diverse populations, groups, and institutes is demanding. Bringing in certain opportunities can result in intended or unintended consequences for all population groups. Different actors in the implementation processes often have different priorities and act upon issues based on their own interests and values. Opportunities for all involves individuals and groups across spatial scales, including communities, cities, countries, and regions. How can the notion of opportunities for all transform beyond a striking slogan or an overarching framework in an attempt to address every critical perspective at various scales?

Since the notion of opportunities for all is often proposed as a conceptual or policy framework by governmental agencies that integrate various policy programs with each other, it is difficult for external actors, such as members of the academic community, to assess the effectiveness of such a strategy. Statistical analysis is commonly used for the evaluation. However, the quantitative indicators can only measure a few aspects of the proposed policy programs. Some critical indicators are neglected (Hák et al. 2016). The effectiveness of the network remains challenging to analyze and evaluate. Also, these frameworks may practically serve as the propaganda or advertisement campaigns of private sectors, cities, and nations to strengthen accumulation of socioeconomic resources through attracting skilled workers, new immigrants, businesses, and investments as the place or land of opportunities.

Furthermore, the available national case studies regarding opportunities for all are mainly from the more economically prosperous countries. The voices from the less economically developed countries are absent in contributing to the discourse of opportunity for all. Instead, the current literature in the less developed areas, such as developing Asia, is dominated by the unequal opportunities, while a more inclusive policymaking effort is missing (Kanbur et al. 2014; Son 2013). The invisibility or absence of discourse reflects the power dynamics in the domain of sustainable development, confirming the territorial inequity. Voices from the less advantaged countries are needed to address opportunities for all in the context of achieving SDGs. In addition, the national cases of opportunities for all are often served as the country strategy or framework. Do the more advantaged countries have the responsibilities to support the less advantaged areas to act on opportunities for all due to moral accountability and history of modern global development? Toward just sustainability at the global scale, it is also urgent for the less advantaged countries to start raising their voices and mobilize possible resources in a more extensive range to plan and implement opportunities for all.

Future Insights

All human beings are located in specific geographical locations for certain time periods. As time evolves, the spatial landscapes, as well as the socioeconomic conditions, change and even transform. The connection between people and space adjusts accordingly. So does the opportunity for certain populations in specific spatial locations under particular socioeconomic contexts. Human beings of the current generation are situated in the transitional period of history, in the face of emerging technological advancement, unpredictable global politics, and climate change catastrophe. Even though the impacts of global warming and climate change are noticeably unevenly distributed to different populations and regions, both the present and future of everyone’s destiny are organically connected in this globalized economy and ecosystem. Sustainable development to coordinate different economic, environmental, and political agenda is the only choice that scholars and policymakers have facing universal crisis.

To build sustainable communities and cities, socio-spatial justice in terms of sustainability is urgently called for. The heart of this critical approach of achieving SDGs lies in the conceptual framework as well as operationalization of opportunities for all, emphasizing systematic inclusiveness and equity. It attempts to transform the rooted exclusion, discrimination, and injustice by a different set of perceptions, beliefs, norms, and laws.

However, the notion of opportunities for all lacks clarity and intellectual coherence regarding its definitions, practices, and interpretations across multiple fields and sectors. The meaning of opportunities for all varies in different socioeconomic contexts and geographical conditions. Scholars, practitioners, and policymakers should provide precise definitions when the concept is applied in specific contexts. A standard definition is unlikely to be agreed on. Nevertheless, the fluid boundaries of the concept also create spaces for various stakeholders to utilize the notion of opportunities for all with creativity, flexibility, and spontaneity. Social innovation is the potential by-product of such openness. More creative market-driven programs are likely to motivate more individuals and private sectors to thoroughly engage with this critical dialogue of inclusiveness and equity.

Still, the gaps between the idea and action, concept and implementation, are tremendous. The notion of opportunities for all is indeed a key pillar for social justice that numerous sectors and institutes aim to embrace, but mostly without practical operationalization or detailed implementation frameworks. Individuals, groups, and organizations have the accountability to raise awareness and operationalize the notion. Additional attention should be drawn on the individuals and private organizations that generate alternative understanding and implementation of opportunities for all beyond the public arena. To thoroughly achieve SDGs, every actor has the responsibility to create opportunities to advance for all populations regardless of age, sex, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, ancestry, and physical and mental disability: opportunities for all communities and cities, despite variations in size, population, climate, economic status, political structure, and cultural tradition.

The notion of opportunities for all is idealistic, closely linking to the concepts of inclusiveness and equity with an emphasis on morality. Opportunities for all is pragmatic, related to the identity and understanding what a human being means for the globe in this transitional and transformative era. Everyone has to make their own ethical and personal responses. Urgent global threats to all populations and countries, such as climate hazards, require all actors to take unprecedented action to collaborate. The core of such a resolution lies in opportunities for all to raise awareness, engage, and transform for just sustainability. As John Rawls (2009) states: “Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising” (p. 4).




In addition to Olga Kuznetsova’s thorough editorial review, I am immensely grateful to Amrita Daniere, Scott Drinkall, and Shahin Rahman for their valuable insights that significantly improved the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Urban Climate Resilience in Southeast Asia Partnership, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public PolicyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • Olga Kuznetsova
    • 1
  1. 1.Economics, Policy and International BuisnessManchester Metropolitan University,ManchesterUK