Racial Equity Planning and Analysis

Racial Equity Planning and Analysis - the tools and the steps

Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) centers racial equity at the earliest stages of planning. Equity advisors help staff determine where inequities may exist, shape and guide the equity toolkit process, and help teams develop and improve the way we do business so that our outcomes are equitable and inclusive. SPU also partners with other agencies to learn about and support similar work.

Our tools

To test for inequities, we use the following: 

Equity toolkit process

Equity planning tools are designed for teams to work on together. We know the outcome is richer and more equitable when different perspectives are included.&

  1. Pull together a diverse team and set team meetings
  2. Choose the tools that best support your focus:
    1. Management and Decision Making
    2. Service, Project, or Program Development
    3. Master or Comprehensive Plan Development
    4. Policy, Procedure, or Code Development
  3. Write a final Memo with actions and learnings for the team and for leadership.
  4. Revisit the tools over time as your work unfolds

How to include equity - case studies

To see how we have used the toolkits in our work, check out the customer damage claims information, or view the following case studies:

SPU considered collecting garbage every other week instead of weekly to reduce labor and operating costs. Customers would see a small reduction in their bill and one less garbage truck would drive through Seattle neighborhoods every other week.

Parked garbage truck with the Seattle skyline in the background
Waste Management truck with Seattle skyline.

In 2011 the Environmental Justice and Service Equity team used the equity planning tools (PDF) to develop a pilot program for every other week garbage collection. The 2012 pilot (PDF) captured results from four very different neighborhoods. We learned the impact of every other week collection varied from community to community.


In Spring 2014 Seattle Mayor Ed Murray cancelled plans to begin city-wide every other week collection explaining:

  • The environmental benefits and the 8% cut in costs for an average family did not balance with cutting garbage service by half
  • City-wide surveys showed that 45% of customers opposed the change. In lower income and more racially diverse neighborhoods, opposition was higher.
  • Visit the full project report (PDF)

Applying the Racial Equity Toolkit to a very common problem and what we’ve learned so far.

Fats, oils and grease (called “FOG”) build up in our pipes and result in clogs. This can create serious sewer backs-ups and overflows all over Seattle.

Iron pan on stovetop with wooden spoon and cooking fat.
Cooking fat in a pan.
Closeup of the end of a pipe clogged with FOG.
Fats, oils, and grease clogging a pipe.

About two-thirds of the FOG in our pipes come from residential areas. Some of these areas are also where many people of color, immigrants, and refugees live. To understand this problem better, we used the Racial Equity Toolkit (PDF) to expand our outreach with these communities.

How we applied the toolkit

We planned a pilot outreach campaign to understand what customers knew, how they behaved and what could motivate them to keep fats, oils and grease out of the system pipes. The toolkit helped build equity into the program research and into the planning of the outreach pilot campaign.

What we learned

  • Keep messages clear and simple
  • Words matter – some folks think “grease”, some think “oil”, few think “fats” 
  • The public is not just one group! Different motivators must be included.

Results so far

Our research led us to change the term “FOG” to “Cooking Oil and Grease” for residential outreach materials. We will also continue concept-testing with different language groups using the help of the Community Connections program.

Are we truly giving everyone a chance to speak up and be heard?

The South Delridge neighborhood is home to many immigrants, refugees and communities of color. This neighborhood is also a great location for rain gardens with special soils that help slow and filter stormwater to cut down on the polluted stormwater that enters Longfellow Creek when it rains. Rain gardens can go into planting strips along sidewalks, helping make streets more beautiful and slowing down cars. They can also limit street parking and access to parked cars.

Rain Gardens on residential street
Rain garden along a residential street.

SPU mailed a community survey to residents in this neighborhood. The survey asked for information about streets that have a lot of flooding and streets they think would be great for rain gardens.

Looking at equity, these questions might come up:

  • Who is most and who is least likely to fill out and return mailed surveys, especially on topics like this? Why?
  • Could there be a gap in choice of rain garden locations if we only depend on surveys?
  • What other ways could we get feedback from people who don’t usually fill out mailed surveys?

The Environmental Justice and Service Equity team would apply a racial equity toolkit to ask these questions before the rain garden project is underway.

Equity impacts on savings programs

Typical residential bathroom with toilet and tub in background.
Toilet in a home bathroom.

A first step when planning a new project is to look for potential service equity issues.

Here’s an example: Recent technology has reduced the amount of water needed to flush toilets. These ‘high efficiency’ toilets cost around $250. SPU will mail a $75 rebate check if the buyer completes and mails the rebate form. With average use, a household will reduce their water bill. In five years, the toilet ‘pays for itself’ when compared to a standard 3.5-gallon flush toilet.
This sounds great, right? But when we look at equity, questions come up about who really benefits:

  • Can all customers afford to pay $250 upfront? Racial or socio-economic disparities can impact access to this rebate program. 
  • How could we measure or observe if racial disparity was occurring? For example, what type of information could we ask for on the rebate form to get a clear picture of which customers are most likely to use the program?

Complaint-based systems don’t lead to service equity

Damage or loss of personal property may occur because of a flood or because of a sewer main back-up caused by SPU system failures. SPU mapped customer damage claims over a 4-year period and interviewed staff who support the damage claims process.

Customer Claims recognized there may be under-reporting from more racially diverse and lower income communities. EJSE conducted a service equity review.

3 spearate maps of Seattle showing differences in claims citywide, by people of color, and SPU claims.
Frequency of claims compared to percent of people of color by census tract. Select to view or download a larger version format.

We learned:

  • The process to file a claim wasn’t widely advertised or promoted
  • Staff didn’t have standard messages to describe the claims process
  • The URL for filing claims was long and not advertised on the SPU website 
  • The damage claim form was too technical and was only available in PDF format
  •  Staff noticed that customers with limited incomes who speak English as a second language struggled more to complete the process


Staff agreed to improve awareness and access to the damage claims process by

  • Developing standard messages for the damage claims process
  • Adding a shortened URL for damage claims information on the SPU website
  • Adding claims information to ongoing SPU outreach
  • Creating a refresher training program for field staff to explain the claims forms process to potential claimants

Public Utilities

Andrew Lee, General Manager and CEO
Address: 700 5th Avenue, Suite 4900, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 34018, Seattle, WA, 98124-5177
Phone: (206) 684-3000

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Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) is comprised of three major direct-service providing utilities: the Water Utility, the Drainage and Wastewater Utility, and the Solid Waste Utility.