Community Benefits Agreements: Grounding Equitable Development in Community Negotiation
October 2009

by Linda Carroli

Given that the development industry, together with government (through statutory planning), profoundly shapes human settlements, there is an underlying expectation that industry agents are attentive to the social and environmental outcomes and impacts of development. Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs) have emerged in the USA as an integral part of negotiating Equitable Development (or Responsible Development) and as an extension of citizen planning activity. Equitable Development, while often targeting outcomes for disadvantaged communities, may more contemporarily be framed in terms of ‘social inclusion’. The Australian Government has issued principles for social inclusion including the adoption of locational approaches to “ensure that [neighbourhoods and communities] are not left behind, and help us learn how planning, economic development, community engagement and service delivery can be integrated to achieve better overall outcomes”. The purpose of this essay is to consider how CBAs have operated in the USA with a view to considering their potential use as a social inclusion and community engagement initiative that may align with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the Australian planning and development context. CBAs are defined as:

the result of a negotiation process between the developer and organized representatives of affected communities, in which the developer agrees to shape the development in a certain way or to provide specified community benefits. In exchange, the community groups promise to support the proposed project before government bodies that provide the necessary permits and subsidies. The CBA is both a process to work towards these mutually beneficial objectives, and a mechanism to enforce both sides’ promises. (Gross, 2005, 9)

While CBAs have not been introduced into the Australian development paradigm, the mining industry has introduced CBAs in its dealings with Indigenous communities. The CBA is fundamentally a form of collective bargaining intended to secure benefits for a community from developers. They bring community organisations and developers into direct communication and negotiation with a view to agreeing on conditions for a development. The question about who represents the community has been a problem for some CBAs as only the parties of the agreement can be bound by the agreement. That is, those sections of the community that oppose development and intend to mount resident action campaigns are not bound by CBAs.

While Australian communities have been active in opposing development through various actions and campaigns, there is little in the way of a coordinated citizen planning or planning education networks in this country. The result is that development can seem to play out as a ‘zero sum game’, where localised, single issue oppositional groups form to respond to a particular development proposal. This reactive approach, while necessary at times, does not result in communities exerting significant influence in the planning and development process as a whole. Opposing development is not tantamount to participating in planning. There are few, if any, non-profit citizen-based organisations in Australia advocating for Equitable Development in the manner that PolicyLink in the USA does with its Equitable Development Tool Kit (EDTK). This organisation describes Equitable Development as “an approach to creating healthy, vibrant, communities of opportunity. Equitable outcomes come about when smart, intentional strategies are put in place to ensure that low-income communities and communities of color participate in and benefit from decisions that shape their neighborhoods and regions.” The EDTK aims to promote ‘equitable revitalization’ in a way that results in social mix and inclusion. Moreover, as Marcello states, CBA’s “are a tool ... for creating redevelopment projects that are efficient, stable, and have higher overall value for all parties involved.” By these accounts, CBAs play a role in framing social sustainability, social inclusion and, for a developer, CSR. For both communities and developers, the CBA provides a platform for assuring a high level of equitable stakeholder engagement. Another American organisation is Urban Habitat which advocates for Smart Growth and Equitable Development as an “alternative to the current practices and policies that have led to gentrification and displacement of low-income residents”. Displacement, in this context, can mean homelessness or relocation to outer suburban or exurban areas which can suffer from lack of infrastructure and social capital. 

In Australia, the provision of ‘community benefit’, a requirement in planning provisions, is ordinarily negotiated between a developer and local authority during the development approval process. In general, unless specifically directed by the local authority, the determination of community benefit rarely seems to involve the community or community groups which may be impacted by the development despite statutory provisions for consultation or social impact assessment. Consultation can sometimes appear to happen at arm’s length without negotiation designed into the process. CBAs operate from the “premise that the particular needs of a community should inform the ways in which development there takes place”. This is also a founding principle in many Australian local authority Social Impact Assessment and Community Consultation policies – that those impacted by a development should be consulted about it - and this article does not assess the efficacy of these planning policies. However, as Bezdek states of the American context, “public participation is perfunctory and futile: By design it is too little and too late, disproportionate to the complexity of the undertaking and to the preferential access of bidding developers” (Bezdek, 2006-7, 59). The efficacy of Australian public participation or stakeholder engagement in relation to development requires further investigation. Individual consultants and planners undertaking this type of work may introduce particular methods which approximate negotiation between community and developer. They may also adopt an advocacy role to ensure that community benefits are considered. Further, the Australian Federal Government’s social inclusion agenda aims to “provide opportunities for all Australians to participate in their local community and Australian society”. While the Federal Government is not prominent in determining urban policy, the social inclusion agenda may provide some leverage for social inclusion in urban development and planning. Social inclusion may prove efficacious in terms of leveraging community benefits and Equitable Development. Presently campaigns against major planning/development initiatives in St Kilda in Melbourne (Unchain St Kilda) and Redfern-Waterloo (Redwatch) in Sydney are raging with significant resident action campaigns playing out on the internet and in those communities. In Brisbane, sections of the West End community are railing against provisions of local area planning proposing significantly increased building heights, while also responding to individual development applications. The websites indicate that there is clearly very little negotiation with these communities and Redwatch, while conducting a campaign, appears to also be operating its own community-based counter planning initiatives. Something appears to have gone awry in the public negotiation or social dialogue process that is inherent in statutory planning and it is not appropriate to dismiss such campaigns as ‘NIMBYism’ or anti-development. The agendas of social equity, heritage protection, cultural diversity, sustainability and community engagement expressed by these groups indicate commitments greater than the self-interest that characterises ‘NIMBYism’. Subsequently, a further question arises about whether Australian communities and their constituent parts trust in governments’ requirements for consultation and social impact assessment and the private sector’s ability to meet those requirements – the comments on these websites indicate that they do not as the three mentioned here have adopted a ‘watch dog’ role. 

The American social and urban development paradigm is not readily transferable to the Australian context. Large scale development in the USA can sometimes attract significant subsidies and incentives and the private sector largely drives land use, whereas in Australia developers do pay infrastructure charges and other levies. In Australia, through Public-Private Partnerships government does play a role in large developments such as facilitating the holding or release of land and conditions placed on the release of government owned land for development can involve provisions for affordable housing e.g. Kelvin Grove Urban Village. Community benefit is factored into planning decision making and included in development approvals as conditions. However, communities need to be asking whether on the one hand those community benefits are sufficient and on the other why such benefits as public art and streetscaping aren’t already a matter of compliance with urban design standards. Other types of community benefits secured include new public domain spaces, park improvements, pedestrian overpasses and bus amenities. While other benefits have been negotiated in major developments, including childcare centres, meeting spaces and community centres, the mainstays of community benefit can appear cosmetic in the face of broader social and cultural issues. Developers may not be the appropriate parties to address these broader questions in their entirety. However in shaping human settlements some assurances that they have, at least, considered these matters (beyond statutory requirements for social impact assessment and consultation) might be warranted. This is especially important when regeneration is read by communities as code for gentrification and socio-economic division. What if, for example, a developer proposing increased height was expected to provide shopfront spaces for third sector organisations, emerging social enterprises or other community facilities necessary for social capital gains? What if ownership of those spaces, as community asset building, could be divested to community groups to generate much needed revenue streams? The result of this approach is the integration of community assets and infrastructure in new development.

In the USA, CBAs have emerged over the past decade through community and neighbourhood activism, often spearheaded by community coalitions with strong ties to a locality in areas that have established networks of third sector (or civic sector) organisations. Lavine and Salkin state that “proponents of CBAs cite several trends for the growing interest in them: urban redevelopment and reinvestment in the face of shrinking federal aid, the evolution of the Smart Growth Movement, and increased public concern for developer accountability” (2008, 20) They further state that “as Smart Growth matured, key advocates realized the need to expand their focus beyond urban sprawl and the environment and to include policy concerns related to the creation of livable cities with living wage jobs.” (2008, 21) Consequently, CBAs usually have implications for economic development and address economic development in a way that embraces broad community concerns.

In the USA, the evolution of this type of agreement might also be read as a failure of government to adequately address equity in the planning process and fund or provide social services. Ho states, “CBAs evolved out of a history of failed urban redevelopment policies and the public awareness that has occurred since urban renewal” (2007). In Australia, the divide between rich and poor is growing, homelessness among low income families is rising, non-profit organisations and social services are under stress, and people continue to endure long commutes to their place of work. In the face of such pressures, serious questions are warranted about why communities and community organisations are held at arm’s length or absent in the development process. Gerber notes that prior to the introduction of CBAs, as continues in Australia, only the developer, relevant local economic development agencies, and public officials were involved in negotiations about proposed developments (2007). By including the community at the negotiating table, a social agenda can be advanced through development. Subsequently, developers can mitigate social, economic and environmental impacts and risks of development proposals including organisational risks such as reputational risk. In other words, developments need to respond to the social contexts into which they are being constructed in an equitable manner, while also facilitating the introduction of new social and economic dynamics. While CBA’s are not ends in themselves, they have a role to play in facilitating change in the development process and its regulation. Parks and Warren argue that

CBAs represent complex strategic tools: they rest on privately negotiated agreements with employers and developers rather than on public regulation while being influenced by local regulatory contexts; they reflect the larger political dynamics of neoliberalism even as they challenge these dynamics in certain respects; and they sometimes, but not always, move forward economic justice strategies focused on public regulation, such as improved governmental oversight of development projects. (undated, 4)

This means that while CBAs can affect broader systemic changes, they are the product of particular socio-economic inequalities and flows that are endemic in American cities. For Australia, this may indicate there is a need to undertake further research into local conditions and practices, such as the efficacy of mining industry CBAs with Indigenous communities, the need for CBAs in Australian urban and regional communities, the general health of planning practice particularly neighbourhood and community planning, the capacity of third sector organisations to instrumentalise CBAs, and the potential impact of CBAs including developer and local authority willingness to negotiate with community coalitions. They can confer a range of benefits (some might refer to these as rights evoking the UN Global Compact as a policy initiative for focusing CSR) including affordable housing, living wage jobs for local people (especially minorities), training, funding or facilities for community organisations, transit, shaping the mix of businesses, financial and lending assistance, worker retention, support for local businesses, harm mitigation and the like. The agreement lays the foundation for a range of community development and equity initiatives. It offers developers a way of managing reputational and other risks as well as quelling community concerns about urban development by creating win-win situations.

Within Australia, developments can attract infrastructure charges and other levies and are required to provide infrastructure, which can often result in community benefits. The community, particularly marginalised or disadvantaged groups, has very little, if any, voice in how benefits are distributed; developers are ordinarily not bound to design, plan or build for social inclusion or for the needs of low income and disadvantaged groups. CBAs have resulted in, as Marcello observes, “empowering the community to participate meaningfully in the planning process through a direct dialogue with developers” (2007, 662). As this direct exchange does not tend to happen in Australia, the basis on which the community engages with development and planning tends to be reactive – although neighbourhood and community planning processes can provide a Council-led engagement process. These activities alone do not comprise a dynamic citizen planning practice or movement in Australia and there is some need to address this issue if we aim to have our cities develop in an equitable, sustainable and inclusive way. While the CSR commitments of individual developers might provide an indication of a developer’s intentions, if the social outcomes are not measured, they cannot be held accountable. Marcello further argues that CBAs provide a means for reframing considerations of economic development, which Parks and Warren cast as “growth with equity” (undated, 3), within the social context. Community concerns are integral to economic development which underpins Equitable Development, particularly in terms of ensuring that economic and social benefits from development are returned to the community. In the USA, third sector organisations have emerged with the specific brief of promoting CBAs and advocating for low income communities. These include Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), Working Partnerships USA. Some of these have objectives of reducing the gap between rich and poor, providing community returns, and relocalising economies. Can we, in Australia, imagine or create an appropriate civic sector response to progressing social inclusion or Equitable Development in our cities? The current approach is not without its stresses. As Gross points out “community groups should not have to identify upcoming projects, mobilize coalitions, and fight the same battles over and over again” (2005, 75) The impact that such redirection of attention can have on small, underfunded, high demand services should be apparent. Given that the Federal Government’s Social Inclusion agenda includes relationship building with the third sector through the development of a Compact, building organisational and sector capacities for this kind of agenda provides a tangible linkage social policy, community development and urban policy. It should, in theory, result in bargaining power rather than arms length advocacy and lobbying.

Proponents of CBAs also note the need for fundamental changes to the administration and planning of land use especially where publicly-subsidised projects or projects applying for significant land use approvals are concerned. To a certain extent this is happening in Australia with the adoption of Smart Growth principles and other sustainability principles. However, Smart Growth doesn’t assure social and cultural diversity – it needs to be underwritten by sound social and cultural policy. In the USA, CBAs may potentially result in notable systemic changes:

Results of this change will take many concrete forms: citywide policies providing minimum standards for certain projects; changes in land use planning documents, like general plans, to require analysis of economic effects of land use decisions; ordinances requiring close scrutiny of high-impact big-box stores; and an expectation that certain large, prominent, heavily subsidized projects will have a CBA. (Gross, 2005, 75)

As Parks and Warren conclude, CBAs need to be part of a “larger accountable development and economic justice movement and one that ultimately looks to institutionalize community benefits as ‘non-negotiable rights’ within the public regulation of urban development” (undated, 2). This is affirmed by Ho, who states that “change needs to occur at the policy and practice level to empower community stakeholders and allow them to influence the public benefits negotiation process in a meaningful way. Until this change occurs, we will continue to see more and more CBAs taking root across the country” (2007). In Australia, where a Bill of Rights is not embedded in the nation’s governance, the Federal Government’s Social Inclusion agenda can initially provide the means of informing this shift.

One of the successes of CSR is that communities now have an expectation that companies do more than comply with regulations and actively engage community stakeholders and groups. Communities can reasonably expect that development does not exacerbate the types of social pressures already being felt in Australian cities. In the planning and development environment, this has significant implications in terms of the provision of community benefits. Through CBAs, responsibility is transformed into contextually defined and explicitly expressed legal obligations to equity and social inclusion. While communities and developers enter into CBAs for different reasons, CBAs appear to expand the win-win and stakeholder priorities of CSR, ushering in alternative types of governance, relationships and engagement. For Australia, CBAs may provide a means of expanding and formalising a process that already exists but that does not currently equally engage all stakeholders. Even though there are limitations and concerns about CBAs, as tactical instruments, they situate proposed developments within a social context and provide a framework for responding to community needs. A fundamental principle of CBAs is that of ‘doing with, not doing to’. CBAs do not replace principled and participatory governance in relation to urban planning and development, just as free market dynamics (sometimes supported by government intervention) do not replace social research, evidence-based planning, and citizen participation. They highlight a need for change in urban planning and development that links urban development to its social/cultural consequences and impacts in ways that are not already accommodated. The CBAs provide communities with leverage and ability to hold developers to account. Part of that change might include the formation of more strategic and informed citizen planning and design processes and practices and another part might, more informally, be developed through CSR commitments by development companies. As a step in the process of transforming the planning and development context, CBAs can provide a means by which developers are held accountable by communities. They can also facilitate stakeholder engagement and social dialogue with a view to facilitating social inclusion through development beyond planning regulations.


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DA Marcello DA (2007) “Community Benefit Agreements: New Vehicle for Investment in America’s Neighborhoods”, The Urban Lawyer, 39(3), Summer, 657-669


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