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Devising & delivering Social Sustainability & community resilience at neighbourhood level

GREENBUILD EUROPE  – Berlin – 18th April 2018



It is a sunny day in Berlin, and the GreenBuild Europe event is in full swing. I will be presenting a short course on the notion of Social Sustainability and community resilience at the neighborhood level and why it should be considered and implemented at measterplanning stage.

With the ever rising demand to build more homes and create more communities, are we in danger of creating socially dysfunctional environments? Health and social aspects of sustainability have now the same weight as the environmental aspects when it comes to building new communities. On the other hand, recent years have seen a rise in public’s awareness of placemaking, social equity, and livable communities, while globally urban activists and action groups advocate social sustainability.

Here is a summary of what was covered in this course:

Why Sustainable Communities?

There are five global shifts that are shaping the way we live our modern lives, and can be addressed by designing wholesome sustainable communities:

  • Rapid Urbanization: Today, more than half the world’s population live in urban areas. Cities are a collection of various communities and neighborhoods and evolve by the collective decisions made and actions taken by municipalities, people, and businesses.
  • As the world becomes more populous, urbanized and prosperous, demand for energy, food, and water will rise. Dealing with the impacts of climate change and resource scarcity has become integral to modern life.
  • Some emerging economies that were growing rapidly are now in recession. While commodity prices have played a considerable role in sending these economies into reverse, the impacts of the two abovementioned global shifts cannot be ignored.
  • Equally significantly, people are living longer and having fewer children. Supporting an aging population will require built environments that are designed to deal with issues such as dementia, age-related disabilities etc. while the economy has to rely on a labour force that consists more of women and the elderly. Cities will need to implement bold policies to cope with these demographic changes.
  • The digital revolution has no boundaries or borders. As cities and communities become digitalized and smart, issues such as smart infrastructure, cybersecurity, data and knowledge sharing become an integral part sustainable design.

What if we built our communities around people?

There are two concepts within social sustainability to consider: ‘community’ and ‘space’ – what constitutes a ‘community’ and how do people interact in the ‘space’ of communities.

A ‘community is that collectivity the members of which share a common territorial area as their base of operations for daily activities’ (Parsons, 1991: 60). However, a community is more than merely a group of people living in an area. There is also a collective conscience, a general shared sense of belonging, norms, and beliefs that tie people together. A community has a collective character.

Space is a combination of material factors and social factors – spaces both influence and are influenced by the people within them.

Consequently, socially sustainable communities can be defined as:

Places where people want to live and work, now and in 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, inclusive, well planned, built and run, and offer equality of opportunity and good services for all. (ODPM, 2006: 12)

What are the elements of social sustainability?

  1. Social Equity: creating services and amenities based on social and demographic needs and priorities that are accessible and available to all layers of the community regardless of age, race, sex, culture and physical ability.
  2. Community Stability: A community requires well-established, long-term residents in order to be sustainable. This is because relationships (or social capital), social networks and social groups need to be built up over time, and can only be maintained with a critical mass of people to perpetuate them.
  3. Health and wellness: this is about good mental health as well as physical health. Creating vibrant, walkable, inclusive, social and cultural developments with access to green infrastructure and recreational amenities will help achieve a healthier society.
  4. Pride and sense of place: A community lacking a sense of pride or attachment to its neighborhood will struggle more to engender community stability, as it will be a less attractive place to stay for a longer period of time.
  5. Thriving: Positive impact on economic activity, create employment, earning and/or productivity gains in the local area, attracting inward investment will lead to economic sustainability which in turn leads to social sustainability.
  6. Safety and security: Maslow’s (1954) ‘hierarchy of needs’ places safety as second only to physiological concerns (hunger, thirst, etc.) in terms of importance to the individual.

What are the barriers to driving Social Sustainability?

  • Inconsistent understanding of the concept of social sustainability
  • Difficulty in measuring social sustainability
  • Difficulty in securing budget for addressing social sustainability
  • Local authorities are cautious about specifying certain condition such as social value within their local planning regulations.
  • Changes in site ownership can dilute social sustainability aspirations

Creating a Strategy which delivers Social Sustainability

The first step in order to deliver social sustainability is to establish a cohesive understanding of the concept. However, this understanding can vary from one local context to the next. Therefore establishing the right definition of social sustainability will require a great deal of research and consultation in order to appreciate the local environment and demographic needs and priorities. This can be achieved by community engagement and involvement via various consultation techniques.

Following establishing the contextual definition for social sustainability based on social and cultural needs, a set of metrics can be created to help implement and measure social value aspirations in the development. Existing tools such BREEAM Communities can be employed here in order to measure and report social sustainability elements via a credible and independent assessment and certification methodology.

Whilst implementing social sustainability metrics is the first step in injecting social values in a development, sustaining successful implementation post occupancy and throughout the life of the development is also of pivotal importance.