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Placing Social Sustainability on the Design Agenda

by Melissa García Lamarca

Source: The Young Foundation

The U.K.-based Young Foundation recently published research highlighting the successes and failures of neighborhood developments around the world by unpacking the under-explored concept of social sustainability. Authored by Saffron Woodcraft with Tricia Hackett and Lucia Caistor-Arendar, the report proposes a framework for policymakers that emphasizes the importance of consciously designing integrated social services to build healthy, thriving communities. It defines socially oriented policies and design measures needed to support long-term sustainable urban development based on six years of the Young Foundation’s work with communities and housing in regeneration projects.

Source: The Young Foundation

As we enter another decade buzzing with debates about sustainability, the social aspect of the three-pillared concept (environmental, economic and social) is largely neglected in mainstream debates. In defining “social sustainability,” the authors demonstrate its public value as well as its under-representation in neighborhood development. Amid rising inequalities and cuts to social services, a guide for practical action to foster social sustainability could not be more timely. Designing new housing within existing urban contexts, and developing new communities with a goal of holistic sustainability, is extremely complex. The pressing housing crisis, including a vast backlog of those in need of adequate, affordable housing in the U.K., requires new planning and construction. This report aims to ensure that strengthening social infrastructure is part of the agenda.

An alternative definition of social sustainability. Source: The Young Foundation

Many new developments happen as mega-projects during the “boom” periods of the capitalist cycle. Since the priority with such projects is private housing over local facilities and “affordable” housing (and one must ask, affordable for whom), building social infrastructure is low on the agenda.

Another challenge in planning new developments is the time-lag between finishing construction of the physical product and building community cohesion. For example, the report notes it takes up to 15 years for social networks to fully develop, according to research. When discussion turns to a sense of identity and belonging, it becomes exceedingly difficult to answer the question: “How do we design for this?” The report’s main author, Saffron Woodcraft, provided an example of how thinking through "feedback circuits" with local authorities helped identify appropriate actions to improve social sustainability in housing projects. The specific case illustrated below identified "feedback circuits" that either fostered a sense of belonging or made individuals feel excluded from a place.

Ten "feedback circuits" that reinforce a sense of belonging or make individuals feel excluded. Source: The Young Foundation

Illustration of Design for Social Sustainability Framework, Young Foundation (2011). Source: The Young Foundation

Distilling research on cases from around the world, the four elements illustrated in the diagram above were extracted as key considerations for long-term success. One challenge of integrating this framework into policy is that contextual understanding and local interpretation are fundamental. It demands that qualitative guidelines take form in specific projects, shaping the spaces that are created and the uses they facilitate. A serious consideration of longer-term support services – such as where and how individuals meet and interact, how they move from place to place, and how childcare facilities can connect into new developments – are as important as the buildings and spaces in which they take place.

After decades of discussion on participatory design, action planning and socially oriented design, it may seem that new debates on social sustainability are an unnecessary distraction en route to meeting housing shortages through the provision of new buildings. Unpacking the concept, however, can serve to expand conceptions and research on sustainable design that tends to focus more exclusively on environmental and economic issues.

The long-term success and overall sustainability of housing projects, infrastructure and buildings demands environmental and economic responsibility, but it hinges on strategically planned social infrastructure toward building communities that nurture a sense of place and belonging. Without policies that direct attention to this overlooked and complex issue, we will continue to bear the social and financial burdens of our mistakes. Let’s hope that “Design for Social Sustainability” reignites a much-needed discussion and aids policymakers, planners and designers in defining a pressing problem while arming them with a basic framework with which to approach it.

The Young Foundation is a center for social innovation based in London. They work across the U.K. and internationally, carrying out research, influencing policy, creating new organizations and supporting others to do the same, often with imaginative uses of new technology. This year they have created “Social Life” – an independent social enterprise supporting innovation in place-making. The “Design for Social Sustainability” report can be downloaded here, and you can read more about its primary author here.

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