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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  1. Oh dear.

    How many times have we been here before, and how many times must we go here again? Design for Social Sustainability: A framework for creating thriving communities (April 2012) is a report from the The Young Foundation, a non-profit, non-governmental think tank based in London that specializes in insights, innovation and entrepreneurship to meet social needs. The report was commissioned jointly by the U.K. government's Homes and Communities Agency as part of its Future Communities programme (a partnership between government and the Young Foundation).

    The authors of the report however appear to have missed what a lot of us have been writing, researching and teaching about for decades and have themselves just discovered the 'social' side of sustainability. They are of course eager to tell us all about their great idea, so let's take a look at it. Aside from the spectacularly un-diverse imagery in the report, problematic terms like 'social success' and 'social design' litter the pages with no explanation as to what they mean nor how they should be achieved:

    "We need a better understanding of how to create socially successful communities and how to use planning, development and stewardship functions to achieve this goal."


    "Social sustainability is an issue of public value as well as the wellbeing, quality of life and satisfaction of future residents. It demands a new approach to planning, design and development that we call social design, which needs to be integrated into policy and professional practice across all the disciplines involved in the creation of new communities – much like the way standards of environmental sustainability have become widely adopted in recent years."

    However, if these banal and ill defined terms weren't enough, the most egregious omission is of any consideration of social justice. The term simply does not appear. Neither does equality. The term equity appears twice, once in terms of negative equity, and once in an Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development definition of social sustainability. How on earth, or perhaps on the moon, does the Young Foundation think that communities can ever be remotely socially successful without a fundamental and intential commitment to social justice? Have the authors not read and digested the implications of Wilkinson and Pickett's book The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone? I'm not going to waste my time giving chapter and verse on this. Read their book. Read my books. Read my blog.

    And you know the biggest irony in all this? The Future Communities Programme, of which this Design for Social Sustainability report is the latest offering, was launched in June 2010 with the publication of the unfortunately and presciently named report Never again: Avoiding the mistakes of the past.

    Never again? Avoiding mistakes? Past, present, future? I'm not so sure anymore...

    1. Dear Julian

      I fully agree that equality and social justice are essential to creating communities that have a chance of being sustainable.

      Unfortunately, thinking in the UK about the social dimensions of sustainability remains marginal in many areas of government policy and professional practice, especially in the context of urban planning, regeneration, housing and communities. This is in spite of the decades of academic work you refer to, and the considerable efforts by practitioners and policymakers in the past decade to translate some of this research into professional and public-sector practice. Arguably much of this effort has now stalled, with a considerable (although not excusable) list of reasons being put forward: the recession, housing crisis, austerity measures, closure of key public bodies, loss of research grants, and so on. Yet while rhetoric about fairness, equality, social justice and sustainability abounds, there is little political appetite to take action on say, income inequality through progressive taxation.

      In practical terms, large-scale new communities and urban regeneration schemes continue to be built in the UK, with little or no consideration given to the principles you describe; the most basic lessons about what does and doesn’t work in planning, constructing and managing new communities continue to be neglected. The people who then live without adequate social infrastructure or connections to local job markets are keen to see immediate practical improvements to their living conditions, as well as long-term political changes. What I am suggesting is that we need both political and practical approaches to addressing how to make sustainable communities.

      Design for Social Sustainability was intended to revive the debate about sustainable placemaking and to try, in a limited way, to transfer ideas from academic research and policy into practice using a language that makes sense to built-environment professionals in the UK, who may not be familiar with either those ideas or the language commonly used to discuss them.

      Michael Young established the Institute of Community Studies (now the Young Foundation) in 1954 with funding from The Ford Foundation, to try and address the lack of social research available to inform post-war reconstruction planning. Young’s particular interest was understanding the effect of planning policies – such as slum clearance, and the dispersal of urban communities to new suburbs and cottage estates – on the communities involved. Almost 60 years later, there is unfortunately still a lack of both evidence and practical support for the local authorities, housing providers, developers and planners who are working on the current generation of new towns and communities. So, while I think there is much to be learnt from revisiting the lessons of the past, I also want to take Michael Young's advice, which is always to listen to your fiercest critics.


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