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Last edited 15 Dec 2020
Social and sustainable communities
Health and social aspects of sustainability now have the same weight as 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.
 Why sustainable communities?
 Rapid urbanisation
Today, more than half the world’s population live in urban areas. Cities are a collection of various communities and neighbourhoods and evolve by the collective decisions made and actions taken by municipalities, people, and businesses.
 Resource demand
As the world becomes more populous, urbanised 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 global shifts mentioned above cannot be ignored.
 Ageing population
Equally significantly, people are living longer and having fewer children. Supporting an ageing 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 digitalised and smart, issues such as smart infrastructure, cyber security, data and knowledge sharing become an integral part sustainable design.
 What if we built our communities around people?
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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 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.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- BRE Buzz articles on Designing Buildings Wiki.
- BREEAM communities.
- Buildings that help rebuild lives and communities.
- Compact sustainable city.
- Garden cities.
- High quality high density homes.
- Landscape urbanism.
- Practical guide on health in garden cities.
- Sustainable communities.
- The role of planning in delivering a safe and secure built environment.
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