Urban planning policies commonly define sustainable development based on the oft cited definition contained in the Bruntland Report: ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Furthermore, planning policy typically identifies three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental and social. While planning policy typically contains strong language for the first two pillars, the social pillar is often much leaner in scope and vigour.
Social sustainability involves complex issues, such as equity, social inclusion, liveability and health. And, increasingly, the extent to which governments fulfill these critical components of sustainability will have considerable implications on the long-term health and vitality of communities and citizens.
Recent events such as the Arab Spring, England Riots and the Occupy Movement raise questions about how successful we have been at creating socially sustainable cities. And, perhaps, these events should be catalysts for inspiring more awareness for social sustainability just as the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was a key catalyst for kick-starting the environmental movement.
Carson helped increase our awareness of the need for more sustainable, environmentally responsible and healthy land use practices. To some measure, this awareness coupled with the publication of Our Common Future (sometimes referred to as the Bruntland Report) led to the urban planning profession’s legitimate fixation on environmental sustainability. This legitimacy is more founded today than any other time, no less because of the increasing challenges facing cities today such as climate change, rapid urbanization, increasing energy demands, and the commodification of our natural resources.
We have a good understanding of the environmental and physical challenges involved in creating new communities, and improving existing ones. We understand how the built environment shapes our behaviour and how a well-designed public realm contributes to personal safety – both perceived and real. We also know how good design can reduce crime and contribute to our well being. However, architectural and urban design excellence does not suffice in building cohesive, inclusive and thriving communities.
In order for communities to thrive, there also needs to be high-quality social infrastructure such as neighbourhood parks, community groups, schools, and day-care centres. These softer components of communities contribute to local identity, sense of place, improved social networks and an overall sense of attachment and belonging. We too have a good understanding of how to cultivate this positive sense of place by increasing volunteerism and participation in the democratic process. But, much of our knowledge is restricted to particular professional circles such as urban planning, public health, architecture, or urban design. The challenge remains to transfer this knowledge and normalize the associated jargon and motivations endemic to the disciplines responsible for (or that influence) community development.
In the immediate, we should be considering to what extent our plans, recommendations and programs are socially sustainable – Do they support more equitable distribution of resources? How about diversity in the community? Do they meet the basic needs of citizens? Contribute to social and human capital?
Andrzej Schreyer , R.P.P. is a senior land use and environmental planner with Hardy Stevenson and Associates and a member of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute and the Canadian Institute of Planners. His experience includes developing and implementing public participation and communications plans, managing social impact assessments and land use studies in support of infrastructure projects and preparing community-based strategic plans.