Planning for social sustainability

Planning for social sustainability

What is social sustainability?

There is fierce academic debate about definitions of social sustainability. The debate touches on philosophical questions about social justice, equity and quality of life.

Social sustainability brings together many connected factors, a number of which are difficult to define and measure – social cohesion, sense of community, quality of life and wellbeing to name just a few.

As the academic debate continues, practitioners in a range of fields including social planning, urban regeneration, community development and urban planning are developing their own definitions. Practice is beginning to lead theory.

Steve Rossiter, Elton Consulting Associate Director says “Social sustainability is  a somewhat fluid and dynamic concept because it reflects the unique and evolving circumstances of local communities – how they respond and adapt to local factors, as well as wider social, political and economic drivers.

“However, its building blocks can be defined and it is important to do so.”

What are academics saying?

Typically, the debate about sustainability in general has focused on the economic and the environment “pillars” of the triple bottom line, rather than the social or even the more recently the “governance pillar” of the quadruple bottom line. Climate change has brought into sharp focus the environmental consequences of our lifestyles and the planning frameworks supporting them. The emphasis is important but means that less attention has been paid to other aspects of sustainability, including the social dimension.

Professor Tim Dixon, former Director, Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development and current Professorial Chair in Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment at the University of Reading, warns against our neglect of the social.

“Social sustainability matters because people, places and the economy matter as much as environmental issues.”  (Dixon, 2011)

In ‘Strengthening the ‘Social’ in Sustainable Development: Developing a conceptual framework for social sustainability in a rapid urban growth region in Australia, Sustainable Development,’ Professor Michael Cuthill argues community based research provides a strong “practice perspective” of what social sustainability involves. This practical understanding, gained through firsthand experience, is helped by consideration of evaluation studies of large scale urban development projects.

Evaluation studies of urban development in the United Kingdom and elsewhere by Marina Stott, Neil Stott and Colin Wiles (2009) have highlighted key lessons:

  • Community development is “an essential requirement in the creation of communities”
  • Developing appropriate community infrastructure was identified as a core ingredient in achieving vibrant, cohesive and sustainable communities. “Community infrastructure combines people, place and property. Place and property provide the physical opportunities/limitations to community activity, people (champions, activists, dedicated staff) provide the initiative, leadership and expertise”
  • Good neighbourhood planning and design can facilitate some social elements thought to contribute to social sustainability (like community cohesion and interaction) but physical design alone is not enough
  • Housing type and tenure play an important role in creating cohesive and sustainable communities.  The ‘right mix’ of housing should consider “income, age, ethnicity and household types to ensure a range of households with different social characteristics”

Steve explains that part of the problem is that the skills involved in designing the physical elements of a community are more recognised and developed, than those involved in understanding and developing its social fabric.

Professor Dixon identifies that the “challenge” now is “to build on this progress and ensure that new housing routinely creates strong communities” (Dixon, 2012).

A contemporary definition

Research and evaluation of practice has led to a clearer understanding of social sustainability. A recent UK collaboration of the Young Foundation, Social Life, Professor Dixon and developer, the Berkeley Group, resulted in social sustainability being defined as:

About people’s quality of life, now and in the future. It describes the extent to which a neighbourhood supports individual and collective well-being. Social sustainability combines design of the physical environment with a focus on how people live and use a space, relate to each other and function as a community. It is enhanced by development which provides the right infrastructure to support a strong social and cultural life, opportunities for people to get involved, and scope for the place and the community to evolve. (Dixon 2012).

What is Elton Consulting doing to raise the status of social sustainability?

Steve says “We’ve taken the definition above and concepts it is based on, applying and adapting it based on our own experiences. The UK collaboration’s work has reinforced and provided additional insight to practices that have formed the basis of our social planning and community development work. It is based on similar processes but is set in a different context which has resulted in some adaptation.

As part of that adaptation, we are currently refining our social sustainability framework – informed by the UK work but based on our Australian experience.”

Community and social needs should be recognised as being equally as important as urban design and physical planning issues in creating successful places.

It is only with equal emphasis that there is the opportunity to create real places that are appealing, engaging, supportive and promote community health and wellbeing – the essence of a strong, resilient and sustainable community.

“Our new framework helps achieve that emphasis” says Steve, ”because it is practical and distils years of experience into six key building blocks”

Steve will present the framework at the Planning Institute of Australia’s 2013 National Conference on Monday 25 March. You can view Steve’s presentation on the Elton Consulting website.


Cuthill, M. (2010), Strengthening the ‘Social’ in Sustainable Development: Developing a conceptual framework for social sustainability in a rapid urban growth region in Australia, Sustainable Development, 18, 362-373

Dixon, T. (2011), Putting the S word back into Sustainability: Can we be more social?, Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development for the Berkeley Group, Surrey, UK

Dixon, T. and Social Life (2012), Creating Strong Communities: How to measure the social sustainability of new housing developments, commissioned by the Berkeley Group, Surrey, UK

Stott, M., Stott, N. and Wiles, C. (2009), Learning from the Past? Building community in new towns, growth areas and new communities, Keystone Development Trust, Norfolk, UK

Woodcraft, S., Bacon, N., Hackett, T., and Caistor-Alexander, L. (2012), Design for Social Sustainability: A framework for creating thriving communities, Young Foundation, London, UK