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Professor Richard Tiffin, Director of the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading discusses the House of Commons International Development Committee report on Food Security, published this week.

The House of Commons International Development Committee report on Food Security is a comprehensive and challenging attempt to highlight some of the issues which confront us with this complex problem.

The report highlights: the potential of GM to contribute to food security but recognises that care must be excercised in promoting this as a solution; the importance of agricultural research; the importance of open international markets in protecting against shocks; and that a focus on malnutrition may be as, if not more, important than that of hunger.

However, while the aim of the report is to take a global focus, it is perhaps guilty of oversimplifying the issue of meat production and coming to locally-centred, rather than global, conclusions. It notes that the rate of increase in meat consumption is unsustainable and recommends that meat should be promoted as an occasional product. By highlighting the place of animals in ensuring global food security the report is to be applauded but the reality is that this area is complex and not well understood at the moment.

It is irrefutable that demand for meat globally will grow as populations become richer.  At a local level, it might be sensible for us to reduce meat consumption and the reality is that price increases will probably lead us to do this voluntarily.  At a global level, however, it is much more important to consider how the inevitable increase in demand can be met and what its implications are for human health. We should not solely focus our attention on repelling the tide.

The report correctly states that we need to identify sustainable livestock systems, but it is not necessarily true that extensive pasture-based systems are more sustainable. For example there is evidence to suggest that more intensive feeding reduces the emission of greenhouse gases caused by livestock.  The role played by livestock in providing a route out of poverty for some of the poorest farmers should also not be overlooked.

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Social sustainability of housing developments (Image provided by Berkeley Group)

Social sustainability of housing developments (Image provided by Berkeley Group)

Professor Tim Dixon from the School of Construction Management and Engineering discusses the importance of investigating the social sustainability of housing developments.In an era dominated by climate change debate and environmentalism there is a real danger that the important ‘social’ pillar of sustainability drops out of our vocabulary. This can happen at a variety of scales from business level through to building and neighbourhood level regeneration and development. Social sustainability should be at the heart of all housing and mixed-use development but for a variety of reasons tends to be frequently underplayed, and the English city riots last year brought this point back sharply into focus. The relationships between people, places and the local economy all matter and this is as true today as it was in the late 19th century when Patrick Geddes, the great pioneering town planner and ecologist, wrote of ‘place-work-folk’.

In the current recession, where house-building has fallen to an all-time low in the UK, it is therefore not only important that we build more homes in the right place but that those homes link and integrate with existing communities. Two key questions stem from this: what exactly is social sustainability and how do we measure it?

One way in which social sustainability can be understood is in terms of an outcome of place-making, or designing places that are attractive to live in. So social sustainability can be seen as being about people’s quality of life now and in the future, and describes the extent to which a neighbourhood supports individual and collective well-being. Social sustainability therefore combines design of the physical environment with a focus on how the people who live in 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.

However house builders have historically shied away from confronting how to measure what is seen by many as a ‘slippery’ concept.  Despite this, the Berkeley Group recently commissioned research to assess and measure the social sustainability of four of its housing developments using an independently developed framework consisting of three dimensions: ‘infrastructure and social amenities’, ‘voice and influence’ and ‘social and cultural life’, which are underpinned by 13 indicators. Data from 45 questions tied into national datasets were used to underpin the indicators, and primary data was collected from face to face surveys and a site survey on the housing developments.

The research is an honest and independent appraisal of one house builders’ new housing developments. In the four developments (which were all in London and the south east) the research found that whilst people in the developments felt they belonged to the community, talked to neighbours regularly and planned to stay in the community, there were also negative feelings about feeling less like they played an important part in things and are less likely to pull together to improve the neighbourhood. Overall though, the developments scored well on well-being and safety compared with comparable places and national benchmarks.

Recent changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, and the emergence of localism and well-being agendas have started to move social sustainability centre stage, and the next phase of this research is set to examine how new developments impact directly on the communities in which they are located. Long-term stewardship of housing developments is therefore likely to become increasingly important.

 Tim Dixon is professor of sustainable futures in the built environment in the School of Construction Management and Engineering. He also leads the new University of Reading’s Sustainability in the Built Environment (SustBE) research programme and is a research associate of the Walker Institute. His personal research revolves around the interface between the sustainability agenda and its impact on property development, investment and occupation. The research is based on a strong interdisciplinary approach which incorporates policy and practice impacts and futures thinking. The research (carried out by Social Life and University of Reading) on which this blog is based has recently been published by Berkeley Group in their report, ‘Creating Strong Communities’ (www.berkeleygroup.co.uk/sustainability/socialsustainability).

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Dr Richard Nunes is a lecturer in the School of Real Estate and Planning at Henley Business School. His interest lies in innovation systems, industry restructuring and its implications for local and regional economic development. His current work includes community efforts to replicate sustainability transition initiatives, and policy efforts to scale-up ‘grassroots innovations’ into more systemic approaches to sustainable development.

In ‘My Hometown’, from his 1985 Born in the USA album, Bruce Springsteen takes a nostalgic look at his hometown of Freehold Borough, New Jersey, at the economic tensions of a working class community. Nearly three decades later, in ‘Death to My Hometown’, off his Wrecking Ball album out next week, Springsteen’s ‘angry patriotism’ over the financial crisis, a corrupt Wall Street and growing income inequality is combined with a sense of defiance and hope – “Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got….Bring on your wrecking ball”.

This verse from the ‘Wrecking Ball’ track recounts the recent demolition of the Giants Stadium (East Rutherford, New Jersey) – an analogy to the economic and social blow of the global financial crisis. In a Paris press conference last month, at the Théâtre Marigny, Springsteen claims that “previous to Occupy Wall Street, there was no push back at all”, saying this was outrageous: “a basic theft that struck at the heart of what America was about, a complete disregard for the American sense of history and community.”

However, the decampment and exodus of Occupy LSX (London) from St Paul’s Cathedral earlier this week is not a sign of a movement gone or forgotten. As former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral  Dr. Giles Fraser, who resigned in protest at plans to forcibly evict Occupy protesters, states: “You cannot evict an idea.” There is an element of truth to this assertion. Indeed on the day of Occupy LSX’s eviction from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral by legal mandate, more than 60 Occupy groups and 30 environmental, food and corporate accountability organisations united in more than 100 events across the globe on February 27, 2012 in Occupy Our Food Supply – a global day of action to end corporate exploitation of food supply systems. Among the many Occupy groups and participating organisations were Occupy LSX and Reclaim the Fields UK.

‘Occupy’ has created a space for dialogue. It has been populated by individuals, organisations and movements including the Transition (Town) Network – a transnational grassroots social movement that seeks to deal with climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy (‘peak oil’) through individual behavioural change and collective action. The Transition Movement has its origins in a small English town (Totnes, Devon) six years prior to Occupy Wall Street (Zuccotti Park, NYC) on September 17, 2011. After his visit to the Occupy LSX camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Movement, found that “what Occupy is doing that matters so much is that it is holding a space. It is holding a space where the discussions can take place on their own terms about what is broken and what needs fixing”.  Is it is an angle from which local Transition groups can take forward their efforts to make communities more resilient?

Erik Curren, for the Post Carbon Institute, acutely questions: “How should people in the Transition Movement wear the mask of Occupy?”  The debate on how to engage the Occupy movement is clear: Occupy and the Transition Movement are two faces of the same coin of socio-economic and environmental ‘spatial justice’. Peak oil and climate change are a threat to just forms of economic development, and economic reforms alone are partial at best without a transition from fossil fuels to more resilient, lower carbon systems. But Occupy reminds Transitioners that peak oil and climate change cannot be addressed adequately without democracy and fairness within economic systems.

To what extent and under which conditions can the Transition Movement contribute to the mitigation of high unemployment and hunger in cities of the global north and south alongside its efforts to address climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy? Answers to this question raise a number of concerns regarding the ‘scale-up’ of community-based social innovation and enterprise for gradual radical transformation. All things considered, the Janus faces of Occupy Transition are underpinned by the energy of mutual defiance and hope, and creativity as in Occupy Our Food Supply – embodied in community initiatives such as Transition Heathrow. From ‘Transition Town’ to ‘Hometown’ the Ballerina is to the Bull (in the iconic image of Occupy) as Bruce Springsteen is to the Wrecking Ball. “Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got….Bring on your wrecking ball”.

For introductory notes on new pilot research on Community Planning and Transition go to: http://www.reading.ac.uk/rep/transitionresearchreading

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