sustainable development

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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 Chukwumerije Okereke, Reader in Environment and Development and Director of Research in African Environment and Development in the School of Human and Environmental Sciences, writes about the forthcoming Earth Summit and why justice must not be overlooked.

Between June 20 and 22 many world leaders, civil society groups and a bevy of media organisations will gather in Brazil to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (Earth’s Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,  3-14 June, 1992. The Rio Summit remains the largest ever global conference on environment and development convened by the United Nations.

The stated objective of Rio+20 is to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development and assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development. The two themes for the conference are: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development.

There is no doubt that the 1992 Earth Summit was a critical landmark in the history of global environmental governance.  It continues to: (i) serve as an inspiration for humane international co-operation and multilateral environmental diplomacy; (ii) provide impetus for the quest for an ecologically secure and sustainable planet; and (iii) remind everyone of the need for a truly democratic platform for bringing together governments and civil society in the search for solutions to challenges that threaten humans’ common existence.

Rio 1992 produced three main agreements, including the UN Climate Change Convention, the Convention on Biodiversity and the Forest Principles. However, important as these three treaties are, it is probably fair to suggest that the most important outcome of Rio 1992 was the institutionalisation of the concept of sustainable development – the recognition that environmental protection and human welfare are inseparable parts of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation. Despite, however, many conventions and treaties related to sustainable development since 1992, the levels of global poverty and environmental degradation both remain unacceptably high.

It is right then that Rio+20 should focus on assessing the progress that has been made to date and the barriers standing against the achievement of global sustainable development.  As an ethical concept, the intuitive appeal of sustainable development resides in the attention it gives to three key dimensions of justice: (a) justice within and between nations; (b) justice between present and future generations; and (c) justice between human and non-human nature.

Today, distributional justice remains central to any effort to achieving sustainable development as it did 20 years ago. And only careful attention to the three dimensions of justice above can ensure the achievement of a lasting balance between economic, environmental and social dimensions of development which the concept of sustainable development envisages. In fact, I am convinced that the current lack of attention to justice is the most important barrier against the design of effective policies and institutions for achieving national and global sustainable development.  In other words, Gro Harlem Bruntland was right when, in 1987, she declared that:  “It is futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequality.”

Green Economy has emerged as the new buzzword in preparation for Rio +20. However it must be noted that emphasis on ‘green economy’ does nothing to affect the centrality of distributional justice in the quest for sustainability.  There will certainly be winners and losers in the transition to a global greener economy, at least in the short term.  Moreover, the move to a green economy would itself entail material costs, and green products and services may generate their own externalities and risks. States, businesses and the civil society gathering in Rio in June must therefore ask how policies and institutions aimed at encouraging a greener economy can better take account of the full range of justice impacts and prospects such a transition would generate. In discussing this matter I suggest that lasting answers can only be achieved in Rio if the following four perspectives are adopted:

  1. Distributional justice should not be seen as merely instrumental but at the heart of sustainable development
  2. Questions of environmental justice must be seen as questions about the mode of wealth creation and appropriation itself rather than as an add-on optional extra. Hence, achieving global sustainable development should be seen to require more radical interrogations of the basic structure of the international society and of patterns of social relations between the poor and rich
  3. The idea of global environmental/planetary citizenship should not been seen as mere moral lectures but one that deserves to be taken as the foundation upon which institutions for environmental governance should be built
  4. The current global economic recession should be seen as an opportunity (not as a hindrance) to tackling unsustainable development and world poverty.

To stand any chance of meeting the aspirations of the majority of the global population that has been clamouring for global sustainable development, international management approaches must strive harder to reflect responsible stewardship and the fact of our common inheritance of the planetary resources. In short for Rio to succeed, the idea of justice must be reinstated at the centre in the quest for new green global economy

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