Social Dimensions of Sustainability in Neighborhood Planning

The term "sustainability" has become ubiquitous, and yet, the focus is almost always on the environment. The other dimensions of sustainability - social and economic - are glossed over or even ignored. IMCL holds that a socially sustainable neighborhood needs to promote equitably each individual's social, mental and physical well-being, and the community's cultural, and social well-being. To achieve a socially sustainable city requires equity across neighborhoods and ethnic groups, and improved social health for future generations. Thus, social sustainability has powerful implications for city planning and urban design.

Recently, a renewed focus on the social dimensions of sustainability in communities has enlivened the conversation. Some scholars have pointed out the problematic nature of the often one-sided view of sustainability. Just like the economic dimension, the social dimension has a purpose; without it, we end up with increasing public health problems, social problems, child development problems, and social inequity through mechanisms such as gentrification and just poor city planning that doesn’t work well for people.

Notably absent from most discussions is the process by which positive social characteristics are passed on through time, i.e. by succeeding generations. Key to social sustainability is whether our children are healthy, socially skilled, and develop to their full potential so that they, as the next generation, will be able to transfer to their children the individual and community characteristics of a sustainable society. As we have seen, the built environment of sprawling suburbs and poor neighborhoods is currently taking a severe toll on children’s social and physical health.

While many agree that the social dimension of sustainability is crucial to solving some of our deepest social problems in cities, this concept remains difficult to pinpoint with any real precision. This makes sense, of course, because it is difficult to evaluate just how the built environment affects social life. In recent years, scholars have attempted to define this concept and to develop tools for urban planners and architects to use in designing neighborhoods and urban spaces for greater social sustainability.

Definitions have been quite varied, including concepts such as diversity, respect for cultural practices, justice, equity, fairness in distribution of opportunity, political accountability, and public participation in decision-making (Polese & Stren, 2000; Harris, et al, 2001). In a more recent attempt to further explain the make-up of this concept, Dempsey, et al (2011) discuss social equity, sustainability of community, social interaction/social networks in the community, participation in collective groups, community stability, pride/sense of place, safety, and security as principles of the social dimension.

The way the built environment is designed affects each of these social principles either positively or negatively. For example, safety and security are threatened by wide streets designed for high volume traffic with minimal pedestrian facilities, and by absence of eyes on the street. Social interaction in community networks is curtailed if there are insufficient or unsatisfactory public places in high volume pedestrian areas at the heart of the community, or if the built urban fabric is fragmented and dominated by traffic. Social equity cannot be achieved when poor neighborhoods lack public transit, walkable streets, and grocery stores. Pride and sense of place are fostered by beautiful places that community members feel belong to them, architecture and green places they use and cherish.

Social sustainability is the avowed goal of the Berkeley Group, a development company building homes and neighborhoods in the UK. In a recent report, created in collaboration between The Berkeley Group, Social Life, and The University of Reading’s Tim Dixon, entitled Creating Strong Communities: How to Measure the Social Sustainability of New Housing Developments, they state:

“Social sustainability is 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 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.”

The report presents a wealth of data from a survey and face-to-face interviews at four new new housing developments in England to ascertain the degree to which they support social sustainability.  Indicators included non-physical factors such as quality of social and cultural life, willingness to act, and safety, as well as physical factors like adaptable space, transport linkage, and greenspace.    

The report is admirable because it aims to define resident well-being, “…capturing their perceptions of the quality of their lives, is a key aspect to social sustainability. It is closely related to how strongly people feel they belong in the area, and feeds into their neighbourliness and willingness to take part in community activities.” However, the report does not provide plans or sufficient visual documentation of the sites to allow the reader to evaluate the findings.

As the report admits, not all aspects of social sustainability are addressed. Social equity, justice and access to education and employment were omitted because they were considered outside the scope of what the housing developer was providing. But were these justifiable omissions? Ease of access to school, work, and shops are important aspects of residents’ experience of neighborhood well-being. If the survey is to be a useful benchmark for comparing neighborhood social sustainability, it should have been more comprehensive. As one critique commented, there was no analysis of the “diversity of residents, the location of affordable housing within the site” and the location of resources in the surrounding neighborhood. Each site included one-third affordable housing, but was the affordable housing noticeably less well integrated in the site? As Polis observed, “On three of the four sites, residents in affordable housing were less likely to strongly agree that they felt they belonged in the neighborhood than private owners and renters.”

Nevertheless, despite its weaknesses, this report represents an important first step in evaluating the degree to which new developments can support social sustainability. We shall be eager to see the next steps in planning for urban social sustainability.

Photo credit: Berkeley Group's Imperial Wharf development. St. George plc.


Bacon, N., Cochrane, D. and Woodcraft, S. (2012), Creating Strong Communities, The Berkeley Group, London.

Dempsey, N., Bramley, G., Power, S. and Brown, C. (2011), The social dimension of sustainable development: Defining urban social sustainability. Sust. Dev., 19: 289–300.

Harris, J., Wise, T., Gallagher, K., and Goodwin, N. (2001). A Survey of Sustainable Development: Social and Economic Dimensions. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Polese, M. and Stren, R. (2000). Social sustainability of cities: Diversity and the management of change. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, Canada.

Vallance, S., Perkins, H. C., & Dixon, J. E. (2011). What is social sustainability? A clarification of concepts. Geoforum, 42(3), 342-348.

Woodcraft, S. (2012) Social Sustainability and New Communities: Moving from concept to practice in the UK, paper submitted to the AicE-Bs 2012 Cairo ASIA Pacific International Conference on Environment-Behaviour Studies, Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 68 ( 2012 ) 29 – 42.  Available at:
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