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Does social sustainability matter?

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A talk at PTEa focused on whether social sustainability can foster well-being through the built environment

Footprint recently attended an event on social sustainability hosted by Pollard Thomas Edwards Architects and chaired by Tom Dollard, head of sustainable design at the practice. The speakers included:

Social sustainability Combines the 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 that provides the right infrastructure to support a strong social and cultural life, opportunities for people to get involved, and scope for the place and community to evolve.’ Berkeley Group definition.

Jonathan Schifferes of the New Economics Foundation described a study which found the sensory impacts of learning, such as orientation, temperature and light levels provide a 25 per cent variance on academic performance. Quality of life is gaining more serious consideration among built environment professionals, and intangible social elements are becoming as important as hard infrastructure. Modern virtual connections have been associated with increasing ignorance in people sharing physical space. Schifferes dubbed this as ‘social autism’. These changes in the way we interact challenge the profession into addressing both personal and social outcomes of design.

fortress britain

Examples of what was described as ‘Fortress Britain’

We are currently designing to complex social consequences and planning restrictions, creating what was described as ‘Fortress Britain’, and which was criticised for excluding social interventions. The built environment is contributing to declining levels of trust and growing levels of fear. Without a built environment which sustains us socially, we will struggle to achieve the societal transition needed for truly comprehensive sustainability.

As well as gathering data via an app called mappiness, which aims to find any correlations between well-being and location, the New Economics Foundation aims to recover human experience via a 5 step plan:

  1. Connect
  2. Be active
  3. Take notice
  4. Learn
  5. Give

nef 5 steps

The New Economic Foundation’s 5 steps

Matt Bell of the Berkeley Group began by saying social sustainability is not solely concerned with just well-being. It is a culmination of subjective factors that can be categorised as: physical, such as access to open space, recreation and transport; and non-physical such as security. It is important to clarify what ‘social sustainability’ is if it is to be understood and implemented into policy.

Berkeley Group market themselves as exceptional place-makers, claiming positive impacts on developments create stronger communities through social sustainability. Environmental and economic factors are easy to quantify, unlike subjective social aspects. Berkeley Group are creating a measurement framework to make similar developments comparable.

The key elements are:

  • Amenities and infrastructure
  • Voice and influence
  • Social and cultural life

These are further split into 13 indicators and 45 pre-defined questions taken from nationally recognised surveys or industry frameworks (such as Building for Life by CABE); scoring by range rather than absolute number.

Data from resident’s surveys is benchmarked against national data to get comparable scores to similar sized developments. After receiving a red, amber, or green rating, scores are statistically tested and only significant results are reported.

Minimising primary data collection and benchmarking against national data has proved a low cost framework planners accept. The framework is easily replicable, which will allow for comparable results.

Imperial Wharf, Empire Square, The Hamptons, Knowles Village

Imperial Wharf, Empire Square, The Hamptons, Knowles Village

Four sites in and around London were tested, producing interesting implications when compared to benchmarks for comparable places:

  • Residents feel they belong
  • Talk regularly to neighbours
  • Plan to stay in the community
  • Report greater feelings of safety walking alone during the day and night (usually when developments are more dense)

Bell says new housing developments can thrive quickly, and feel safe in areas that don’t. The framework provides practical lessons for each development team (council, community and developer).

RAG Ratings for 4 Berkeley developments

Red, amber and green ratings for 4 Berkeley developments

It is interesting to see such a thorough preliminary framework, which has the potential to provide compliance alongside the NPPF, and may provide insight into shifting values and perceptions of tenure.

Concerns were raised regarding the predefined questions by the developer which currently don’t allow for location specific issues to arise naturally without additional probing and therefore may provide misleading data. Without any significant evidence to prove a correlation between social improvements and benefits, and taking heed from Schifferes warning on ‘priming subconscious messages’, some attendees at the event feared this may just be a developer’s marketing ploy.

The speakers addressed new developments, but little was discussed about implementing social sustainability into existing developments.

social interventions

Social interventions

Many social issues are already raised and dealt with by landscape architecture, which raises the question: are interventions to measure social success of developments necessary or are they becoming another planning tick box?

Shifferes highlighted an existing paragraph in the London Plan Housing Supplementary Planning Guidance November 2012:

‘6.1.5 Many developers now recognise that social infrastructure should be seen as a potential driver of value rather than an additional cost. Investing in social infrastructure can increase both the value of the units being developed and their rate of sale…

Fundamentally it is not the difficulty of quantifying social measures into understandable data, it is whether it adds any significant practical value. This is the part I struggle with because it all comes back down to quantifiable finance - What price do you place on happiness?

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