What is social sustainability?

After a decade of work on sustainable communities by policymakers and professionals much is known about the importance of the quality of the built environment and community facilities, and how these contribute to residents’ satisfaction and wellbeing. There is less understanding however, about the practical steps that can be taken to make these aspirations tangible, about what can be done in practice.

Internationally there is growing interest in “social sustainability” as a way to frame these concepts and to rebalance the sustainable development agenda to take account of social as well as environmental and economic needs. A very small number of organisations are currently putting the concept of social sustainability into practice in urban development.

Social Life defines social sustainability as:

“A process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work. Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.” [1]

Social Life’s work takes as its starting point the social sustainability framework developed in the 2012 Design for Social Sustainability report. This can be downloaded here. This summarises a review of the evidence, from the UK and internationally, about what makes communities thrive. It sets out a framework for thinking about the social dimensions of community life and how these ideas can be translated into practical initiatives.

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The framework is relevant to new and existing places. This approach is underpinned by an asset-based approach, to focus what makes neighbourhoods thrive, such as a sense of belonging, wellbeing, strong local networks and active civil society institutions, alongside an acknowledgement of the pernicious affects of poverty, disadvantage and inequality.

Social Life has evolved the social sustainability framework for Sutton to capture four key dimensions of social sustainability: amenities and social infrastructure; social and cultural life; voice and influence; and adaptability and resilience.

There is evidence – set out in Design for Social Sustainability - that enough factors need to be in place within each dimension for a neighbourhood to thrive. But what services, factors or initiatives fall within each dimension will vary enormously from place to place: local context is critically important. For example, the amenities and social infrastructure that are needed to make a rural village work will be different from what is needed in a thriving suburb, or a social housing estate. How residents feel about a place likewise will be very different in the middle of a thriving inner city from a market town.

The dimensions of social sustainability overlap in practice – for example good social relationships between neighbours are important to both adaptability and resilience and social and cultural life – but they can usefully be considered separately. This framework is not intended to be prescriptive, it is a tool to help decision making.



[1] Social Life, Design for Social Sustainability: a practical framework for building communities, 2012.