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Social Sustainability in Urban Environments Saba Fatima 1 Reviewed by: Dr. S. Kumar 2 1. M.Arch (Environmental Design) Jawaharlal Nehru Architecture & Fine Arts University, Hyderabad, India 2. Professor, Principal, Jawaharlal Nehru Architecture & Fine Arts University, Hyderabad, India Contact: sabafatima2801@gmail.com August 2019

Abstract People want to live in better places (civic environments); Good urban design can make places better. ‘Good Urban Design’ cannot be accomplished without taking people, and their physical, physiological, and psychological needs into consideration. It must therefore, address issues pertaining to social aspects, along with environmental and economic ones. This paper discusses existing literature related to social sustainability in global urban environments, focussing on its qualitative indicators. It may be used as a scientific reference to analyse the social sustainability of an urban unit(s), and act as a base to build future research upon. There are three parts to the paper — Part one is introductory, and describes the evolving faces of cities through time, and their social aspects. It also reasons out the need for discourse and action on the social branch of ‘sustainable development’ in urban environments. Part two categorises indicators of social sustainability in existing research and literature. Part three discusses the role played by built-environments in cities, and their close relation in influencing their corresponding social fabrics and societal structure. Keywords Urban environments, Social sustainability, Spatial equity, Social sustainability Indicators

‘The Garden of Eden is rural and never urban’. – Jean-Luc Francois

Part 01

Introduction Cities, as they have arrived today, through thousands of years of evolution, and unprecedented progress, are technical marvels. They are agglomerations of diversities of people, cultures, behaviours, patterns, machines, and much more, working simultaneously and ceaselessly as single units of identity. And yet, despite the greatness achieved, most of our cities have lost their environmental legibility towards their inhabitants (Rose, 2016). The onset of industrial revolution is associated with numerous, and rapid societal changes. It had a direct impact on the rapid global urbanization rate, creation of economic opportunity, and ease of communication and mobility. More insidious implications include a degradation in urban environmental quality, deteriorating mental and physical health of citizens, urban poverty, and lack of adequate services to cater to the influx of populations. The brunt of these


negative effects was shouldered by economically weaker sections of society and were therefore conveniently ignored by the larger sections of societies and administrations. However, with the out-spread of these effects into larger urban fabrics - such as disease outbreaks due to unsanitary public infrastructure conditions in England, increased crime rate and violence in cities – and the rise of ‘sustainability’ theories, the need for finer and more consistent urban social infrastructure and environments was at long last realised, leading to numerous community studies and neighbourhood and community theories including Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Model (1898), and Frank Lloyd Wright’s plans for a lowdensity vegetated environment for Broadacre City in the United States (1932). Post -Industrialization, the aftermath of human exploitation of nature, resources, ecologies, and wildlife propelled a global ‘sustainability movement’, starting in the Western Hemisphere. The movement gained momentum following the publication of the Brundtland report and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, 1992. Popularly, sustainable development came to be defined as ''Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'' (WCED, 1987). While the fields of economic and environmental sustainability have been heavily researched and implemented upon, rightly so, through development of quantifiable sustainability scales such as LEED, BREEAM, etc. and through competitive economies, social sustainability remains largely unresearched, unstudied, and un-operationalized. Now, even after thirty years of discourse on sustainable development, social sustainability is still the least developed, theorised and debated aspect of sustainability (M. Reza Shirazi, 2017). There is a large degree of consensus in existing literature, that little attention has been given to the social dimension of sustainability in the context of built environments (Neate Littig, 2005) (Nicola Dempsey, 2011).

‘Community’ vs ‘Neighbourhood’: ‘Community’ and ‘neighbourhood’ are terms often used interchangeably. However, ‘neighbourhoods’ are usually associated with spatial boundaries whereas a ‘community’ may be an entirely social construct and be free of geographical constraints (e.g.: the largely Bukharian Jewish neighbourhood of Rego Park vs The Jewish community around the world.) ‘Community’ is derived from an old French word ‘Communeate’ which implies some kind of association. It is similar to some other words in the English dictionary, such as ‘communal’, and ‘communicate’ which bear a similar context. In neighbourhoods, these associations are means of socializing and engaging with people in the vicinity of your residence or place of work. In relation to this paper, both of these physical as well as social constructs, aid a person in identifying their ‘self’ with their surroundings, and existence.


According to Wayne Davies and David Hebert, the first attempts to create associations amongst people of a place can be recognised in the attempts to provide a focal central space in ancient cities. In larger cities, such as ancient Rome, the single space was split up into multiple gathering spaces located roughly around the centre of the city. Each space catered to a specific function – baths, race tracks, amphitheatres. Another visually comprehendible example is that of the ‘Forbidden City’ in Figure 1 Illustration of The Forbidden City present day Beijing, China. It was Source: www.forbiddencitychina.com constructed by a Ming Emperor in the fourteenth century CE. Most of the complexes contain one or more open spaces outside the temples and palaces. These spaces were intentionally planned for convergence of people during occasions, assemblies and acted as interaction and participation spots for the locals. In other Italian city-states, the squares around churches became mini-city centres, bustling with economic and socio-cultural activities, as a result of local shopkeepers, artisans, and merchants setting up shop to utilize the tourist and local visitor potential for trade and economic gains. This became an archetypal medieval city neighbourhood around which daily life revolved and this behavioural pattern stands valid till date, wherein historic monuments such as Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, famous city squares such as the Times Square in New York, generate tremendous economic and socio-cultural potential. (Herbert, 1993)

Social Sustainability and its need in Urban Environments:

By the end of 21st century, 70-80% of the world’s population will be living in cities. Nowhere is the demand for new towns going to be greater than in the developing world, especially in the African continent and in India. According to research by Oxford Economics, all the top ten fastest-growing cities by GDP between now and 2035 will be in India, with Surat in the state of Gujarat topping the list with 9.2% annual growth rate, followed by the historic city of Agra, which is expected to grow by 8.6% each year. This rapid ‘urbanization’ would multiply the demands for housing, feeding, higher standards of living, and quality of life across the globe (McCarthy, 2001). The share of urban populations residing in parlous environments already stands at 43% in South Asia, and 62% in sub-Saharan Africa, indicative of rising social and spatial fragmentation (Pierre Jacquet, 2010). As a result, in addition to combatting current issues such as climate change, and unstable economies of citizens, the need to create socially sustainable urban environments has also become inevitable. Furthermore, it is intricately linked with economic and environmental progress. Attaining social sustainability would implymaking cities inclusive, guaranteeing basic services, availability of standard and affordable housing, and safe, convenient mobility services in a unified urban boundary. Theories of social sustainability are increasingly being used by urban planners and academics to address issues


on how societies should be planned or even modified to better suit the social characteristics of a place and people. However, since most studies on urban sustainability are centred around developed countries, there is a gap in relation to emerging issues in developing or less developed countries where future growth is predicted to be maximum (A. Ghahramanpouri, 2013). Urban design operates from the macro scale of urban structures to the micro scale of streets. It can significantly dictate the economic development in an area, and influence its socioeconomic progress, by either encouraging or discouraging these activities through spatial planning. It sets the tone for sustainable transportation, affordability of housing, job opportunities, civic safety, and social-mix in a locality. Good urban design can ensure equitable distribution of public spaces and citizen opportunity, a key factor towards achieving social sustainability in neighbourhoods. It also facilitates or hinders social interactions and cohesiveness of the neighbourhood community. Cities are composed of many such ‘neighbourhoods’ or ‘communities’ acting as fractals of a single city unit. Each fractal has its own identity and functionality, and therefore each neighbourhood requires a unique approach in its spatial planning. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of such fractals collectively contribute to the physical, economic, and social structure of the city and its collective environment.


Part 2

Measurable Indicators of Social Sustainability in Current Literature: Measuring the well-being of society has been a constant endeavour for years. Today, many wellbeing indicators are already in use. Economic indicators like the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), have often been used as a measure of economic growth and is then associated in direct proportion to citizen well-being. Although it is a crucial indicator of economic growth, it is not a suitable indicator to measure social development of citizens, as it is not indicative of levels of satisfaction and quality of life of people, nor does it address environmental issues. Thus, in order to evaluate the social fabric of a country, non-economic factors must also be taken into account. Indeed, social indicators have been associated with well-being for years already. The first important records of social indicators originate from the 1960s when researchers in the United States tried to assess the impact of the NASA space programme on society (Maria P. Aristigueta, 2005). Although the project concluded that there was insufficient data for analysis, they still tried to develop social indicators that would assess the effects of possible future programmes, with the outlook of detecting and preventing certain social processes (Maria P. Aristigueta, 2005). Since the year 2000, a number of influential scientific journals and researchers promoted the idea of developing social indicators through case studies and discourse. A popular list of social indicators called the ‘OECD Quality of Life Index’ was formulated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2011 as part of their Better Life Index (BLI) program to enable people to assess and compare countries’ performances against their own in aspects of well-being. The following table is a compilation of social sustainability indicators collected from research papers and case studies.

Researcher(s)/ Author(s)

Year

Research/ Book/ Publication Title

(G. Bramley, 2006)

2006 What is "Social Sustainability", and how do our existing urban forms perform in nurturing it?

(Colantonio, 2008)

2008 Social Sustainability: Linking Research to Policy and Practice

Number Socially Sustainable of Indicators Attributes 05 1. Interactions in the community/ social networks 2. Community participation 3. Pride and sense of place 4. Community stability 5. Security (crime) 07 1. Citizen Identity 2. Participation, Access 3. Health & safety 4. Social capital 5. Demographic change 6. Social image and cohesion 7. Wellbeing, happiness, quality of life


(Lee, 2008)

2008 Critical Factors for Improving Social Sustainability of Urban Renewal Projects: Social Indicators Research

06

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

2011 OECD Quality of life indicators

08

(S. Hemani, 2012)

2012 Influence of urban forms on social sustainability of Indian cities

04

(Amir 2015 Urban Social Sustainability Ghahramanpouri, Contributing Factors in 2015) Kuala Lumpur Streets

09

(Liljefors, 2016)

07

2016 Social Sustainability in Swedish Urban

1. Provision of social infrastructure 2. Availability of job opportunities 3. Accessibility 4. Townscape design 5. Preservation of local characteristics 6. Ability to fulfil psychological needs (safety and security, sense of belonging) 1. Health 2. Work-life balance 3. Education 4. Social connections 5. Personal security 6. Civic engagement and governance 7. Environment 8. Subjective well-being 1. Social Justice (basic needs-housing, water, sanitation, education), distribution 2. Social Inclusion (access to local facilities and opportunities, health and safety, participation) 3. Social Capital (equitable income) 4. Social Cohesion (Pride of place, social mix, safety/trust, stability/demographic change) 1. Quality of place 2. Participation & accessibility 3. Legibility 4. Adaptability 5. Place attachment 6. Street Amenity 7. Food and economic services 8. Heritage and local culture 9. Permeability 1. Active city life (connected structures of waking, cycling, public


Development- what does it mean.

(M. Reza Shirazi, 2017)

2017 Critical reflections on the theory and practice of social sustainability in the built environment- a metaanalysis

07

squares, etc.) 2. Mix of dwellings 3. Interplay between residents, workers and visitors 4. Safe environments 5. Diversity (functions, attractions, economies, dwellings) 6. Citizen identity 7. Citizen Participation 1. Equity 2. Democracy 3. Participation and civic society 4. Social inclusion and mix 5. Social networking and interaction, livelihood and sense of place 6. Safety and security 7. Human well-being and quality of life


Part 03

“First life, then spaces, then buildings: the other way around never works.” - Jan Gehl

Structuring Built-Environments to Attain Social Sustainability Social and Physical spectrums are intrinsically inter-dependent, and this has consistently been proven in existing literature. Therefore, there is little doubt that environments designed to be conducive to cohabitation, inclusiveness, civic safety, and physical health increase overall social appeal and value of a space. Such communities are well balanced, well connected, and as a result of their multifaceted nature, they tend to fulfil most needs of people living or working within the area and even their vicinities (N. Bacon, 2012). In the following paragraphs, the roles of built-environments, urban design, and good architecture play in achieving social sustainability with respect to a few key drivers are examined through data derived from evidence studies and case studies. Social Sustainability drivers: 1. Spatial Equity 2. Social Cohesion and Social Mix 3. Public Health 4. Convenient Public Transportation

Spatial Equity in physical environments: ‘Environmental language’ that does not treat all people as spatially normal renders them illiterate and excluded from the society of that space (Bednar, 1977). Spatial Equity is the equitable distribution of economic opportunities such as jobs, equitable access to public infrastructure and amenities such as parks, equitable access to public modes of transportation and mobility. ‘Equitable’ is different from being ‘equal’ in terms of needs and demands of a certain society, due to varied demographics and social composition. For instance, a neighbourhood with higher children and senior citizen demographics may require higher percentages of public parks and entertainment spaces than one that does not. These variations are plentiful, and of a highly diverse socio-cultural nature in urban-scapes. Certain cultured and traditional societies may emphasize on the need for privacy and seclusion while other might favour interactivity among neighbours. Therefore, the spatial needs of a people must be carefully understood and designed for to attain social sustainability of that society. Although, this intricacy suggests a chaotic measure for overall social sustainability of the city, the aim must be to find an order in the chaos. In Jane Jacob’s words, “Intricate mingling of different uses in cities are not a form of chaos. On the contrary, they represent a complex and highly developed form of order.” (Jacobs, 1961)


Urban Spatial Equity must be a key consideration whilst designing for the following urban aspects: • • • • •

Amenities, Public Infrastructure and their Equitable accessibility Socio-cultural spaces Citizen Involvement in societies Inclusivity, mixed-densities, and mixed cultures Equitable access to economic opportunities through spatial planning and zoning

Social Cohesion and Social Mix As established, the social dimension of sustainability is primarily associated with ‘communities’. Urban Planning, and subsequently Urban Fabrics tend to fail when a sense of community is not achieved (Hedgehock, 1993). Since cities are the convergence of human diversity, people of varying wealth and status share a connection within the same urban boundaries. Despite common boundaries, sharp social divisions characterise most modern and developing cities. The idea of social sustainability is to bridge wide interaction gaps between people of varied wealth and cultures. Some cities are more successful than others in creating an environment conducive to this diversity-mix due to acceptability of citizens in addition to policy and physical settings (Stren, 2000). Acceptability among citizens increases through their inclusion and involvement from early planning stages. Another aspect of social cohesion is cultural sustainability which depends upon the promotion and preservation of heritage, social, and cultural stability. It is a source of identity, emits a sense of place, and promotes local cultural vitality, thereby affiliating a sense of belonging and identity to the citizens of an urban unit (Birkeland, 2012). Economic viability, relating to place branding and marketing, is also part of cultural stability through tourist and market or ‘bazaar’ attraction potential. The local ways of life and culture; eco-cultural resilience of the balance between humans and nature; and eco-cultural civilisation, based on cultural norms and ideologies, all contribute to cultural sustainability. Neighbourhoods are the fundamental building blocks that comprise the physical city and define its form and character. Since residents spend a larger portion of time in their individual neighbourhoods and often identify more strongly with those areas than with the city as a whole, the physical design of these individual communities determines, to a considerable extent, residents' quality of life (Planning, 1974). In terms of establishing a strong social cohesion between people, neighbourhoods, therefore are the basic building blocks in making a city socially cohesive. Many such neighbourhoods — as fractals— can create thriving and socio-economically productive, and sustainable communities in the city. A stand-alone feature of a sustainable community is a space wherein not only are people able to live successfully, but, people desire to live there as it adds value to their wellbeing and happiness. (Suzanne Vallance, 2011)


Public Health and the Physical Environment: Current research shows strong links between people’s overall health (mental and physical) and regular physical activity, providing evidence of a relation between human health, civic environment design, and the indirect financial costs of preventable diseases. An active lifestyle can reduce the risk of preventable disease, including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity and some cancers, and may also lower blood pressure, and prevent falls in the elderly. It is also supportive in managing mental health issues and help promote overall happiness levels in communities. According to health experts, it takes as little as thirty minutes of physical activity a day on most, preferably all days of the week, to make a difference to health and wellbeing. However, the vehicle-centred design of our streetscapes, has made our lifestyles sedentary and heavily relied on cars and other private transport modes contributing to factors of preventable health issues. For example, in Australia, 10% of all car trips are less than one kilometre (the equivalent to a 10-minute walk) and 30% of all car trips are less than three kilometres. (Australia, 2009) Built-environments can have a significant impact on person’s level of physical activity. Good design and people-friendly places can promote active lifestyles by encouraging walking, cycling, public transport and active recreation. Adversely, places designed around private motorised transport negatively affect a person’s opportunities and desire to be physically active, thereby hindering the many benefits an active lifestyle has to offer. For example, in Perth, adults who had access to large, attractive public open space were 50 per cent more likely to undertake higher levels of walking than others (B. Giles Corti, 2005). Additionally, attractive, well-designed public open space is restorative to the mind, reducing mental fatigue and stress. (C. Maller, 2005) Public health professionals and urban planners began taking seriously, the links between public health and settlement patterns, noting that individual health is in many ways related to community health, citing walking and exercise as a basic indicator for any number of public health concerns, including, but not limited to, obesity, heart and lung conditions, depression, and so on (Dobbins, 2009). Health and well-being, being one of the most common social sustainability indicators and pivotal for happiness of a society must therefore be a priority in design of civic environments and neighbourhoods in any urban setting.

Safe, Convenient Public Transit Infrastructure: Provision of a safe, accessible, well connected public transit systems such as buses, metros, subways, trams are clear indicators of progress in societies and cities. Aside from providing economic and environmental benefits, a safe and efficient transit system enables accessibility of opportunity to certain sections of society, who otherwise might not be able to afford private transport. A notable example of the social benefits through and as a result of public transport can be observed in Bogota, Columbia. During Mayor Penalosa’s first term in office (1998-2001), he sanctioned the construction of TransMilenio – Bogota’s first rapid transit system. In a report on the benefits of the transit system, World Research Institute cited increases in quality of life due to of travel time benefits, public health, environmental impacts,


and safety. The new transit system allowed people living in urban peripheries, often illegal settlers, to live along the transit route, thereby improving their access to the city, and decreasing their transportation costs. The rapid transit system was not the only transport improvement. Bicycle lanes replaced construction of wide highways, transforming the hierarchy of public space and shifting the authority over public space from the few people who could afford private vehicles at the time, to the larger civic population. (Montgomery, 2007) Mayor Penalosa, explains in his 2013 TED talk that he sought social equality through mobility: “Mobility, as most other developing country problems, more than a matter of money or technology, is a matter of equality, equity. The great inequality in developing countries makes it difficult to see, for example, that in terms of transport, an advanced city is not one where the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.�

Conclusion and Scope of Further Research Although social sustainability cannot be definitely quantifiably measured, nor its indicators standardized, its qualitative indicators can certainly be studied and implemented uniformly across rapidly urbanising cities of developing nations, especially those in the African continent and in India, where a booming growth is predicted. The following table differentiated the Non-Physical (social) and Physical attributes of social sustainability in urban environments. Non-Physical (social) Factors Education and training Social justice Participation and local democracy Health, quality of life and well-being Social inclusion

Social Capital Community Safety Mixed tenure Distribution of income Social order Social cohesion Community cohesion Social networks Social interaction Sense of community and belonging Employment Residential Stability Active community organizations Cultural traditions

Source: (Nicola Dempsey, 2011)

Physical Factors Urbanity Attractive public realm Decent housing Local environmental quality and amenity Accessibility (local services, facilities, employment and economy generation, green space Sustainable urban design Walkable neighbourhoods


Most of the discussions relating to sustainable community design, until now, has been focussed on creation of new communities from ground. Studies focussing on ‘retrofitting’ existing communities to be more socially viable are likely to be highly beneficial, given the extent of our already built infrastructure. From a literature sense, future research could take on many forms. It can concentrate on questions like, ‘How many aspects of social sustainability makes a neighbourhood or urban unit socially sustainable as a whole? ‘, and ‘How many such fractals make a city socially sustainable as a whole?’

Saba Fatima, M.Arch (Environmental Design), Jawaharlal Nehru Architecture & Fine Arts University, India


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Saba Fatima, M.Arch (Environmental Design), Jawaharlal Nehru Architecture & Fine Arts University, India

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Social Sustainability in Urban Environments  

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