8 ways to build more sustainable communities

When we introduced the topic of social sustainability for our recent #CityTalk with the Berkeley Group and Social Life , we knew that we had a challenge on our hands trying to  define that which “many a thesis has tried and failed to define”. It was clear that we needed to put many more brains together to begin to wrap our minds around ways to build and design socially sustainable communities.

Reaching over 210,000 followers, our #CityTalk on socially sustainable communities drew over 100 participants from across the world. The timing could not have been more perfect, on the eve of the launch of the report by the Berkeley Group and Social Life  entitled “Creating Strong Communities: how to measure social sustainability”. The report describes the development of a framework to measure the social sustainability of new housing and mixed-use developments, from the perspective of the housing industry.

The incredible feedback and ideas during the #CityTalk tweetchat certainly helped question and develop our understanding of social sustainability, and so we have compiled some our favourite ideas:

1. The look and feel of a socially sustainable community
Based on the responses received, it became clear that the concept and conflict of safety and openness would be essential,  and that while a sense of community spirit and identity was necessary, a community should ensure that it remains open to diversity and residents from across the city.

2. Design housing so that neighbours interact Beyond the need to provide spaces and places for people to interact across new and existing housing developments, some participants took things one step further questioning the walls between neighbours, and the roles communities should play in designing new housing. We may need to look back into the way we lived in the past, to design the way we want to live in the future,

3. Can urban design lead to happiness? It may be difficult to define what exactly entails citizen happiness in the public realm, but lighting, trees, access to amenities and beautiful spaces were popular. However, a good point raised was that the definition of happiness could vary vastly between communities across the world. For some, quality of life and well being were better measures, while in less developed communities, just having basic needs met through basic services could constitute happiness.

4. Transport infrastructure as a tool for more sustainable communities? While transport infrastructure is clearly important,  a focus on a variety of modes rather a single mode would serve residents better. Transport routes and links should also do more than connect people to the urban centre, but consider the networks that exist within communities, and help link people to destinations like libraries, museums, schools and other places of interest. Promoting high densities of housing along transport corridors is not just smart, but encourages designers of transport infrastructure to consider the social elements of mobility which can become embedded within communities.  

  5. Giving residents a voice and a stake While advances in technology and social media are major drivers for change, it is there combination with more traditional campaigns like stickers, town hall meetings and genuine engagement that really given residents a sense of a voice, and a stake in their communities. Here are some of the many many ideas which were shared.

6. Examples of socially sustainable communities?

Are there any examples around the world, which give us good case studies for further investigation of the successes of socially sustainable communities? The participants seemed hesitant to respond but IKEA, Toronto and Copenhagen made the cut, with the support of entrepreneurship being singled out as one of the defining factors which make these communities a success.

7. Building new housing that makes everybody feel safer As important as the aesthetics of new housing to give pride to residents, is the design of that housing such that the community become roleplayers in overseeing spaces and instilling a sense of safety. But innovations in technology should not be ignored either, and as one #CityTalk’er mentioned, robots may soon have a role to play too!

8. The negative impacts of community building needs a new value system

The complex topics of displacement, gentrification and renewal, which often results in communities experiencing change can be a sensitive issue to discuss. What is needed is perhaps a new set of values which prioritizes people and their livelihoods over economic gain for public bodies and other institutions. This may be seen through innovative financial support schemes, performance led zoning and community involvement in place-making.

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Rashiq Fataar

Founder and MD at Future Cape Town

Rashiq Fataar is the founder, Editor in Chief and Managing Director of Future Cape Town.