Too Big To Fail? Why Cities Need to Rethink Sustainability

This article was first published by Urban Times in March 2012.

The UN forecasts that today’s urban population of 3.5 billion [as of 2010] will rise to nearly 5 billion by 2030; where three out of five people will live in cities. The development of new cities, towns and urban communities is underway on an unprecedented scale. In Europe, 32 new towns are being created across 11 countries. In China, new cities are being created up from Kunming to Shanghai in response to mass migration to urban areas. Anthony Elvey, director of Cisco’s Expo pavilion, said in 2010 that “there will be at least 100 new cities with a minimum population of 1 million each being built in China in the next three years.” Incheon Development Area, just outside Seoul, plans to house 200,000 people by 2020; while in Delhi, four new satellite cities, including Gurgaon, are being created to deal with overcrowding and to cater for India’s growing middle classes.

Asia alone has 16 megacities with a population of more than 10 million, including Mumbai, Karachi, Dhaka and Jakarta. Such large scale population growth creates particular challenges for cities trying to build sustainable communities and cope with overcrowding, pressure on housing and transport systems, climate change and ageing societies. UN surveys indicate that one billion people, one-seventh of the world’s population, now live in shanty towns, and, by 2030, approximately 1 billion people in the world will be living in slums, with the associated problems of poor sanitation, access to healthcare and education.

Meanwhile, the number of households in England is projected to increase by nearly 5.8 million between 2008 and 2033. There is already a backlog of more than half a million families needing rented social housing who are currently homeless, or living in overcrowded, or otherwise, unsuitable housing. Four new eco-towns have been proposed – with sustainability at their core – and a number of strategic growth areas identified, to increase housing supply to 200,000 homes a year by 2016.

Past experience, in the UK and internationally, shows that that unrealistic aspirations for new cities and communities often end in disappointment and failure.  High profile failures include the banlieues of Paris, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, Broadwater Farm in north London and Park Hill in Sheffield – which is currently being redeveloped at a cost of £146 million. Some developments, like the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, USA, and Fountainwell Place in Glasgow, have been demolished and replaced. The Heygate Estate in London’s Elephant and Castle, once a home to over 3,000 people, was knocked down in May 2011. This cost approximately £8.5 million to demolish and £35 million to rehouse the residents. These figures do not reflect the social cost to the community of two decades of living with crime, anti-social behaviour, poor housing and a reputation for being one of the capital’s ‘worst estates’.

With the majority of the world’s economies struggling, few, if any, countries can afford for the next generation of new cities and urban neighbourhoods to fail. Managing the long-term costs and consequences of urban decline and failure is an issue of public value and political accountability. But while the financial costs of failure are high, the social costs are higher.

So, what does urban social sustainability look like and where are the people in the sustainability debate?

For the past three years the Young Foundation, and now its new venture Social Life, have been exploring what makes some communities thrive and others fail. Working with the Homes and Communities Agency, Peabody Trust, and a group of local and city governments in the UK and Scandinavia, we have looked at the experience of urban, suburban and rural communities, with the aim of understanding what social sustainability means in different contexts. Some were long-established and grew organically; others were large scale planned New Towns. Our starting point was that much more is known about how to construct infrastructure and a high quality built environment, than is known about the social life of cities – what makes a dynamic, resilient and adaptable urban population.

The work had three aims: first, to bring together what is known about thriving communities – what people want, what they need, what works and what doesn’t. Second, to look for patterns in the experience of communities that have failed and examine some of the common ideas and theories about failure – Was it the architecture? Was it lack of jobs? Did people feel scared and not trust their neighbours? Third, to explore how and where it is possible for social sustainability to be planned and designed into cities, much like environmental sustainability is planned into buildings, services and organisations.

We found that if you ask what urban sustainability looks like with people in the picture – not just the wealthiest residents, but the middle and low-income individuals and families too – then a very different idea of what cities need to flourish emerges. Clearly, access to jobs, education, healthcare and good quality housing, infrastructure and built environment are priorities. Although conventional definitions of sustainable development take account of the economy, they tend to do so from a citywide rather than a neighbourhood-based perspective, and are often unable to take account of the challenges involved in connecting specific communities to job opportunities. Education, healthcare and housing however, while figuring in government assessments of social need, are rarely factored in to discussions about the sustainability of places.

Beyond this however, there are various factors that contribute significantly to individual and neighbourhood well-being, and by extension, to deprivation and disadvantage if they are not taken into account. Social capital – or access to networks of family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, authority figures, sources of power – is the most widely recognised, although few public agencies really understand how to create the conditions to support and encourage local social groups and networks to flourish. Other social dimensions of sustainability: equity, inclusion, participation, involvement, and the importance of having a sense of belonging, are frequently overlooked in the current, ecological definition of sustainable cities, in spite of much evidence from policymakers, governments, practitioners and academics about what communities need in order to flourish.

There are other challenges with putting this thinking into practice. Social sustainability cannot be prescribed in the same way as standards for environmental sustainability; it requires planners, local agencies and developers to consider and respond to local needs and circumstances. Every community is different so understanding what different cities and urban neighbourhoods need and aspire to is difficult to predict and equally hard to measure.

Yet I believe it is possible to define, understand, and therefore, to design cities that can be sustainable and successful places for people, as well as being planned and engineered to minimize resource use. It requires a new way of thinking about what sustainability means and a new set of tools and approaches to creating the next generation of urban communities.

Post by Saffron Woodcraft, Founding Director, Social Life.