What does social sustainability really mean?

Social sustainability, like wellbeing and resilience, is a relatively new field of policy and practice. Academics and practitioners vary in how they emphasis different aspects of the overall concept. Different interpretations include communities people want to live in, that pull together, that are safe, that function well, offer the amenities we need and want to enjoy, that enhance life, that respect and reflect our individuality and privacy, that reflect our identities, values and those of the community as a whole, and are to some extent within our control to adapt to temporary uses and changing needs over time.  

However, how can we be sure that these ideas are exhaustive and include the factors of importance to communities as well as to researchers? Progress can be made pooling the collective wisdom of a decade of acacemic research and learning from work that has shown what people value from successful, social communities. This is the approach we have taken in The Berkeley Group project: synthesising social theory and contemporary thinking in urban design, with elements of the main national longitudinal social surveys previously found to relate wellbeing to successful community living.

Berkeley are pioneering a practical approach to measuring social sustainability. We cannot yet be sure that drawing on existing literature and established measures of wellbeing and quality of life are sufficient to measure social sustainability. That is why in this project we have painted with broad brush stokes a measurement framework that measures a range of key factors, to cover as much ground as possible.

We should treat this work as a first step and the most advanced to date, but a first step only nonetheless.  Within the large set of data we have collected for this project patterns are present which will tell us what social sustainability means to residents and may challenge our interpretations and existing ideas about social sustainability. The next stage should be to interrogate this data and investigate the correlations between questions to understand from the survey respondents what social sustainability means to them.

There is still a long way to go - as with any new endeavor - to fully understand complex social constructs like socials sustainability. However, this project has moved our understanding of social sustainability forward.  


This blogpost was written by Dr John Brown who carried out the statistical analysis and survey design for The Berkeley Group work