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This is a guest blog by Tim Dixon, Professor of Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment at the School of Construction Management and Engineering, University of Reading. Tim will be speaking at an upcoming conference at the RSA on developing socially productive places.

The debate over Garden Cities and the recent announcement of Ebbsfleet, alongside the development of Eco Bicester, is another part of the long journey we are making to tackle the acute shortage of homes we have in Britain. To put this into perspective, in order to meet current projected population increases and shortfalls from previous years that we face as a nation, somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 extra homes a year are needed for the next 20 years. This will require a huge effort from the government, planners and development and construction industry if we are to succeed.

Urban regeneration and development still has a key role to play in helping create and redesign communities which do make a difference to peoples’ lives and provide them not just with housing but also a sense of belonging. Thinking around these concepts isn’t new. Early planners such as Patrick Geddes and Ebenezer Howard recognised the importance of linking people and place; in fact it was Howard who posed the question ’where will the people go?’

Dixon - graphic

This question is still being asked more than a century later, alongside questions as to how to create places that are truly sustainable in environmental, economic and social terms. We are also trying to come to terms with a planning system which is under a critical spotlight, as radical changes in market-led planning and localism start to gain traction under the Coalition government, and as the NPPF stresses, we need to take account of the social role of development.

Social sustainability, however, has often been seen as the poor cousin to environmental and economic sustainability, perhaps because of the difficulty of measurement, but also because people saw a trade-off between social progress and environmental impact. Today the new planning regime; a focus on corporate responsibility by the development industry; and the fact that communities matter across the political spectrum, have all placed social sustainability much higher up the agenda.

Social Sustainability

‘Social sustainability [is] about people’s quality of life, now and in the future. Social sustainability describes the extent to which a neighbourhood supports individual and collective well-being. It combines design of the physical environment with a focus on how the people who live in and use a space relate to each other and function as a community’.

However, creating socially productive places for people still faces two big challenges:


  • Defining the role of planning more clearly. There is a notorious and oft-quoted statistic which suggested that planning delays ‘cost’ £3bn pa. However, there is now an increasing focus on assessing the true social and economic impacts of planning. Planning has evolved from the strong interventionist policies in the post-war period to a more local, market-led approach that we see today. This places a strong focus on shaping markets through an economic growth agenda, but also has a role in stimulating capacity in local areas. But in terms of impacting on the best design outcomes of places, planning has perhaps been much less successful.
  • Measuring social sustainability. Defining it is relatively easy (see Box 1). Measuring it in a coherent and consistent way is more challenging, although  we have seen recent examples of successful metrics in the housing industry, riding on the back of better census data and improved statistics, and a clearer sense of ‘place-keeping’ (or long term stewardship) amongst both local authorities and developers. Despite this there are limited examples of applying measurement systems ‘downstream’ to assess whether places have really delivered on their social sustainability.

We need to find more consistent ways of measuring social sustainability therefore, but also find ways for the planning and the development industry to work together in creating and maintaining socially productive places in existing communities. To paraphrase Ebenezer Howard, wherever the people do go they will need to be in socially productive places which are liveable, resilient and sustainable, and we need better-defined measures to assess the success of those places in being socially productive.

The RSA conference on April 2, 2014 brings together leaders from policy and practice in the built environment to consider how public and private investment can best contribute to social and economic productivity, and strengthen local communities. Following the conference a paper will be released in Summer 2014.


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