Five ways to understand social sustainability

It’s often misinterpreted or dismissed as intangible ­— but there’s nothing fluffy about it, says Helena Klintström

December 2018

Words by Helena Klintström


It’s about a lot more than coffee shops

Ecological sustainability has been around for quite some time, but social sustainability is often forgotten. Or it’s misinterpreted as just being about places for people to meet and have a coffee. A lot of municipalities struggle with social sustainability so we try to make it more graspable and concrete. One thing we can do is to link it to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals — such as ending poverty and hunger or reducing inequalities — and measure a project using those indicators.


It breaks down barriers — social and physical

So we might look at how a project could create more jobs for people who are outside the labour market or meet the housing needs of different groups. We look at the project physically too, so how to create a human scale, and orientability, wayfinding and oversight. That’s a crucial part of an environment where people feel safe. If there’s a barrier — like a freeway or a forest — we look at how that could be bridged, or how we could create activities that make it less of a barrier.


It should be fully integrated into the planning process

Another way of describing social sustainability is “social value creation”. That makes it more tangible, though of course not every value can be put into numbers. But there are many ways in which we can value social sustainability, such as improved health, feeling of safety, equal participation in public space or voter turnout. Making this known is crucial when trying to integrate social sustainability, so it’s not something pink and fluffy or something to add on when there’s extra money or a particular interest, it should be an integrated part of the urban planning process. Social sustainability maybe needs to get a bit more boring.


It’s a new field, and we need to harness landowners’ power

As this is such a new area, our ambitions are much higher than the results that can be seen physically so far. Most of the projects we could draw inspiration from are still on paper. But there are some good examples. In Sweden, there have been land allocation tenders where potential developers compete not on who can bid the highest, but on who can create the most social value at the site. I think this is a great way of using a landowner’s power to steer new development towards, let´s say, less segregation, housing that meets the needs of the population, or housing close to green space if that’s what is missing in the area.

From The Possible, issue 04

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We need to consider economics too

The next thing we need to think about is economic sustainability. Everyone talks about it as something that’s easy to define or on which everyone has the same view, but it’s absolutely not. Some people see it as project economics, others as societal gain. There are a lot of ways to look at it — who gains from a project, for example, or the long-term economic effects. These concepts are not used as much they could be in sustainability research or guidance, but I think it will come in the next five to ten years.

Helena Klintström is an urban sustainability consultant at WSP in Stockholm

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