1 Social sustainability: Towards some explanation

Taimaz Larimian, University of Otago, New Zealand

Over past few decades, social sustainability has been increasingly influencing urban policy, housing, and the planning of cities all over the world. Specifically, in recent years, social sustainability has gained increased attention as a fundamental component of sustainable development. However, despite the passage of almost one and a half decades since its first introduction as the third pillar of sustainable development in a European Council (EC) meeting in 2000, social sustainability is still struggling to find its position in the sustainable development agenda. Since 2000, relatively less consideration has been given to the social dimension of sustainable development in comparison to environmental and economic dimensions (Burton, 2000; Colantonio & Lane, 2007; Drakakis-Smith, 1995), which means that there is still limited understanding of what constitutes social sustainability and how it might be achieved.

There is no broadly accepted approach for defining, measuring and analyzing social sustainability as a multi-dimensional concept and surprisingly, there is still no agreement on which criteria should be considered when assessing this concept (Bramley, Dempsey, Power, & Brown, 2006; Dempsey, Bramley, Power, & Brown, 2011; Littig & Griessler, 2005). Indeed, as long as the social dimension of sustainable development lacks its distinct definition from economic or environmental sustainability, it cannot present its own models of practice. Despite these difficulties, some researchers have attempted to define social sustainability.

One of the most common definitions of social sustainability is to provide sensible and equitable distribution of both physical and social resources for people; physical resources like shelter, food, clean water etc. and social resources such as participation in decision making processes, information, transparency of actions, freedom of speech, etc. For this group of researchers, social sustainability is associated with decision-making processes and can only be attained if development practice and participatory planning is introduced in the society (e.g. Burton, Jenks, & Williams, 2003; Choguill, 2008; Haapio, 2012).

Within the urban literature, social sustainability debates have largely been separated from the environmental discussions. A good example is in the definition presented by Yiftachel and Hedgcock (1993, p. 140) as “the continuing ability of a city to function as a long-term viable setting for human interaction, communication and cultural development”. They introduce the socially sustainable city as the one marked by a common sense of belonging, solidarity and vitality among its residents. This definition discusses social sustainability both in terms of individual quality-of-life issues as well as in terms of the collective functioning of society. Affected by the earlier definition of Yiftachel and Hedgcock, Polèse and Stren (2000, p. 15_16) provide a definition of social sustainability with a special focus on urban environments as “development (and/or growth) that is compatible with harmonious evolution of civil society, fostering an environment conductive to the compatible cohabitation of culturally and socially diverse groups while at the same time encouraging social integration, with improvements in the quality of life for all segments of the population”. Their definition emphasises the physical environment (e.g. public spaces, urban design and housing) within the sustainability. They also highlight the importance of the economic (development) and social (social integration, cultural diversity and civil society) dimensions of urban sustainability.

In this line, Chiu (2003) refers to social sustainability as improvement and maintenance of the well-being of current and future generations. She identifies three different interpretations of what theorists view social sustainability to encompass. The first of these interpretations is one in which social sustainability is equated with ecological sustainability. This means that in order for an activity to be socially sustainable, it must maintain the current social structure, value and the like, as these constitute social limitations just as the environment contains ecological limitations. The second interpretation is an environment-oriented approach whereby social sustainability refers to “the social conditions necessary to support ecological sustainability” (2003, p.224). The third and final one is a people-oriented approach which emphasises social cohesion and inclusion, requiring inequalities in access to resources to be righted.

In 2011, Vallance, Perkins and Dixon continue Chiu’s work by making a clearer distinction between what Chiu calls ‘ecological sustainable development’, ‘social norms’ and ‘equitable distribution of opportunities and resources’. In their study, Vallance et al. (2011) present a tripartite definition of social sustainability as ‘development social sustainability’ with its concerns about inequity and poverty, ‘maintenance social sustainability’ which addresses the preservation of socio-cultural practices and patterns in the context of economic and social change, and ‘bridge social sustainability’ which refers to the behavioural changes in order to achieve bio-physical environmental goals. They argue that these distinctions between the different types of social sustainability are often underestimated, overlooked or ignored in the literature (Vallance et al., 2011).

More recently, Chiu’s points are reflected by Dempsey, Brown, and Bramley (2012) studies, which have further defined urban social sustainability as “the continuous ability of a city to function as a viable, long-term setting for cultural development, human interaction and communication” (2006, p.16). Their analysis of urban social sustainability emphasises two overarching dimensions at the core of the notion of social sustainability as: ‘social equity’ with particular reference to access to opportunities and services; and ‘sustainability of community’. The former dimension is concerned with the notion of social justice, urging the equitable distribution of resources in society in order to provide fair access to local services, housing and jobs. The second concept is linked to the continuing functioning and viability of society as a collective entity.

As is clear from the above, there is no specific definition for social sustainability and each researcher defines the concept with some specific dimensions. There have been very few researchers who have defined social sustainability as an autonomous dimension of sustainable development. As a result, the concept of social sustainability has often been oversimplified or under-theorised in existing theoretical and empirical constructs. Back in 2003, Burton et al. note that the main reason that the social dimension of sustainability has received such limited attention is because it is hard to define, let alone to quantify. Also, a study by Colantonio and Lane (2007) shows that there is limited literature specifically focusing on social sustainability, while there is much broader literature focusing on the overlapping concepts of social cohesion, social capital, social equity and social inclusion (Haapio, 2012). Yet one decade later, Axelsson et al. (2013) argue that what social sustainability means still remains unclear and needs more investigation.

Overall, while a social dimension of sustainability is extensively accepted, the exact meaning of it has not been very clearly defined or agreed (Vallance et al., 2011). As a multi-dimensional concept, social sustainability is facing an underlying question of ‘what does it mean by social dimension of sustainable development?’, which has variety of possible answers, with no consensus over the exact definition of the concept(Ancell & Thompson-Fawcett, 2008). For these reasons, it can be concluded that research is urgently required to clarifying the social sustainability concept through identifying its constitutive indicators.


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Author Biography

Taima LarimianTaimaz Larimian is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Otago. Taimaz completed her master’s studies in Urban Planning at University of Science and Research in Iran. Her research interests lie in the area of urban security, social sustainability and the relationship between urban form and social sustainability. For her PhD studies she works on Modelling the Relationship between Urban Form and Social Sustainability in New Zealand cities. Taimaz has attended several international conferences and published some papers in journals. She has won the IRDR Young Scientist Bursary from University College London (UCL) for her research on urban security in 2012. One of her recent papers is ‘Developing a fuzzy AHP model to evaluate environmental sustainability from the perspective of Secured by Design scheme’ which was published in the journal of sustainable cities and society.

Contact email: taimaz.larimian@postgrad.otago.ac.nz

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