As the UK Government sets out its plans to accelerate housebuilding to meet soaring demand for homes in England, there is an urgent need to find ways of making sure that the new places that are created as a result of the current policy drive become the thriving communities of the future, rather than expensive mistakes. With few state resources available to boost community capacity, there is an imperative for innovation in the process of placemaking, so we can give new communities the best chance of future success.
English planning policy is based on the “presumption in favour of sustainable development”. In practice, the environmental and economic dimensions of sustainability tend to be given prominence in this, rather than the social. They are more familiar to professionals and public, largely because they are easer to describe, measure and action. Social sustainability is too often the black sheep of sustainability: it focuses on the intangibles about how people feel about the quality of their lives in local neighbourhoods, demanding an exploration of wellbeing and belonging; of the lived experience of residents and how neighbourhoods thrive as well as fail.
In 2011 the Social Life team, then at the Young Foundation, published their social sustainability framework in the report “Design for Social Sustainability”. Building on this work, Social Life have developed and tested a social sustainability measurement framework for housing developer The Berkeley Group, working with Professor Tim Dixon of Reading University.
The brief was to create a way of assessing the social sustainability – measuring the strength of community and quality of life of residents – and to test this on four Berkeley developments in London and the South East.
We constructed a measurement framework that benchmarked results of a residents survey and site survey against comparable areas, using established socio-geographic classifications, national data from government departments and research councils, and industry standard frameworks. The results reveals that, in the right circumstances, new housing can quickly create strong communities where people enjoy happier, safer and more neighbourly lives.
The results challenge the popular beliefs that new developments are less sociable and attractive places to live than older, more established communities. These stereotypes are backed up by evidence from the English New Towns, and more recent developments including Cambourne in Cambridgeshire where residents of new housing developments found the experience isolating, at the expense of their mental health.
The survey found that, relative to comparable areas, Berkeley’s residents are more likely to feel they belong in their neighbourhoods, and more likely to regularly talk to their neighbours. They plan to stay in the community longer and are more likely to feel safe.
Our work shows that it is possible to quantify social sustainability. While no one sets out to build communities that fail, the fine words often invoked about putting residents at the centre of the process of making places and building housing are easier to say than do. Although many promise to build new places that will enhance people’s quality of life, very few offer evidence about how this can be achieved.
The housebuilding industry has made significant progress in improving the environmental performance and design quality of new housing and public spaces in the past 10 years. The challenge now, for all the many stakeholders involved in creating new developments, from local authorities to communities, architects, developers and housing associations, is to build on this progress and ensure that new housing routinely creates strong communities, and that this becomes the norm, the standard that is expected.
This is work in progress. We have shown we can measure social sustainability, now we need to build on the evidence to show what works in practice. What interventions make places work better for residents, why do some places function better as communities than others? With reports of housing need and the misery is causes becoming more and more frequent in the media, the need is pressing – and is well recognised that the best innovations come from urgent need.