Social sustainability: a framework for design integration

Framework for socially sustainable design – the Young Foundation (2011)

Social sustainability has long suffered from perceptions of it being  a somewhat “fluffy” addendum to urban design and masterplanning processes. So it is heartening to see a growing recognition of the positive impact of rigorous and systematic social planning and social impact assessment processes in the development of our urban environments. After all, what are successful places without people?

In this context, I’m excited about the publication of an excellent new report by the UK-based Young Foundation.

Design for Social Sustainability proposes a “framework for creating thriving new communities.” The esteemed Sir Peter Hall introduces the paper with references to the social cohesion questions that arose out of the recent London riots. He in part attributes this to the problematic aspects of environmentally-expressed social divides – an issue which is increasingly prescient in Sydney’s urban landscape. Social planning does not purport to solve such issues. But effective planning requires us to be fully conscious of them, if we are to enable the creation of communities that will endure – and indeed thrive – for generations to come.

The framework proposed through the Foundation’s report (pictured) offers some excellent food for thought for planners, social planners, urban designers, architects, approvals bodies and all those in professions whose work will directly impact on the liveability of our urban environments. This paper is well worth a close read.


Business sustainability for resilience – workshop

The current economic climate across large parts of the globe has thrown up a series of issues around building resilience into business models – models that are socially as well as economically sustainable.

Terms such as “shared value,” “social return on investment” and “socially networked economy” are now heard throughout boardrooms, and management is under increasing pressure to adapt to thrive.

These issues are affecting businesses – from large corporations to small localised enterprises – in a range of ways. For the SME sector in particular, resourcing pressures demand smart approaches to change management towards improving business sustainability.

SME business owners and managers who are seeking pathways to adapt to more sustainable business practices will benefit from a forthcoming workshop on 28 & 29 March 2012, which I will be facilitating with my associates Grant Young of Zumio and Connie Comber of Re-Imagine Business.

The workshop offers SME business owners and managers with a critical overview of the following themes:

  • Business models for driving profitability are changing.
  • Customer loyalty, high performance teams and strong business networks are increasingly reliant on collaboration and building long-term relationships.
  • Businesses need to be engaged in the new socially-networked economy and that means accepting greater transparency and adopting socially-aware values and principles.
  • Clients and communities expect more of businesses today.

This workshop will provide:

  • An overview of latest trends shaping the business sector: collaboration, shared value and harnessing the power of the socially-networked economy to your advantage.
  • In-depth analysis of a series of case studies of real businesses – including Australian SMEs – that have been transformed to build resilience and achieve sustainable growth.
  • Practical tools to develop a resilience-based business strategy to drive new market opportunities.

Day one will focus on the clear trends impacting the business community, representing both risks and opportunities depending on an organisation’s preparedness. Day two (optional) will focus on specific case studies of local and international businesses that are harnessing these trends and getting ahead of the curve.

The workshop will emphasise interactive and hands-on activities to help apply the key principles and learnings that emerge from the sessions in a practical way.

Further details are available at the event booking page. We’d be delighted to hear any feedback you have on the event and outline.

You can get a 5% discount on your booking by using the discount code AEOC.

If your associates or colleagues may be interested, please access the PDF flyer containing all the details, to send around or print.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Earthships are coming to Oz

Earthship HQ in Taos, New Mexico – the concept is readily adaptable to the Australian climate


Earthships are really quite something.

The concept grew from the desert of New Mexico, where then-architect (now “biotect”) Michael Reynolds began experimenting with “radically sustainable” architecture. It’s radical in that it is entirely self-sustaining, including grey and black water reuse, which nourishes plant life of sufficient quantity to feed the household.

Without going to deeply into the technology behind it, these beautiful buildings – which are created largely from recycled materials, including tyres and bottles, and powered by the sun and wind – are now well established.

Earthship Biotecture has taken the concept to disaster zones, including through the Earthship Haiti project, where local populations learn to build the Earthships and are given blueprints for adopting techniques locally.

A Global Model Earthship has been developed: concept plans are readily available online and adaptable for almost any climate. And there are wonderful concept plans of a large-scale Earthship community – a self-sustaining mini-city.

These are now being built worldwide, including in China (a multi-storey model), Brighton in England, and there’s even a tower model ready to roll in New York City. They are notably passing local building codes in every country.

Earthship interior greenhouse design

Michael Reynolds has recently been on a speaking tour of Australia and he’s bringing the concept to fertile ground. The Sydney event, hosted by Milkwood Permaculture, was a sell-out. The potential for these to be built in Australia’s remote, climatically-challenged communities is wonderfully apparent.

Reynolds’ inspirational message is far more than environmental sustainability – although it is exceptionally, impressively, that.

These buildings are intended to be affordable for everyone. Homes can be built from $10K upwards. And for those who cannot afford the land on which to build, there is the EVE initiative – a self-sustaining community where people can lease earthships for $100 per week.

Reynolds’ message, the earthship message, is environmental, social, political.

What would it mean, he asks, for people to be able to live in entirely self-sustaining houses, which do not rely on connections to the infrastructure grid, and can be affordable enough that people don’t require a lifelong mortgage?

Earthships effectively enable people to become largely independent of prevailing political and economic conditions.

These creations have been fine tuned for the last 40 years, and it certainly feels as though their time has come.

Measuring social impact: challenge and consensus

Measuring social impact raises a range of challenges for practitioners, not least of which is the current lack of consensus on applicable tools and measures.

The University of Technology Sydney’s Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre (CCS) brought together a range of minds to examine these issues at a recent symposium. The stimulating event saw new research presented by academics and professionals in the field, including James Goodman and Jenny Onyx of the CCS, Bronwyn Batten, Senior Aboriginal Affairs Policy Officer of the NSW Department of Premier & Cabinet, and Jason Prior or the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures.

Discussions focused on the challenge of translating policy into practice and of developing systems of measurement that are effective in measuring what we intend them to measure. This is not as simple as it may seem when talking about social impact, which often encompasses intangible concepts and outcomes.

Interestingly, in the context of the broad range of sectors represented on the day, from fisheries to human services, and across the government, not-for-profit and private sectors, there was broad consensus around some of the issues associated with developing effective measurement tools:

  • Lack of agreement on applied tools and frameworks, creating barriers to comparative measurement across organisations and sectors.
  • Application of frameworks that are primarily quantitative in structure and which provide little or no opportunity for recording qualitative data and “storytelling” – so essential in the sphere of social impact.
  • Achieving agreement around key performance indicators, which may, for example, result in organisations being required to report to funding bodies on measures determined by those funding bodies, but which are perceived by the subject organisation to be ineffective in capturing the right or most valuable data.
  • Associated with the above, issues arising when data collection and recording frameworks are perceived to be unreflective of an organisation’s true purpose. This may lead to the development of dual or parallel measurement frameworks, ie. an internal unofficial framework used for organisational development purposes, and an external  framework used for official reporting requirements. Such an outcome is ineffective resource-intensive.
  • The importance of distinguishing between “outputs” and true “outcomes” or “impacts,” and of capturing the latter through measurement processes.
  • Resourcing requirements for effective data collection and recording associated with social impact assessment among service delivery organisations, and the need for external advisory and internal capacity building.

Ultimately, the symposium enabled an exciting exploration of the opportunities for the future of social impact measurement.

It was passionately acknowledged among attendees that these challenges offer rich possibilities for the future – one in which the practice of measuring social impact is respected as a valid and critical technical process and discipline. Achieving this recognition will require practitioners to work collaboratively to develop a degree of consensus around the meaning and application of measurement tools and techniques.


Urban inspiration at Bike Tank

Collaborative inspiration at Bike Tank (photo: Mal Booth)

It’s a precious gift to feel supremely energised and inspired at 9am on a Tuesday morning. And that’s the gift the innovative Bike Tank – “a think tank that you cycle to” brought to me and no doubt quite a few other Sydney-siders this sunny spring morning.

Wandering into the workshop in the big, fab old Chippendale warehouse was like wandering into a little slice of Berlin or Amsterdam – Sydney style. We have u.lab to thank for Bike Tank: that’s Joanne Jakovich, Jochen Schweitzer, Julie Jupp, Wayne Brookes and Nathan Kirchner.

The concept is this:

BikeTank is a weekly intensive workshop where we play with new design thinking methods for cities. Each Tuesday morning (8-9am) is an intensive exploration into a defined topic hosted by emerging design entrepreneurs and leading thinkers, contributing to a bigger picture project. You can have some coffee and pastries and even get your bike tyres pumped and swap bike stories.

This morning’s Tank was all about humanising urban design processes. First we heard from Ben Hewett, South Australia’s Government Architect and Director of – an exciting inner Adelaide urban renewal initiative based on principles of collaborative inquiry and integrated design.

Then off we all went with our hand-crafted “thinking caps” on (’twas a joy to behold some of those whacky contraptions!) and workshopped a series of urban problems. These included how to create flexible student housing with more spaces for social interaction, to break down the isolation often experienced by international students. Another looked at building better social and physical infrastructure for apartment-dwellers to connect with each other and share their lives.

Re-imagining urban interaction (photo: Mal Booth)

It was a creative process, which challenged the brain cells while being fun, tactile and very hands-on. A short burst of collaborative learning fueled by excellent coffee and pastries.

Tackling public transport challenges at last week’s Bike Tank (photo: Mal Booth)

Well done u.lab for a great concept that brings together students, architects, urban designers, engineers and creative thinkers of all persuasions. I think we all learnt a great deal from each other this morning and I can’t wait for the fourth Bike Tank in a couple of week’s time.


Community engagement – with a twist

Shiny, happy posters: community consultation can be enjoyable

Here’s a lovely example of community enagement, courtesy of my partner’s recent trip to his Toronto hometown.

The posters inform the community that the neighbourhood is undergoing an “extreme makeover” – no doubt involving construction noise, traffic impacts and disruption in their “favourite neighbourhood.”

But the tone is happy and upbeat in its warm appeal: “Let’s get through this together.”

It shows how community consultation can be a positive experience – if approached with creativity and sensitivity.

Too often, stakeholder engagement is seen as a risk or unnecessary expense in development planning processes: “We just don’t want to open up a can of worms” being a common refrain.

But genuine and open engagement can bring real benefits, enabling positive new connections between clients and communities which may endure well beyond the formal engagement process.

100 days on… where’s the vision Minister?

Planning Minister Brad Hazzard’s first 100 days in office have been an eventful time for the planning and development sector.

The State Department has seen a merger of plannning and infrastructure functions and a renaming along those lines. Major legislative instruments have been overturned or dramatically amended. Arguably the most high profile (and controversial) of which is the former Part 3A of the Environmental Planning & Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act), which governed developments deemed to be of state significance, effectively shifting them out of local councils hands.

Second only to Part 3A has been the overhaul of the state planning policy governing the development of affordable rental housing. This too has affected a shift in the balance of power in decision-making back to local councils.

Next on the cards, we are told, is a revised Part 3A, a new affordable housing policy, and a whole new legislative instrument governing planning across the state, with the rewrite of the EP&A Act.

The Minister wasted no time in introducing these procedural changes, on the back of firm election promises. Playing out in the background are headlines associated with the former government’s apparent misuse of power and procedural loopholes. There are the corruption allegations levelled against the former planning minister and senior bureaucrats in relation to procedures for the purchase of prime riverside land – the now infamous Currawong former Union retreat at Pittwater.

Major developments such as the proposed $1.5bn, 7,500-home Huntlee scheme near Branxton are also being hamstrung by the legislative changes, leaving the development consortium with no option but to go back to the drawing board. Such forced retreats to the drawing board by developers are happening across the sector.

But the minister’s strong message to Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA), when he addressed the NSW Chapter recently, is that “NSW is open for business.”  That his government is intent on overturning the bureaucratic obstacles to development that have branded the state a difficult place to do business. (It’s hard to see how returning more power to local councils will achieve that… but that’s for another time).

But amidst these procedural reshuffles and kerfuffles, the Minister’s policy stance on critical issues of the day, such as urban renewal, affordable housing, densification, greenfield land release, and social and environmental sustainability, remains shrouded in mystery.

It’s great to see moves towards better integration of planning and infrastructure functions. But where does this government stand on the urban densificiation versus managed urban sprawl debate? What are the Minister’s views on Sydney’s growing housing affordability crisis, and the market failure which is resulting in first time buyers increasingly being pipped at the post by investors?

Of course, planning and development professionals will warmly welcome the replacement of the three decades-old legislation under which we are currently operating.  But without proper understanding of the policy platforms upon which a new instrument will be based, the path ahead remains cloudy and uncertain.

Let’s hear more about policy and less about procedure, Mister Hazzard. Where’s your inspirational vision for our state’s future development?

Democracy is not a free ride

The following words were spoken by Sean Penn, playing US diplomat Joe Wilson in the movie Fair Game (2010), which is based on a factual story. Penn/Wilson was addressing students following the leaking of the identity of his wife Valerie Plame. As you may recall, the career of Plame – a CIA operative – was destroyed after her identity was exposed by a politically motivated press leak in the run-up to the second Iraq War.

The speech inspired me to blog. It’s such a great reminder of our individual responsibilities as citizens in a democratic society, to be informed, to ask questions:

The offence that was committed was not committed against me. It was not committed against my wife. It was committed against you. All of you.

Now if that makes you angry or feel misrepresented, do something about it.

When Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall just after the second drafting [of the Declaration of Independence], he was approached by a woman on the street, who said: “Mr Franklin, what manner of government have you bequeathed us?”

And Franklin said: “A Republic madam. If you can keep it.”

The responsibility of a country is not in the hands of a privileged few. We are strong and we are free from tyranny, only as long as each one of us remembers his or her duty as a citizen.

Whether it’s to report a pothole at the top of your street, or lies in the State of the Union address, speak out, ask those questions. Demand that truth.

Democracy is not a free ride.

McMansion mash-up

An inspiring story which has come about through Taronga Zoo’s Green Grants program… it goes something like this:

Step one: Take one McMansion

Step two: Deconstruct it

Step three: Reuse the building materials to build a bunch of smaller, eco-friendly homes on the site.

This wonderful Reincarnated McMansion concept by architect and artist Mathieu Gallois is shortlisted to win the $50K prize in Taronga Zoo’s Green Grants initiative. It was one of 209 entries in the scheme, which focused on “reducing pollution and waste, guiding consumerism to socially and environmentally responsible products, providing local habitat for important Australian species and developing monitoring mechanisms for environmental action and progress.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, “McMansion” has become common parlance for those oversized Aussie homes (now the largest in the world, on average, in square metre terms)the ones built to a single, primary specification: cram as much floorspace onto the site as is humanly possible. Needless to say many of these ginormous edifices are obscenely under-occupied.

I use the term obscene because Sydney – among other Australian cities – is currently facing a chronic housing shortage and associated affordability crisis. The proliferation of McMansions is a symptom of poorly managed urban growth. This has a range of detrimental social impacts, not least among them the ever increasing journey-to-work times faced by those who are forced to the urban fringe in a bid to find affordable housing.

But the question of the social and economic drivers for this trend, and its associated impacts, is best left for another time.

The key question for Mr Gallois is the environmental effects of McMansions. The Reincarnated McMansion concept is a brilliant way to raise awareness of the ecological footprint of these elephant-homes, and to create something positive in the process.

All Mr Gallois needs now is someone to donate a suitable home and the funds to finance the rebuild of a low carbon, medium density scheme on the site. Any volunteers with a spare supersized home should contact Mr Gallois at

Power to the people? Balancing state significant development and localised community interests

As the state of New South Wales looks forward to a change of government on March 26, one question on the lips of those working in the development sector is what the incumbents plan to do about Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979.Introduced in 2005 by former planning minister Craig Knowles, Part 3A applies to projects deemed of economic, environmental or social significance to the state. It enables decisions on major projects to be made by the state planning minister, thereby taking them out of the hands of traditional local government decision-makers and their communities.

In the government’s words (PDF): “The aim is to facilitate major project and infrastructure delivery and encourage economic development, while strengthening environmental safeguards and community participation.”

An opposing view, expounded by the Environmental Defender’s Office in their paper on the issue, entitled Technocratic Decision-Making and the Loss of Community Participation Rights:

“Increasingly, however, the NSW Government is moving away from the recognition that local communities have relevant expertise and interests in planning outcomes; that decision-makers sometimes get it wrong; and that preservation of the environment sometimes outweighs the importance of economic growth. The introduction of Part 3A by the Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment (Infrastructure and Other Planning Reform) Act 2005 reflects the philosophy that “Government knows best” and the idea that planning decisions are technical matters that do not gain from substantial community involvement.”

There is a balance to be sought in relation to major infrastructure development. Few will deny the powerful force of NIMBYISM (Not-In-My-Backyard-ism) in hampering critical development, and the associated imbalance between development outcomes which are beneficial to the few, rather than in the wider public interest.  Conversely, communities feel threatened by a mechanism which appears to bypass local democratic interests.

In support of Part 3A, there are clear benefits in providing for development to be determined by a single higher authority in the case of major schemes that often cut across a number of local government areas, each with their own political agenda and localised interests.  Major successful regeneration schemes in Sydney, such as in Darling Harbour and Ultimo-Pyrmont, could not have been achieved through traditional local planning channels. In those cases, development authorities were specifically created for the task.

It is unlikely that the incumbent government will give up a mechanism which provides it with the power to achieve significant scale development without getting bogged down in local politics.

The solution is likely to be a fresh mechanism for major development. The Urban Development Institute of Australia, through its Let’s Build a Better NSW election campaign, is lobbying for a mechanism which allows for state significant development to be determined at the state government level, but through the Planning and Assessment Commission, rather than by the minister.

The stigma around the current system raises important questions about the level of influence local communities have in decision-making around major infrastructure and other projects. Local democratic processes are fundamental to our society. Yet ultimately, we elect our state governments to act in the wider public interest, sometimes at the expense of localised community interests.