Category Archives: Social policy

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.

 

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.

 

Leadership and authenticity

Leadership is a great privilege because it opens the gate to the heart’s journey – it provides us with incentive to embark and remain committed to the hero’s quest. In other words, it provides us with the impetus, challenge and support we need to unlock the key to our own wellbeing, fulfilment, and highest potential.”

I came across this quote recently in a book by Margot Cairnes – Approaching the Corporate Heart. While the book’s tone may not appeal to some, it certainly set me thinking about the challenge of authenticity and commitment to an ethical and moral framework in business decision-making.

This is an area in which it’s all to easy to talk the talk, yet at times so challenging to walk the walk. The latter is often far less glamorous, headline-grabbing or profile-raising. Doing the “hard yards” can be costly in the short term, but it has the potential to pay significant dividends over the longer term.

The issue of leadership and authenticity arises on a regular basis in the fields of social planning and social research. Social impact assessment is a case in point. Evaluating and reporting on the potential negative social impacts of a new development, for example, requires a careful approach, particularly when the developer is the client. Stakeholder engagement is another sphere of work which requires thoughtful handling. Reporting back to a client on their stakeholders’ perceptions of their operational effectiveness or company values must grounded in respect for their desire to ask questions and self-reflect in the first place.

In both cases authenticity is paramount. This is all we have to stand by when it comes to the crunch. It is the fundamental basis of our professional reputation. It is also rarely black and white.

Corporate Responsibility – engagement and transparency

A new year is often a time of reflection among businesses on strategic directions and corporate goals. For many firms, sustainability – environmental, social, economic – is fast moving up the agenda.

Raised regulatory standards and consumer expectations are today demanding far more from companies than an annual CSR report and a handful of associated token initiatives. The genuine integration of sustainability within an organisation may require significant organisational change and improved stakeholder engagement.

The Centre for Social Innovation – a partnership between the Universities of New South Wales, Melbourne, Western Australia and the Swinburne University of Technology – has been undertaking research on this shift taking place in the corporate sector in recent years. Researchers Gianni Zappala and Sarah Adams’ 2010 paper, The Integration of Corporate Responsibility: Evidence from leading companies in Australia & New Zealand, considers the level of integration of sustainability principles and practices achieved to date.

The paper defines Corporate Responsibility (CR) as “understanding and minimising a company’s negative impact or footprint on society and a broad range of stakeholders including the planet and environment, its employees, the communities in which it operates and the governments which make the laws.” It utilises data from the Corporate Responsibility Index (CRI) benchmarking tool developed by Business in the Community in the UK in 2002, which is applied annually in Australia and New Zealand by the St James Ethics Centre.

The reseach found that “corporate responsibility is on the whole well integrated into the way that leading companies in Australia and New Zealand are doing business.” However it suggests that firms could improve in four key areas, including ensuring improving CR training at board level and improving the extent and quality of stakeholder engagement.

The following criteria are suggested as a measure of firms that have achieved genuine integration of CR principles:

  • Adopt a holistic conception of corporate responsibility or citizenship;
  • Have board level governance systems to oversee CR policies and practices;
  • Have senior leaders that champion CR internally and externally;
  • Have a range of structures and systems to integrate CR across the business, including risk management systems, stakeholder consultation schemes, sustainability training for managers and employees, establish and monitor key performance indicators for CR, and
  • Have an open and transparent approach to CR information disclosure (eg undertake assurance of their CR reports).

There is no denying the challenge for corporates in moving to greater levels of stakeholder engagement and associated transparency. However in many cases this is a necessary first step on the road to more sustainable, productive and profitable business. Which companies will rise to the challenge in 2011?

Gentrification, place and value

‘The deep association that people have for place constitutes a vital source of both individual and cultural identity and security and acts as a point from which humans can orientate themselves in the world.”

(Relph, E., 1981, The Modern Urban Landscape, p.27)

Urbanisation.  Historically the product of the industrial revolution and the associated mass in-migration of the “working classes,” today we are facing the re-urbanisation of our cities and all its impacts – positive and negative.

Among urban sustainability professionals, the benefits of urban living in our comparatively wealthy western world need little explanation. Walkable neighbourhoods; reduced car dependency; higher density living and smaller homes, with their associated reduced ecological footprint; opportunities for increased localised social interaction facilitated by communal rather than private open spaces.

Our cities are places of vitality, dynamism, creativity, diversity.

Diversity. It is this word that leads us to reflect on the issue of gentrification and its impacts, currently so heavily debated in cities like Sydney.

Just last week the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article highlighting the pace of gentrification in Sydney’s inner suburbs. The local government areas of Marrickville and Randwick were the most rapidly gentrified areas of Sydney during the decade to 2006.

The article arose from the publication of a new report on gentrification by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Gentrification and Displacement: The Household Impacts of Neighbourhood Change.

The report seeks to quantify the pace of gentrification in Sydney and Melbourne through analysing socio-demographic change characteristics recorded through the Census. These include the growth in the proportion of managers and professionals, high-income households, high-income renters, and people with a bachelor degree or higher. It also looked, conversely, at the decline or negligible growth in low income households and low income private renters. There is little doubt that this year’s Census will reveal more of the same, probably amplified.

As a resident of Newtown (in the LGA to which the report refers), and as an urban planner who wrote my dissertation on the gentrification of this very suburb in 1998, I have a particular interest in this report. My thesis was inspired by the genuine concern that the cultural melting pot that Newtown represented would soon be erased by the pace of gentrification that was gathering back then. That the socio-spiritual meanings woven into its physical fabric would be lost forever.

On my return from a decade living in London, in 2008, I was relieved to see that the Newtown I had loved was fighting on; its culture had not been erased.

So what exactly is the problem of gentrification? The AHURI report highlights issues such as rapidly increasing rents and house prices, associated increased overcrowding in shared houses, and the forced displacement of the neighbourhood’s historic communities – the Greek-Cypriots and Maltese (their children also unable to afford to live in the locality), the “blue collar” families, and more recent populations of low income earning creatives – actors, artists, writers.

The report states: “Those who had been evicted were often deeply angry at their enforced move. Those struggling to stay found themselves impoverished by hikes in their rents, but also feeling no longer at ease in [their] neighbourhoods.”

Over the past two years I have watched the very personal effects of this trend in Newtown. A case in point is the family down the road: the mother who had grown up in the terrace and spent her whole life there, brought up her children in the home and nursed her elderly, terminally ill mother there.  The house was recently sold from under the family’s feet by the absentee brother who inherited it. Unable to afford a home in the neighbourhood or any nearby, the family were homeless as of a week prior to their forced departure to make way for the professional couple moving in. I have no idea where they are now. The AHURI report features interviews with 30 residents who express their “significant sense of loss” at being displaced. This family’s sense of loss and disempowerment was palpable.

One of the interesting issues associated with gentrification is that the gentrifiers often do not perceive themselves as such. They identify rather with the edgy creatives, the students and the other socio-cultural groups whom they are effectively outsting.  They bemoan the impacts of the very trend of which they are a part.

Urban neighbourhoods look set to continue to be subject to these unstoppable economic forces. Yet there are ways in which the socio-cultural qualities of rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods – and, indeed, their residents – can be protected through policy mechanisms. These may include mandatory affordable housing provision in new developments, the protection of facilities such as low cost artists’ studios, and rent controls, as have been successfully enacted in New York City and other US cities for many years.

Urban and social planning policies will not slow the pace of gentrification. Indeed they more often than not encourage and facilitate it. Gentrification certainly brings benefits – revitalised retail areas, restored and protected historic buildings, infrastructure improvements which become viable due to the increased prosperity of a locality.

But good urban and social planning should also seek to mitigate gentrification’s adverse impacts. This needs to be a strong focus of government policy in Sydney’s inner suburbs, to ensure the social and economic balance sheet is carefully weighted.

This is not about social engineering. It is about ethical urban planning underpinned by principles such as the protection of equality and diversity. It is about recognising the cultural meanings embedded in our urban fabric. As Cresswell states (1996, In Place/ Out of Place: Geography, Ideology and Transgression, pp.8-9):”Value and meaning are not inherited in any space or place. Indeed they must be created, reproduced, and defended.”

The rise of social sustainability

Sustainable communities–it’s the catchphrase on everyone’s lips as 2010 draws to a close.  Companies are using it in their annual reports, developers are embracing it, the federal government has put out a policy paper on it and now the Green Building Council is not only developing a tool for it, but plans to include the concept in all its Green Star tools. But what does it mean? Does it herald a fundamental shift in the way we think about cities? Or is there a whiff of spin and greenwash about the whole conversation?

So writes journalist Lynne Blundell on an article in The Fifth Estate entitled People power and the rise of social sustainability.

The question is a valid one. The ongoing shift to environmental sustainability in our society has inevitably been accompanied by corporate greenwash in some sectors.  Most of us have seen a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report or a glossy advertisement that offers little more than rhetoric.  But as society’s awareness of the true meaning of sustainability and the imperatives for changing our behaviour grows, greenwash has become increasingly transparent.

Organisations in the corporate, government and non-government sectors are ever less able to rely on greenwash.  Successful organisations are increasingly recognised as those that treat sustainability as an integral aspect of their future planning. In the corporate sector particularly, businesses’ financial sustainability is increasingly dependent on demonstrating genuine CSR.

None of which is breaking news. But as Blundell rightly points out, the next wave upon us is the growing recognition of social sustainability – what it means and how we can seek to achieve it.

The Green Building Council of Australia‘s (GBCA) development of Green Star rating tools for new communities is a case in point.  The GBCA has now defined the five core principles for sustainable communities – liveability, economic prosperity, environmental responsibility, design excellence and governance.

As I member of the Liveability technical committee, which is charged with developing rating tools for liveable communities, the challenges of this shift are evident. How does one accurately define and measure aspects of our communities such as ‘liveability’ ‘social capital’ ‘affordability’?  At what stage of the development process should a community be rated?

The development of these tools are just one indicator of the changes afoot in the development industry. There is no doubt that social sustainability is a concept that all developers will very soon have to understand and apply. Exciting times lie ahead.