Category Archives: Social sustainability

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.

 

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.

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 http://5000plus.net.au/ – 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.

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 reincarnatedmcmansion@gmail.com.

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.”

Future proofing the new UTS library

Sydney’s University of Technology is about to undergo an exciting transformation.

With Frank Gehry on board as the starchitect of the new Faculty of Business, the process is underway to design a new high tech library, among other facilities.

Speaking with one of the staff who is instrumental in the library design process, the conversation turned to the challenge of future proofing community facilities which are being developed today. How can we begin to conceptualise how technology will transform our buildings, our urban environments, even in ten years’ time?

Along with applying flexible, adaptable, universal design principles to the process, UTS has engaged Gen Y-ers to talk about their hopes and dreams for the campus of their future. The university is conducting qualitative research with early high school students, questioning them about the kind of buildings and facilities in which they would like to study when they are older.

This is a smart approach which demonstrates the university’s willingness to learn from younger generations and its commitment to its future student population.

Genuine, open-minded engagement is one of the cornerstones of true social sustainability.  It’s great when that is recognised by established institutions.

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.