Tag 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.

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?

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.