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Social Sustainability: a review

posted Oct 31, 2010, 4:55 AM by Patricia Martin   [ updated Oct 31, 2010, 7:11 AM ]

Nowadays, sustainability is acquiring a more social and less technical dimension. As I have said before, I believe that sustainability is more related to cultural and social issues than to technical advances. In fact, as environmental problems become more discussed, the scale of the scenario grows. Authors commonly agree that cities nowadays represent the specific physical context of the most important challenges of humanity. Specifically, the challenges of social justice, economic development, and environmental threatens acquire special importance in urban settlements, where a rapidly increasing number of people are concentrating. 

On one hand, the sizeable ecological footprints of urban settlements—in the European Union, buildings account for about 40% of total energy consumption—sets up changes in the way we plan cities. As reflected in Dunham-Jones and Williamson’s words: “the global urgency of reducing greenhouse gases provides the latest and most time-sensitive imperative for reshaping sprawl development patterns, for converting areas that now foster the largest everyday per capita carbon footprints into more sustainable, less auto-dependent places” (Dunham-Jones and Williamson Spring/Summer 2008, 1). 

London Futures Exhibition. London Museum 2010. Photograph: Robert Graves /Didier Madoc-Jone/Museum of London 

On the other hand, authors agree in defining cities as the highest expression of humankind. As Girard acknowledges, the city “is the form of shared organization of human life, of human relations and coordination through economic, social and political exchange; it is the reflection of values and culture” (Girard 2003, 1). Today the ecological crisis is unavoidable, but a social and cultural diversity crisis also exists that we should address. The rapid increase of population in urban settlements entails a rise in social segregation and poverty. The shift toward ecologically responsible urban development must also address the other side of the dialectical couplet that constitutes acceptable development: cultural sustainability (Radovic 2009, 10). 

Globalization is not only an economic and financial process that affects production and consumption methods, but also a cultural move that is changing lifestyles and ways of thinking (Girard 2003, 1). In the literature, globalization is presented as a double-edged phenomenon that embodies the potential for some of the most fascinating and some of the most hideous expressions of humankind. Some authors see globalization as the latest stage in a progressive evolution of humankind, while others experience it as an unfair process of steady decline, leading to a general homogeneity. I believe however, that globalization give us also the possibility to overcome these challenges by sharing knowledge and working together for a common goal. 

London Futures Exhibition. London Museum 2010. Photograph: Jason Hawkes/Museum of London 

From an ecological viewpoint, globalization has driven the world to greater consumption and more environmental degradation. Most authors agree on the terrible effects of our way of life on the environment: the greenhouse effect, holes in the ozone layer, effects on climate, disappearance of the rain forest, modification of the chemical composition of the atmosphere, fixation of solar energy, and conversion of raw materials. Our contemporary way of living is based on a vision of a world with unlimited resources and on a development centered on unrestricted economic expansion encouraged by more liberalized trade. But this supposition enters in conflict with the own world’s nature, and has led us to exceed already the capacity of earth in many aspects. 

In addition, other authors as Zamagni states that, to create sustainable environments, we should first change the way society is organized: “now is the moment to recognize that an ever increasing production of goods and services is incompatible (given the known productive techniques, the present organization of the economy and the rate of population growth) with the safeguarding of the natural and urban environment” (Zamagni 2003, 123). In fact, the cause for global climate change is not technological, but cultural. Therefore, the change should not come from the technological realm, but from a broader perspective that address the realities of our post-industrial and capitalist culture. The change should start in our unsustainable lifestyles. 

On the other hand, poverty has grown hand by hand with the development of globalization: “While increasing quantities of resources and investment are concentrated in some areas, many cities/regions are excluded and become increasingly pheripheral” (Girard 2003, 5). Globalization is encouraging a fragmented city, characterized by growing social and spatial inequalities, where the extremes are increasingly separated and the middle is disappearing. As Girard states, “an ever richer and more protected elite is in stark contrast with an increasingly less-protected majority” (Girard 2003, 6). 

A third consequence of globalization is mentioned in the literature: the homogeneity of urban development. Thus, Sim states that “regardless of local political affiliation, many cities today follow the same straegies to become important economic magnets. The result is that many new urban areas are becoming more and more uniform and corporate in their look. This tendenncy is unfortunate. Not only are cultural characteristics often lost, these kinds of developments tend to disregard important human needs” (Sim 2009, 50). Girard agrees that this standarization/homogenization of urban models extended by globalization to new neighbourhoods is causing loss of urban cultural identity (Girard 2003, 3). As a consequence, many communities are making an effort to protect their local identities so as to retain a point of difference (Adams 2009, 36). 

As previously said, cities are the centers of human activity, where people obtain the mutual benefits of living together: markets and meeting places, money and employment, services and knowledge, and skills and crafts. However, the way in which we have planned and lived in cities has led us to an unsustainable world. That is why many authors have called for a change, principally related to the use of land, integration of uses, densification, and limitation of sprawl (Girard 2003, 3; Dunham-Jones and Williamson 2008, 1). Moreover, other authors have claimed that the change should be deeper: “the journey towards the sustainable city demands a compass in the form of a solid set of guiding values, which themselves remain open to rethinking and adaptation” (Radovic 2009, 16). In addition, Peter Hall remarks that sustainable urban development should be the guiding principle for urban policy and governance (Hall 2003, 55). 

As conclusion, I would like to cite Mohsen Mostafavi’s words in the book Ecological Urbanism, as a positive, optimistic, and constructive view: 

We need to view the fragility of the planet and its resources as an opportunity for speculative design innovations rather than as a form of technical legitimation for promoting conventional solutions. By extension, the problems confronting our cities and regions would then become opportunities to define a new approach. Imagining an urbanism that is other than the status quo requires a new sensibility—one that has the capacity to incorporate and accommodate the inherent conflictual conditions between ecology and urbanism.” (Mohsen Mostafavi 2010, 17)