Design for social sustainability

Skills in physical design are well in advance of skills in social design. Lessons from the past show when pressure is high to deliver high numbers of new homes, wider social issues become lower priority. This is particularly the case when the design solutions are to achieve future preventative outcomes.

Click here to read our new paper: Design for Social Sustainability.

The long-term consequences are significant. New communities need good quality social infrastructureGlossary: refers to the range of activities, organisations and facilities supporting the formation, development and maintenance of social relationships in a community and local services, support for community development and engagement, opportunities to get involved in local decision making and shared spaces and activities. Without these social supports new settlements struggle to become cohesive and sustainable living communities, with a sense of place, belonging and identity.

The new section of the website draws together evidence and practical experience from a wide range of sources to make the case for the importance of social design in helping new communities to flourish, and the long term costs and consequences of not providing these supports. It covers four main themes: amenities and social infrastructure, social and cultural life, voice and influence and space to grow.

If new places do not become successful communities, the risk for the future grows: of managing the consequences and costs of failure. Social design is an issue of public value as well as resident satisfaction. New business models are needed to support investment in social infrastructureGlossary: refers to the range of activities, organisations and facilities supporting the formation, development and maintenance of social relationships in a community at the early stages of new communities, and over the long-term.

Defining Social SustainabilityGlossary: The Young Foundation argues that social sustainability should be seen as “a process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work.  Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.”

A key piece of research in this field done by The Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development (OISD) defines Social SustainabilityGlossary: The Young Foundation argues that social sustainability should be seen as “a process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work.  Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.”

as:

“Concerning how individuals, communities and societies live with each other and set out to achieve the objectives of development models which they have chosen for themselves, also taking into account the physical boundaries of their places and planet earth as a whole.”
(Colantonio, A, and Dixon, T (2009) Measuring Socially Sustainable Urban Regeneration in Europe, (OISD).

The Young Foundation argues that social sustainabilityGlossary: The Young Foundation argues that social sustainability should be seen as “a process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work.  Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.”

should be seen as:

“a process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work. Social sustainabilityGlossary: The Young Foundation argues that social sustainability should be seen as “a process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work.  Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.”

combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.”

Lessons from the UK New Towns and more recent new communities and developments has shown that ignoring the social dimensions of new places and the voices and opinions of residents can lead to long-term problems and a spiral of decline. Among them are poor quality design of public realm as well as buildings that quickly becomes a financial burden, poor transport connections that create isolation and prevent people from accessing local jobs, inflexible housing stock in terms of both type and tenureGlossary: refers to the ownership status of a household’s property that makes it hard to attract and retain residents and a lack of opportunities for residents to influence planning and development decisions resulting in inflexible and inadequate local facilities. The social and economic costs associated with these mistakes are considerable.

New towns, communities and settlements are being created around the UK to meet new demand for housing. Ambitious house building programmes are underway and in the pipeline. Yet there is a fear that the drive for large scale development, pressures on the public purse and the challenges of brokering and managing relationships between public bodies and developers, will lead to broader issues of social success being overlooked.

The new section of the website, 'Design for social sustainabilityGlossary: The Young Foundation argues that social sustainability should be seen as “a process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work.  Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.”

', will help to build a practical understanding of what can be done to encourage the most appropriate local mix of social engagement, networks, mutual support, public institutions, leadership and shared identities, as well as the other key factors that contribute to success.


The four main themes covered in the new section are:

amenities and social infrastructure

social and cultural life

voice and influence

space to grow