Understanding and measuring social sustainability

Saffron Woodcraft, Co-founder & Director, Social Life

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Abstract: Social sustainability is a new strand of discourse on sustainable development. It has developed over a number of years in response to the dominance of environmental concerns and technological solutions in urban development and the lack of progress in tackling social issues in cities such as inequality, displacement, liveability and the increasing need for affordable housing. Even though the Sustainable Communities policy agenda was introduced in the UK a decade ago, the social dimensions of sustainability have been largely overlooked in debates, policy and practice around sustainable urbanism. However, this is beginning to change. A combination of financial austerity, public sector budget cuts, rising housing need, and public and political concern about the social outcomes of regeneration, are focusing attention on the relationship between urban development, quality of life and opportunities. There is a growing interest in understanding and measuring the social outcomes of regeneration and urban development in the UK and internationally. A small, but growing, movement of architects, planners, developers, housing associations and local authorities advocating a more ‘social’ approach to planning, constructing and managing cities. This is part of an international interest in social sustainability, a concept that is increasingly being used by governments, public agencies, policy makers, NGOs and corporations to frame decisions about urban development, regeneration and housing, as part of a burgeoning policy discourse on the sustainability and resilience of cities. This paper describes how social sustainability is emerging as a practice in urban regeneration in the UK and draws on Social Life’s work in improving the social outcomes of development for communities. It includes a detailed assessment of experimental work carried out in 2011 for the Berkeley Group, in partnership with the University of Reading, to develop a social sustainability measurement framework, which will enable Berkeley to evaluate community strength and quality of life in regard to new housing developments.


Keywords: Social sustainability; urban regeneration; community well-being


Saffron Woodcraft is Co-founder and Director of Social Life, a social enterprise driving innovation in place-making. Social Life focuses on improving the social outcomes of regeneration and urban development, working in the UK and internationally with communities, governments, housing providers, architects and planners. Saffron is an MPhil/PhD candidate at UCL, a member of the Academy of Urbanism and a fellow of the Young Foundation.

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