The Green Dividend of Social Sustainability

Freya Kristensen is the most recent addition to our Affiliated Researcher Program.  A PhD candidate in the department Geography at Simon Fraser University and a researcher with the SFU Centre for Sustainable Community Development, her work examines how international municipal sustainability networks influence policy learning around sustainability.

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Why are cities around the world embracing the concept of sustainability? Why are they branding themselves as ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ cities, creating sustainability offices, and joining international sustainability networks?

When I first began my PhD work on urban sustainability, I took a rather cynical view of cities’ motivations. I thought it was all perhaps just a marketing ploy; a way to draw attention to the city and attract investment dollars. There is little doubt that cities’ engagement with sustainability is at least partly motived by a desire to draw that kind of attention and investment.

Sustainability has been inextricably linked to ‘liveability’ after all. Scoring green points on something like the Mercer Quality of Life survey, for example, can help boost your overall ranking. And high marks for ‘liveability’ often translate to higher real estate prices.

But is that it? Curious, I wanted to explore what concrete policies lay behind cities’ often vague declarations around sustainability.

Beyond Skin-Deep Sustainability

The concept of sustainability is based around three key aspects or ‘pillars’: the environmental, the social, and the economic. Sustainability requires that each of these three areas be taken into account when making decisions or setting policies. But generally environmental sustainability receives the most attention.

In many ways, it is perhaps the easiest aspect of sustainability for governments to address through policies that encourage biking and transit use or through actions such as installing recycling bins on streets or retrofitting buildings to reduce GHG emissions. These are policies that are immediately visible and have concrete results. But what about social and economic sustainability?

For my research I opted to focus on the social aspect of sustainability because of its ambiguity: how do you even define what social sustainability is? What are we trying to sustain? Which social values? My hypothesis is that the cities undertaking this complex and difficult concept must also be the ones more dedicated to sustainability goals more broadly.

Tracing Social Sustainability & Network Learning

I’ve chosen to investigate those questions by looking at the way that urban sustainability networks help define what counts as “sustainability.” The number of city sustainability networks has grown dramatically over the last twenty years. My goal is to analyze how these networks balance the three pillars of sustainability. Do they focus exclusively on the environmental aspects of sustainability or are social and economic sustainability also featured?

That is where Sustainable Cities International comes into play. SCI is one of five case study networks I chose to focus on in my research and it was the first one I started investigating. After interviewing several members of SCI it became clear that one of the factors that drew them to the network was its more holistic view of sustainability.

One commonality among SCI members is an interest in public engagement and involving citizens in decision-making processes and visioning exercises. For example Calgary, one of SCI’s founding members, undertook one of the largest engagement processes ever embarked upon by a city, ultimately involving more than 18,000 of its citizens in 2005 in what it called imagineCalgary. Calgary is now working on implementing the goals outlined in imagineCalgary, using an ambitious process that involves numerous departments and overseen by the city’s Office of Sustainability.

The success of this process inspired other cities in the SCI network, most notably Durban, South Africa. With much consultation with Calgary, Durban undertook its own Imagine Durban process, aimed at engaging a large and representative swath of its population.


The Green Dividend of Civic Engagement

The importance of citizen engagement has been noted in academic literature where research has suggested that community engagement is connected to a general sense of community belonging and a sense of pride, which in turn lead to environmental stewardship. In a nutshell, if you care about your community and those living in it, you will be concerned with protecting the environment as well. This is known as ‘communitarianism’ or ‘civic environmentalism’.

It remains to be shown if large visioning processes do result in better outcomes for the environment. But it is clear that cities such as Calgary and Durban, who are taking on these time-consuming and difficult processes, are committed to going beyond a narrow definition of environmental sustainability. I am still in the early stages of my research so stay tuned for updates related to social sustainability and cities.


About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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