“Social Sustainability”: Clarity is in the Context

Freya Kristensen is 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. She is currently participating in the SCI Affiliated Researcher Program.

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What is social sustainability anyway? This is the question I inevitably get when I tell people that the main subject area of my research is how cities understand and operationalize social sustainability.

Most people are genuinely curious but some people, usually academics, say it more with a sneer, as if to say ‘good luck with that’.

When I first started my research, I spent a lot of time digging through academic literature on the subject. I discovered that while there is general agreement that social sustainability should include certain things like meeting people’s basic needs, access to social services, ensuring equality, social justice, and access to the political process, there really is no one accepted definition of the concept.

This leads to a conundrum: how do you carry out or even recognize social sustainability if you don’t know what it is? While academics continue to work to define the concept from a scholarly approach, those working for city governments take a different perspective, recognizing that social sustainability is contextual. In other words, perhaps there can be no universal definition of a concept that is always in flux, taking on different meanings and emphases depending on the social, geographic, political, and economic circumstances of a particular city.

In my research I am focusing on the case study cities of Calgary, Alberta, and Portland, Oregon, to better understand how context matters for social sustainability. More than just a national border separates these two cities: Calgary is known as a conservative, car-loving, economically booming city thanks to nearby oil and gas exploration; Portland is probably best known for its liberal, hipster cycling culture and is upheld as a glowing example of sustainable city planning. Calgary has about twice the population as Portland (just over a million versus about 600,000 respectively) but Portland has a greater percentage of visible minorities (although both cities have a visible minority population that is higher than their respective national averages). While Calgary’s sustainability goals are less widely known than are Portland’s, both cities have robust sustainability plans.

The two have approached social sustainability very differently. ‘Equity’, not ‘social sustainability’ is the buzzword. Like many American cities, Portland has struggled to be an ethnically and racially inclusive city. The traditional citizen engagement structure is the neighbourhood: the city funds neighbourhood associations in order to encourage widespread community engagement, across the socio-economic divide. While this system was hailed as an outstanding example of successful civic engagement in the 1980s, as ethnic and racial diversity began to increase in Portland and funding dried up, the system fell into a decline.

However, in the past five years there has been a concerted effort to strengthen the neighbourhood system and bring equity into the forefront of city planning efforts. There has been a resurgence of funding for neighbourhood associations and also a recognition that some communities are not contained within the geographical divide of the neighbourhood: Latino, Black, Native American, and immigrant communities exist across the city and in many cases, people identify more with their ethnic/racial communities them than they do with their own neighbourhoods.

In 2006 the city set up its Diversity and Civic Leadership program in order to financially support these communities of colour and immigrant & refugee communities to increase civic engagement and political participation among people belonging to these groups. In Portland it is understood that equity equals social sustainability. While the two terms are not synonymous, it is implicit that equity is a major component of social sustainability and that the outcome of equity strategies is social sustainability.

Calgary’s approach to social sustainability has been almost the opposite of Portland’s. Instead of increasing equity through civic engagement, Calgary is opting instead to reduce the barriers that inhibit political participation. The major offenders here are poverty and cultural/social isolation. The city’s social sustainability strategy has two major components: social inclusion and strong neighbourhoods. Eight vulnerable neighbourhoods, that have high concentrations of poverty, have been chosen in which to focus the city’s efforts.

One notable outcome of the city’s efforts to reduce poverty as a barrier to civic participation is the single-entry system for low-income people. This means that if you meet the city’s low-income criteria, you need only to prove this once in order to receive city-wide subsidies for accessing city services like recreation centres and to receive a low-income bus pass.

Both cities are approaching social sustainability according to their own unique contexts. Portland has opted to give people the tools they need to better participate in the political process, while Calgary has attempted to identify the barriers which prevent people from engaging in the first place. Neither is right or wrong, but highlight two avenues from which to approach this challenging concept.

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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1 Response to “Social Sustainability”: Clarity is in the Context

  1. Guilherme Fragomeni says:

    Very interesting research, congratulations! It seems the social sustainability concept, wide open at first, is focusing on integration between social and ethnic groups and also participation in the political process. At least in Portland and Calgary…
    I´m sure that participation and integration bring a feeling of responsability toward public policies and the city itself, also a “community feeling” that is essencial to promote resiliant cities.

    Hope to see the results of your research soon. Here in Brasil we are going through a very interesting moment considering public engagement in the political process…the challenge is to transform this uprising and energetic moment in a sustainable and continuous process. We have much to learn.

    Regards! Guilherme Fragomeni.

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