In recent years there has been much talk of the need for sustainable communities. But what is a sustainable community? Why do neighbourhoods matter and why is sustainability important? What are the implications of debates around sustainability for community policy and practice?
contents: introduction · the background · sustainable communities · sprawl · livable, enduring neighbourhoods · sustainable communities – a policy example · conclusion – some possibilities for local action · further reading and references · how to cite this article
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. World Commission on Environment and Development 1987
Debates around the desirability and possibilities of sustainable communities take place against the background of four linked phenomenon: climate change, urbanization, economic growth and globalization. In short, there has been a fundamental shift in the way that many people relate to, and experience, the world. As a planet we are living beyond our means. We have not been able to create on any scale ways of living in the world that allow people to share properly, and that do not damage the well-being of future generations. In this piece we want to explore this background and then look at what might be involved in a sustainable community – and the associated notion of an enduring neighbourhood. We also look at one particular policy initiative – the English ‘Communities Plan’ and how it measures up in terms of its green credentials. In the conclusion we examine some possibilities for local action.
To begin it is worth reminding ourselves of the impact of climate change, urbanization, economic growth and globalization.
Climate change. As we know, the earth’s climate is constantly changing – but in recent years there has been a significant change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted that global temperature will rise by the end of the century by between 1.4C and 5.8C. Most of the warming that has occurred over the last 50 years is, according to the IPCC (2007), attributable to human activities. The result of this will be a further rise in sea levels (and an increased risk of flooding), problems around fresh-water supplies in many parts of the world, a decrease in agricultural productivity in many areas, and significant health risks. The Stern Review (2006) concluded that climate change presents very serious global risks, and it demands an urgent global response. It will impact disproportionately on poorer countries – but even in richer countries, if nothing is done there will be profound economic consequences. Overall, it could mean the equivalent of around a 20% reduction in consumption per head.
Urbanization. In Europe and north America over 80 per cent of the population already live in urban areas. There is also rapid change happening elsewhere in the world. Within a couple of years the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural (Davis 2007: 1).
In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with a population of more than one million; today there are 400, and by 2015 there will be at least 550. Cities, indeed, have absorbed nearly two-thirds of the global population explosion since 1950, and are currently growing by a million babies and migrants each week. The world’s urban workforce has more than doubled since 1980, and the present urban population – 3.2 billion – is larger than the total population of the world … [in 1960]. The global countryside meanwhile, has reached its maximum population and will begin to shrink after 2020. As a result cities will account for virtually all future world population growth, which is expected to peak at about 10 billion in 2050. (Davies 2007: 1-2)
All this has profound implications. The movement has involved a huge growth in the number of people living in slums (over one billion in the South according the United Nations (UN-Habitat 2003). It is also not sustainable under current conditions. As Herbert Girardet (1999: 9) has commented, it is unlikely that the world ‘can accommodate an urbanized humanity which routinely draws resources from ever more distant hinterlands, or routinely uses the biosphere, the oceans and the atmosphere as a sink for its wastes’.
Economic growth. For a century or more the overwhelming majority of states have placed the highest priority upon economic growth. Political thought has become locked into what J. R. McNeill has described as the ‘growth fetish’ (quoted by Speth 2005: 137). The result has been a large increase in industrial production and in the consumption of non-renewable resources. This, in turn, has also contributed significantly to global warming. While there are all sorts of debates around the figures, it is clear that with exponential economic growth, the exhaustion of mineral and energy resources becomes a real possibility within a century or so. Furthermore, the benefits of growth have not been shared equally. There is a crisis of inequality with a widening gap between rich and poor in most countries (World Bank 2007).
Globalization. Globalization – the spread and connectedness of production, communication and technologies across the world – has been developing for centuries. However, many believe the current situation is of a fundamentally different order to what has gone before. The speed of communication and exchange, the complexity and size of the networks involved, and the sheer volume of trade, interaction and risk give what we now label as ‘globalization’ a peculiar force. With increased economic interconnection has come deep-seated political changes. Poorer, ‘peripheral’, countries have become even more dependent on activities in ‘central’ economies such as the USA where capital and technical expertise tend to be located. There has also been a shift in power away from the nation state and toward, some argue, multinational corporations. We have also witnessed the rise and globalization of the ‘brand’. It isn’t just that large corporations operate across many different countries – they have also developed and marketed products that could be just as well sold in Peking as in Washington. Brands like Coca Cola, Nike, Sony, and a host of others have become part of the fabric of vast numbers of people’s lives.
These linked phenomenon help to explain why sustainability has come onto the political agenda. If nothing else the economic risks of inaction around climate change, as the Stern Review (2006) pointed out, are so huge that even the most sceptical industrialists and financiers are realizing that there is a problem to address.
‘Sustainability’ has no single or agreed meaning. ‘It takes on meaning within different political ideologies and programmes underpinned by different kinds of knowledge, values and philosophy’ (Huckle 1996: 3). A ‘weak’ view of sustainable development looks to continuing economic growth on terms that favour existing financiers and corporations (while maintaining the support of the majority of voters in countries like the UK). A strong view ‘represents a revised form of self-reliant community development which sustains people’s livelihoods using appropriate technology’ (Huckle 1996: 4). The former would fit in with what we might now describe as the mainstream of politics in many northern countries; the latter represents a greener and more holistic vision. It echoes the concerns of E. F. Schumacher (1973) when he argued for a concern with appropriate scale, wholeness and connectedness.
In a similar fashion discussion of ‘community‘ is fraught with difficulties – it is, essentially, a social term that can be associated with a particular place, or it can be applied to a network or group of people with a shared interest (see the article on community). The vast bulk of writing about sustainable communities is concerned with place. What is often meant by community in these discussions is actually a particular area. Here, as we will see below, it is probably most helpful to think in terms of neighbourhood. By this we mean ‘a residential or mixed used area around which people can conveniently walk. Its scale is geared to pedestrian access…’ (Barton 2000: 5). In many towns and cities neighbourhoods blend into each other – the result of many years of development and change. Where one neighbourhood begins and another ends can be a matter of fierce debate amongst locals. Three other things about neighbourhoods are also worth noting at this point (and here we are following Barton 2000: 5). First, planners will often view neighbourhoods essentially as a setting for a particular function e.g. as a base for home life, employment, retail activities and so on. Second, people will often associate particular experiences, hopes and values to an area. This sense of localness and distinctiveness provides us with a sense of place. Last, a neighbourhood might well provide hook for feelings of community and the setting for the sorts of relationships and networks that we call community.
To help focus our discussion we have taken a provisional definition of a sustainable city from Herbert Girardet. By city he is actually talking about all significant human settlements.
A ‘sustainable city’ is organized so as to enable all its citizens to meet their own needs and to enhance their well-being without damaging the natural world or endangering the living conditions of other people, now or in the future. (Girardet 1999: 13)
This definition has a number of things going for it. It places people and their long term needs at the centre. These include:
- Good quality air and water, health food and good housing.
- Good quality education, a vibrant culture, good health care, satisfying employment or occupations and a sharing of wealth.
- Safety in public places, equal opportunities, freedom of expression and catering for the needs of the young, the old and the disabled. (op. cit.)
This is clearly a greener, and more inclusive approach to sustainability than exists within the current policies of most countries (see below). It looks to the environment and to economics and to social relationships and social justice. As such it is a more hopeful vision – and this, we believe, is vital to education and community development. Without hope, we easily lose direction and the capacity to find it. Hope, ‘buffers us against falling into apathy in the face of tough going’ (Halpin 2003).
Sprawl – the spreading out of cities and towns over the land surrounding them – has created major problems with regard to sustainability and community. It has involved:
- using ‘single-use zoning’ i.e. separating residential areas from commercial and industrial areas;
- building at a lower density i.e. having far fewer homes and buildings in a given space; and
- commuting – building miles of roads to connect the different zones and activities; and consuming significant amounts of people’s time and resources so that they move from one place to the next (Duany 2000: 7).
Places characterized by sprawl tend to be highly energy-inefficient (Giradet 1999: 48). They use significantly more resources than urban living. In the United States, for example, it has been calculated that areas of suburban sprawl use five times more pipe and wire, five times as much heating and cooling energy. They also use 35 times as much land, and require 15 times as much roads/pavement as compact urban living (Sierra Club undated). Unfortunately, it has been the main pattern of growth in North America and the UK. Duany et. al. have summed up the problem as follows:
Unlike the traditional neighbourhood model, which evolved organically as a response to human needs, suburban sprawl is an idealized artificial system. It is not without a certain beauty: it is rational, consistent and comprehensive. Its performance is largely predictable. It is an outgrowth of modern problem-solving: a system for living. Unfortunately, this system is showing itself to be unsustainable. Unlike the traditional neighbourhood, sprawl is not healthy growth; it is essentially self-destructive. Even at relatively low population densities, sprawl tends not to pay for itself financially and consumes land at an alarming rate, while producing insurmountable traffic problems and exacerbating social inequity and isolation… As the ring of suburbia grows around most of our cities, so grows the void at the centre. (Duany et. al. 2000: 4)
In 2000 in Britain, just one new home on average was being built on the land that was used for eight homes in 1900 (Rogers and Power 2000: 84). Building at a relatively low density has a major impact on the sort of services that can be offered. Indeed in many areas there are too few people to keep services going. The English Urban Task Force showed that living at greater densities – along the lines of traditional patterns – can make communities more sustainable and viable. As Rogers and Power (2000: 185) report, ‘At below fifty dwellings to the hectare, it is hard to keep shops, buses, doctors, even nurseries and schools, within walking distance of everyone’. Furthermore, the lower the density of building in an area, the less economical it becomes to provide public transport to it. Girardet (1999: 49).
There has been a further casualty of sprawl – social capital and local community life. As Putnam (2000) found, suburban sprawl has fractured the spatial integrity of people’s lives. They travel much further to work, shop and enjoy leisure opportunities. As a result there is less time available (and less inclination) to become involved in local groups and networks. Furthermore, the relative distance between people has further encouraged privatized living – association (which underpins civic life) requires density of contacts in institutions and public spaces (Rogers and Power 2000: 144).
In recent years some of the most interesting developments in terms of thinking about the significance of neighbourhood for planning and the environment has been associated with the ‘new urbanism’ movement in the United States. Based in a thorough-going critique of the effects of sprawl, writers have made the case for ‘walkable, human-scaled neighbourhoods as the building blocks of sustainable communities and regions’ (see particularly Duany et. al. 2000). One of the notions linked to their work has been that of livability – how people perceive the environmental and social quality of an area.
The separate-use zoning codes that shape sprawling exurban areas make it impossible to do anything but drive between all important destinations — home, work, school, stores and cultural destinations. Compact urbanism brings many of those locations within walking distance and urban densities support high-quality transit service, giving people convenient lower-impact ways of getting around. Even better, New Urbanism makes these features part of environments recognized for their livability, desirability and sense of place. It’s not about taking away people’s right to drive; it’s about them choosing to use their cars less by taking advantage of compelling urban places. (Congress for the New Urbanism 2007)
Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck in discussing the rise of sprawl look at the US traditional neighbourhood pattern. They suggest six fundamental rules that have been around for centuries – but that provide ‘a fully valid framework for the design and redesign of our communities’ (2000: 14-18). They concern:
- The centre. Each neighbourhood needs a clear centre – a place where we can find shops, commerce, social and cultural activities and government offices.
- The five minute walk. People should be able to satisfy the ‘ordinary needs of life: living, working and shopping’ within five minutes walk from their homes.
- The street network. A street pattern should take the form of a continuous web with paths linking one place to another. In suburbia things are more spread out, and linear. This means that people do not have the same incentive to walk, nor the same flexible and choice about routes.
- Narrow, versatile streets. Where there are a larger number of streets (as in a traditional neighbourhood pattern) it means that traffic can be shared and streets smaller.
- Mixed use. In suburbia areas are often zoned – residential areas are kept separate from industrial areas, these in turn are separated from commercial areas. In the traditional neighbourhood pattern the buildings on a streets are classically used for different purposes.
- Special sites for special buildings. Traditional neighbourhoods usually make a special place for civic buildings – libraries, schools, town and city halls, places of worship.
The quest for more sustainable communities – neighbourhoods that will endure and are livable – requires that we look to qualities such as these and to explore what can be done both in the suburbs and cities to reinvigorate areas. In the case of the latter, Rogers and Power (2000: 284) argue for working from the centre outwards, ‘layer by layer, starting by reconnecting the innermost neighbourhoods which are only minutes on foot from vibrant centres’. Compact cities work on four axes:
- Creating vibrant, dense centres;
- Revitalizing inner neighbourhoods;
- Organizing accessible public transport across cities; and
- Protecting and enhancing the environment. (op. cit.)
Suburbs can also be regenerated and reinvigorated. Significantly relatively little effort has gone into this. Rogers and Power (2000: 249) argue that suburbs offer many under-used buildings and patches of land that can be used for small additions. ‘Renovating, managing, diversifying and densifying suburbs so that they become neighbourhood centres in their own right and more integrated into urban patterns should’, they argue, ‘ be part of the renewal strategy of towns and cities’.
Sustainable communities – a policy example from England
In 2003 the English government launched what they described as the ‘Communities Plan’ (Sustainable Communities: Building for the future). The plan set out a programme of action for ‘delivering sustainable communities in both urban and rural areas’. Like many other New Labour initiatives of the time, the plan was presented in glowing and seemingly ambitious terms. On an initial reading it looks like it takes quite a strong line on sustainability. The plan defined sustainable communities as places where:
… people want to live and work, now and in the future. They meet the diverse needs of existing and future residents, are sensitive to their environment, and contribute to a high quality of life. They are safe and inclusive, well planned, built and run, and offer equality of opportunity and good services for all.
It asserted that for communities to be sustainable, they must offer:
- decent homes at prices people can afford
- good public transport
- a clean, safe environment.
The report also argued that people need open public space where ‘they can relax and interact and the ability to have a say on the way their neighbourhood is run’. (Department of Communities and Local Government undated)
This understanding leads, it was suggested, to a focus on eight components:
Governance – Well run communities with effective and inclusive participation, representation and leadership.
Transport and Connectivity – Well connected communities with good transport services and communications linking people to jobs, health and other services.
Services – Public, private and community and voluntary services that are accessible to all.
Environmental – Providing places for people to live in an environmentally friendly way.
Equity – Fair for everyone in our diverse world and for both today’s and tomorrow’s communities.
Economy – A thriving and vibrant local economy.
Housing and the Built Environment – High quality buildings.
Social and Culture – Active, inclusive and safe with a strong local culture and other shared community activities. (Academy for Sustainable Communities undated)
As ever, though, with policy pronouncements of this kind, the devil is in the detail. How are these aspirations interpreted, what has found its way into concrete initiatives, what targets have been set, and what resources allocated? To explore this we want to look at aspects of two of the above components: housing and the built environment, and shared community activity.
Housing and the built environment. The problem facing any government is that it has to deal with what past policies and actions (and inactions) have bequeathed them. In the case of housing and the build environment it is a legacy that will take an extra-ordinary political and financial commitment to effect the sort of changes that are needed. The ‘building for the future’ element of the Communities plan has been reflected in an increased allocation of resources for social housing, and housing has become a stronger focus for policy with the recognition that there is the potential of chronic under-supply especially in south east England. However, as Hanley (2007) and others have noted, this increase does not adequately address the problem. The relative neglect of building social housing continues. Housing associations have not had the capacity, nor been given the resources, to build housing at the rate required. Local authorities have simply not been allowed to build on any scale (although there has been some relaxation in this area). There has been a significant increase in the private rented sector but it has been largely targeted at single and smaller households – especially those in their twenties and thirties.
Where it comes to questions of sustainability and livability, the shortfall in political will and resources is wider. Within cities there have been significant increases in the density of housing required and planned, a growth in the use of brownfield sites, and some movement in terms of encouraging mixed use. However, in London the increase in density achieved in recent developments is problematic. First, it has been reflected in an overwhelming focus on building one and two bedroom apartments and a failure to provide more family-friendly accommodation. It thus continues the problem of over-crowding in the capital. Secondly, the density of building, and the relative height of developments looks like recreating many of the problems that came with inner-city council estates during the 1960s. Little or no attention has been given in practical terms to thinking about neighbourhood centres.
Shared community activity/social capital. Some commitments have been made – in the broadest terms – to exploring how local communities might be better ’empowered’ (DCLG 2006; 2007). There is talk of investing in some local ‘anchor’ organizations; money has flowed into initiatives like New Deal for Communities (although that is coming to an end); and the earlier encouragement of tenant management organizations (TMOs) has had some benefits in terms of stimulating local organizing and networks. However, when we look at the full picture – in particular the way in which central and local government seeks to define needs and then to contract community and voluntary groups to fulfil the state’s objectives we can see how much further they need to travel. Very little money flows into authentic community development activities i.e. where local people are encouraged to engage with each other and the issues that face them, and then to organize. Central government has still to come to terms with the cultivation of social capital. Here the issue is that resources are needed but the more governments interfere – the more likely they are to destroy the networks and relationships that are needed to be developed and sustained (see the discussion of social capital).
The notion of sustainable communities – and the associated ideas of livable neighbourhoods – has led to some interesting explorations and provides us with a number of pointers when thinking about the neighbourhoods and communities of which we are a part, and that we have to engage with. While significant elements of the discussion are linked to major policy questions, there is much here for local community organizations and groups to think about – and to act upon.
First, there is the task of learning and educating about the extent to which our environment affects and generates our quality of life (Duany et. al. 2000: 240). Many people have some sense of this – but there is clearly work to be done around helping those around us to appreciate the ecological problems we face, and what changes we can all make in the way we live our lives and to our local environment that might help us all to be happier and healthier.
Second, there are a range of small-scale projects and initiatives that we can organize around at the local level. This can range from organizing more events and activities that bring people together (and thus generate some of the feeling and contact that is needed if people are to work together to change things) to initiatives such encouraging less car-use on the school-run and improving the physical environment of estates and neighbourhoods – perhaps through clean-up events. Many local groups have taken a further step and got into developing local services, facilitating business start-ups and so on. The importance of this sort of activity cannot be underestimated. As James Gustave Speth has shown, initiatives around the global environmental crisis bases upon a philosophy of ‘Just do it’ – not waiting upon governments and organizations to take action – have brought significant gains. What Speth calls ‘Jazz‘ – unscripted, voluntary initiatives that are decentralized and improvisational – can be a great antidote to the sort of stultifying, bureaucratic government we have got used to in many western countries. Such action cannot replace government intervention – but it can often get to the places where the state cannot; and by actively involving people can also be far more effective. Unfortunately, much policy for poor communities, and those deemed marginalized or disadvantaged:
… tends to be driven by a deficit model that focuses on the deficiencies of individuals and communities, rather than building upon the individual, associational, and institutional assets and networks that already exist. (Sirianni and Friedland 2001: 11)
In the end such deficit models fail. They cannot do what is necessary to effect lasting change. They do not engage with people in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, as McKnight (1995: 106) has commented, ‘As the power of profession and service system ascend, the legitimacy, authority, and capacity of citizens and community descend. The citizen retreats. The client advances’ (quoted by Sirianni and Friedland 2001).
Last, and certainly not least, local groups can become involved in campaigning and organizing to alter local and national policy. Sometimes this is thrust upon us – for example when our neighbourhood becomes the focus of a regeneration initiative. At other times, we may want to take the initiative – campaigning, for example, for more of mix in terms of housing, or looking to improve public transport or seeking to establish a proper centre for a neighbourhood.
Sustainable neighbourhoods need to be a central concern of community development. As we have seen neighbourhoods still matter in many people’s daily lives – especially in the lives of families. We need to look to the design of the environment, the quality of the housing and public buildings we inhabit, the services we need, and – crucially – the networks and groups we belong to in our neighbourhood.
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Acknowledgement: The picture ‘shadow work’ is by Tony Hall and is reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic) – http://www.flickr.com/photos/anotherphotograph/3389627948/
How to cite this article: Smith, Mark K. (2008) ‘Sustainable communities and neighbourhoods. Theory, policy and practice’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [www.infed.org/communities/sustainable_communities.htm].
© Mark K. Smith 2006, 2008
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