A version of this article first appeared on the Sustainability Talk & News website, published 23 April, 2013.
What is a sustainable community? Some might say there is no such thing. I would counter, in fact, that there is no such thing as an unsustainable community: Once it becomes unsustainable, it is no longer a community. It is about people, not place. Once the people are socially disconnected, community is lost, regardless of proximity.
How we understand and use the word ‘community’ is more than simply a matter of semantics, it impacts on the systemics of sustainable development, especially in relation to the future of the built environment. So, what do we mean when we talk about community?
Positive images of community in the mind of the general British public perhaps picture hearty sing-songs in the local pub, cricket on the village green, or street parties with homemade buns and bunting.
Negative perceptions are also readily referenced in popular culture. Fiction is full of dark visions of dystopian futures, played out in societies and communities short on human values, but long on rebel mavericks: From Oceania and rat-fearing resident Winston Smith, in George Orwell’s 1984; to Los Angeles 2019 and Richard Deckard, fighting his way across and out of town in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
Real-life cases of unsustainable social collectives might include the ill-fated inhabitants of Easter Island and even the Big Brother House. By contrast (and to the delight of wildlife documentary filmmakers and viewers), the natural world provides us with many examples of successful community models, habitats and homes – from ants in hills and bees in hives, to termites engineering and living in mounds.
In its broader, proper sense, ‘community’ should refer to a group of individuals united by common social structures, relationship bonds, interests or beliefs. We see this definition applied widely and diversely across geographic boundaries, whether via social media networks such as Facebook groups, or international Star Trek conventions.
As used in the term ‘sustainable communities’, however, the word often takes on a much narrower urban-planning and local-government definition. It typically denotes a body of people primarily identified and defined by their locality. For built environment professionals, this subordination of the needs of people to the deliverables of place is part of the problem, not part of the solution for sustainability.
Moreover, it is only likely to get worse with the quickening pace of urbanisation as a global pressure-pot phenomenon.
According to data from the United Nations, in 2008, the proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas passed the 50% mark, heading for 70% by 2050. With 5M new residents arriving every month, the global city-dweller total is estimated to hit around five billion by 2030. These inhabitants already consume 75% of the planet’s natural resources and contribute to urban activities responsible for 80% of all greenhouse gas emissions. All this happens on a mere 2% of global land mass.
Winston Churchill said: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” The challenge for built environment professionals is to respond in a creative and dynamic way to opportunities for neighbourhood, town and city planning, development, design and construction, such that communities can inhabit the space sustainably, on an ongoing basis. In short, creating places where people want to live.
As the success of sustainable development can only be measured in relative terms over time, adaptability is critical, both for resilience planning and responding intelligently to patterns of social change.
A people-centric approach provides an organising principle for strategic development. Quality of life is driver number one and putting people first key to meeting aspirations for places. The physical environment is where we live, but a sustainable community is who we are.
Author: Jim McClelland