Social Sustainability

The "soft infrastructure" of a Healthy Community

Trevor Hancock

Urban planning and development has long been fixated on the community's hard infrastructure the sewers, the roads and the electrical, gas and water utilities and other aspects of the physical structure that define the community's form. In the past decade or two, there has been a growing concern with the environmental sustainability of the community. This has significant implications for the design and operation of the hard infrastructure ecological management of storm water and sewage; energy, water and other resource conservation; an emphasis on walk / bike / transit- supportive environments and so on.

But a community is much, much more than its physical form. A community is composed of people as well as the places where they live; it is as much a social environment as a physical environment. Thus, communities must not only be environmentally sustainable, they must also be socially sustainable.

Of course, social sustainability cannot be created simply through the physical design of the community but then neither can environmental sustainability be created by physical design alone. Physical design cannot ensure that individuals, families and communities will lead environmentally sustainable lifestyles, although it can help to make such environmentally sustainable choices more easy. Equally, while there is much that can be done on the "design" of the soft infrastructure of the community to ensure its social sustainability, the physical design of the community can make it either easier or more difficult for communities to be socially sustainable. Thus there is a vital need to integrate the physical and social design of communities if we are to create communities that are both environmentally and socially sustainable.

In discussing sustainability both social and environmental it is important to understand that both of them require a system of economic activity that is compatible with and not destructive of either the ecological web of life or the social web of life of which we are a part, and upon which we depend for our health, well-being and quality of life. As the Canadian Public Health Association noted in its report on human and ecosystem health:

Human development and the achievement of human potential require a form of economic activity that is environmentally and socially sustainable in this and future generations. (CPHA, 1992)

Thus, any discussion of socially sustainable communities must include a discussion of the physical design of the community and the economic system of the community. In this series of four columns I will discuss the concept of social sustainability, the implications for urban design and planning, the "new economics" of environmentally and socially sustainable communities, and the integration of these concepts in a human development strategy. Readers might also look to Marcia Nozick's excellent book, No Place Like Home: Building Sustainable Communities (Ottawa: Canadian Council for Social Development, 1992) for a fuller discussion of many of these issues.

Social sustainability

As a society, we make social investments and we have a "stock" of social and human resources. Economic development can either contribute to or deplete those social resources (see Osberg, 1990). Many would argue that the form of economic development championed by Thatcher and Reagan has been socially unsustainable, depleting human and social capital and resources in addition to the damage it has wrought to the natural environment.
The concept of socially sustainable development including socially sustainable urban development 1992) has received less attention than the concept of environmentally sustainable development. What would constitute socially sustainable development?
I would argue that it is development that it:

  • meets basic needs for food, shelter, education, work, income and safe living and working conditions;
  • is equitable, ensuring that the benefits of development are distributed fairly across society;
  • enhances, or at least does not impair, the physical, mental and social well-being of the population;
  • promotes education, creativity and the development of human potential for the whole population;
  • preserves our cultural and biological heritage, thus strengthening our sense of connectedness to our history and environment;
  • promotes conviviality, with people living together harmoniously and in mutual support of each other;
  • is democratic, promoting citizen participation and involvement, and
  • is livable, linking "the form of the city's public places and city dwellers' social, emotional and physical well-being" (Lennard and Lennard, 1987)

The systems and processes that we put in place to achieve these ends can be thought of as the "soft infrastructure" of the community, a term used by Len Duhl, Professor of Public Health and Professor of Urban Planning at the University of California at Berkeley, to describe those elements of the community that contribute to social well-being. This "soft" infrastructure includes formal human services (health, education, social services, recreation and culture, etc.) as well as the community's informal structure the web of voluntary organizations and social relationships that comprise community. Urban planning needs to integrate these elements into all its work, giving as much weight to the soft infrastructure as to the hard infrastructure if we are going to create communities that work

Urban planning and social sustainability

The list of items that constitute the basis of a socially sustainable community suggests an "agenda" for urban planning. In planning the built environment, urban planners need to address issues of basic needs such as urban food production and availability; equitable access to work and education; urban design that enhances social interaction and participation; methods of reducing living costs, especially for low income groups, and other unaccustomed topics. The physical design of communities to promote social sustainability will be the subject of my next column.


Canadian Public Health Association (1992). Human and Ecosystem
Ottawa: CPHA.

Osberg, Lars (1990). Sustainable Social Development (mimeo).
Halifax, N.S.: Department of Economics, Dalhousie University.

1 My original list of items has been amended to reflect "Strategic Directions for Community Sustainability", a 1993 publication of the B.C. Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.

Trevor Hancock was a founding member of the Canadian Green Party. He is a principal exponent of the 'healthy communities' movement in North America.