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Social sustainability: a review and critique of traditional versus emerging themes and assessment methods

Colantonio, Andrea (2009) Social sustainability: a review and critique of traditional versus emerging themes and assessment methods. In: Horner, M., Price, A., Bebbington, J. and Emmanuel, R., (eds.) Sue-Mot Conference 2009: Second International Conference on Whole Life Urban Sustainability and Its Assessment: Conference Proce. Loughborough University, Loughborough, pp. 865-885. ISBN 9780947974

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In recent years the social dimension (or ‘social sustainability’) has gained increased recognition as a fundamental component of sustainable development. Previous research on sustainability has been mostly limited to environmental and economic concerns. However, social sustainability has begun to attract interest in the Academia, receiving also political and institutional endorsement as part of the sustainable communities agenda and the urban sustainability discourse. thus, the paper explores the notion of social sustainability and its main assessment methods, together with the pioneering social sustainability framework devised by the City of Vancouver, Canada. The paper illustrates how there is no consensus on the definition of social sustainability because this concept is currently being approached from diverging study perspectives and discipline-specific criteria, which make a generalised definition difficult to achieve. In addition, traditional ‘hard’ social sustainability themes such as employment and poverty alleviation are increasingly been complemented or replaced by ‘soft’ and less measurable concepts such as happiness, social mixing and sense of place in the social sustainability debate. This is adding complexity to the analysis of social sustainability, especially from an assessment point of view. Within this context, the paper builds upon the recent ‘reductionist’ versus ‘integrated’ sustainability assessment debate and contends that there is paucity of social sustainability assessment methodologies as such. Indeed, at practical level, social sustainability assessment is often conducted (i) through social impact assessment (SIA), which is extended to incorporate biophysical and economical variables or (ii) by broadening the definition of ‘environment’ and hence the thematic coverage of theme-specific assessment such as SIA. In terms of indicators, the analysis suggests that the development of new sustainability indicators is increasingly focused on measuring emerging themes rather than on improving the assessment of more traditional concepts such as equity and fairness. Indeed, the latter continue to be measured mainly in terms of income distribution and other monetary variables, hampering a meaningful progress in the assessment of social sustainability. Within this context, the paper also pinpoints the main differences between ‘traditional’ and ‘sustainability’ indicators, suggesting a set of characteristics for the latter. Despite these hindrances, the paper looks at how Vancouver’s local authorities have approached urban social sustainability and discusses the importance of the selection of sustainability principles, objectives, themes, assessment techniques and indicators from a social perspective. Lastly, the paper concludes suggesting possible future directions within the social sustainability debate and the challenges that will have to be overcome to assess the progress toward sustainability. These include for example the examination of more elusive and ‘soft’ social concepts as larger sectors of communities and societies become more affluent and less worried about the satisfaction of basic needs, but also the increase of uncertainty concerning how different typologies of impact and assessment techniques should be integrated together.

Item Type: Book Section
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2009 SUE-MoT
Divisions: LSE Cities
Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Date Deposited: 04 May 2011 11:26
Last Modified: 16 May 2024 05:19

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