Is Social Sustainability a thing?

Last Updated on February 28, 2024

The word “sustainability” is often thrown around without giving the term any second thought. People come up with funny ways of using the word to make certain products or services look more desirable. Same applies for the field of architecture, planning and design, where besides the well-known ecological sustainability, the term “social sustainability”, which has gained awareness among the designers in recent years, has emerged. Is it a valid term or just another concept people came up with to have something to talk about?

What does sustainability actually mean?

First, we need to look at what the term sustainability actually means. 

Synonyms for sustainable: maintainable, continuous, viable, feasible, unceasing, rational, imperishable, livable, renewable, supportable, unending, endurable

Did you just fly your eyes over these words or actually read them? C’mon, let’s give it another try, slowly and mindfully, please.

Sustainability is, quite literally, the ability to sustain oneself. Meaning, to allow something to continue over a period of time. How long though? How about forever?

Needless to say, if you ask ten different people about the meaning of the word “sustainability”, you’re most possibly going to get ten different definitions. The word sustainability is an umbrella term, a compilation of different meanings, that come together to explain how to responsibly achieve longevity and resilience, among other things.

On the other hand, the word is used (and mis-used) so frequently, that people might often even have a false idea about what it really means. A shining example of that is greenwashing, the act of organizations making themselves seem environmentally-friendly through deceptive marketing, making false sustainable claims without evidence or using these terms in a misleading way.

Pillars of sustainability

Simply put, sustainable practice in general creates circular processes and designs without consequences. Consequences on what? Not just the environment, but also society and economy. These together represent ESG (environmental, social, governance), which collectively create the view that sustainability extends beyond just ecology. There are new business approaches offering the fourth pillar of sustainability, “human”, focusing not only on human relationships within society, but rather the individual human needs, covering access to human rights.

It is a common misconception to consider sustainability and ecology to be the same concept, but the term sustainability covers a wide spectrum of topics and areas.

RESOLVE is an interdisciplinary design collective that combines architecture, engineering, technology and art to address social challenges, with emphasis on designing with and for young people and under-represented groups. The collective’s approach goes beyond aesthetics, viewing design as a powerful mechanism for political and socio-economic change. RESOLVE collaborates with diverse stakeholders, from art institutions and public sector clients to community-focused organizations, showcasing a commitment to socially sustainable practices. Their work ranges from research, and community support work to art installations and architecture and urban design projects.

To remain sustainable, the built environment needs to be resilient not only in terms of actual physical mass, but has to last in society/within humans as well. That is achievable by making sure the humans are satisfied long-term. This way of thinking leads us to the term:


How do we sustain something within society long-term though? Ideally by getting closer to satisfying everyone as much as possible. That means covering all aspects of society, all requirements, all abilities, all people. Fairly, without forgetting to take care of the planet in the meanwhile.

That can mean ensuring that everyone is treated equally, feels safe and welcome, that the socially sustainable outcome is inclusive and responsible.

By including everyone, society can aim to satisfy everyone (and the planet).

To bring socially sustainable principles into the built environment, systematic changes need to take place. Having the goal of users and creators to be equal in their contribution and experience, the system needs to allow them to participate first. By introducing socially responsible processes into new projects, society can be shaped fairly, through the built environment. And last longer.

The following are social sustainability principles applicable to the built environment:

  1. Social equity and justice

Ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity to access and co-create resources, services, products and in our case, mostly spaces, allows society to erase inequalities and let everyone participate. For example, a fair environment can be achieved by supporting community engagement and reducing gentrification pressure in the urban scale, but the principle of equity lies especially in universal design (/inclusive design/design for all), which ensures that the world is accessible to all people, regardless of their abilities. Universal design creates UNIVERSAL solutions, without having to create separate solutions for different groups of people.

Raumlabor is a collective of architects, based in Berlin, which work at the intersection of architecture, city
planning, art and urban intervention. Their interests lay in abandoned places, places that offer hidden potential and open up the opportunity for urban intervention. Their work often involves not only research and urban planning, but also temporary installations, participatory events, and community collaborations, pushing the boundaries of conventional urban environments. Raumlabor actively prioritizes community involvement through participatory planning, empowering communities to shape their surroundings, fostering a sense of ownership and strengthening social bonds. Their projects, such as the Coop Campus (a communal garden for/with refugees) and Floating (an inner-city laboratory on water) involve a wide variety of activities and people, providing everyone a chance to participate and/or present themselves.

  1. Diversity and inclusion

Creating a diverse built environment means designing for a diverse group of people, which the society consists of. Considering a wide demographic allows designers to create universal spaces, which make all kinds of people safe and comfortable. This means for example designing for social groups which we don’t expect to use our product, but which might do in the future or in not-stereotypical situations. Inclusive urban and architectural spaces create socially cohesive communities and spread awareness about diversity, acceptance and co-living.

POC in Architecture was founded to support, provide representation and a safe space for people of color in the UK’s architecture industry. Support opportunities they provide aim to provide benefit to its members, and the wider architectural community who fall within the minority demographic, to encourage and create a space for underrepresented minorities in the field. Except diverse content on the blog, workshops and public exhibitions, they also provide consultancy to POC (people of color) in a form of of mentoring program.

  1. Democracy and participation

The bottom line of social sustainability is cooperation with all user groups and the removal of the assumptions while designing. Involving, supporting and listening to voices of all kinds of people means getting closer to representing a community as a whole, thus accommodating everyone. Democratic decisions in design processes reduce the underrepresentation of certain minorities and again, aim to create universal spaces accessible to as large of a portion of society as possible. That then leads to long-term sustainable development.

Spolka is a collective of experts in the fields of placemaking and participative urban planning, based (mostly) in Slovakia. Their activities involve research, educational, and creative projects revolving around the topics of participation, inclusive cities, and sustainable urban development. Example of their work is a complex initiative Plán pre Košice, realised in cooperation with the municipality of the city Košice, which consisted of educational formats for the public as well as for the municipality itself, in form of workshops, walks, discussions, exhibitions, quizes and seminars. Their other activities include sociological research improving inclusive design methods, participation strategies in cities, but Spolka is mostly focusing on teaching stakeholders how to include socially sustainable methods in their processes.

  1. Well-being and quality of life

This term refers to the way design and space can impact people’s physical and mental health. Creating a high quality environment and thinking the technical aspects through not only assures people’s good health, but is effective in cost, operation, and environmental impact as well. Ensuring that everyone feels good can be provided by a socially responsible design, which offers a variety of design options to choose from (different seating, different light), different ways of navigating in the space (multisensory approaches) which allows for flexibility, in order to let the user adjust his environment for their liking.

Office for the New Earth (ONE) is a multidisciplinary design and construction practice, based in the Netherlands. Their mission is to work with the most critical places in Europe, influenced by humanitarian crisis and catastrophies, and discovering physiological and psychological impact of architecture, thus focusing on biophilic design. ONE builds healing spaces which help children in disadvantaged circumstances to not only feel safe, but to grow and express themselves, fighting the common temporary shelters which might further exacerbate the trauma. Their design principles support long-term development of children living in humanitarian shelters, while empowering local community by meaningful partnerships. Their solutions are not only socially sustainable, but focus on ecological resilience as well.

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Why should we care?

To conclude, it is absolutely necessary to consider the social aspect of the built environment when designing for people. After all, we, humans, are creating products, services and spaces for ourselves, humans. Creating them in the socially best way possible leads us to long-term solutions, removing the constant need of adapting, reshaping, updating, thus not wasting the valuable resources our planet offers.

Focusing on only the ecological aspect of sustainability wouldn’t make sense, as long as the people don’t use the space because of the emotional dissatisfaction, and vice versa. Spaces which check all the boxes on the paper but are unusable for the people, which are in the end creatures influenced by emotion, simply don’t have a future. Creating complex solutions, sustainable in all the ways might get hard, but is the true path to saving the humanity and the globe we live on. If we don’t make our own society satisfied with the outcomes of our work, it will get too late to fix our mistakes later.

For all of this to work though, systemic changes are needed in order to shift the focus from what we consider a society – the privileged, rich, from first world countries, but mostly those with an opportunity to right for their rights, to an actual society, which also consists of minorities, the disadvantaged and those the current world doesn’t give the voice to. The privileged need to step back and hear out what the rest of the world says. Realizing this inequality allows those who currently have the upper hand to get the socially sustainable processes going.

Author: Slávka Fratričová
Photo credits: RESOLVE, raumlabor, POC in architecture, Spolka, ONE
All examples mentioned in the text were chosen to better illustrate the content of the article, no compensation or consideration was received from any of the mentioned organizations.


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