Building A Socially Sustainable Future

February 28, 2017

Written by Robert Marshall

As a Principal at B+H, I share – with our other Principals and staff – the responsibility of striving for sustainability in all of the work we do. Sustainability means a number of different things to a number of different people. As designers, there are three tenets of sustainable design which we must always evaluate ourselves against to ensure our work mirrors the values of our firm. There’s, of course, environmental sustainability – has the design reduced or eliminated its effect on the environment? Equally important to us is economic sustainability – does the project allow reasonable profitability for investors, grow in value and offer a range of economic spin-offs as part of the development, such as jobs and opportunities for commerce, trade and revenue generation? Finally, there is social sustainability – does the design contribute to the quality of life, health, education, accessibility, safety, empowerment and a sense of community for all?

In measuring the influence, impacts and success of sustainable design initiatives in planning, architecture and landscape design, the emphasis within the design community and with the public over the past 15 years has been on environmental sustainability. In fact, if you talk to most designers about sustainable design, they immediately think of the environmental impacts – energy use, air quality, storm water management, use of indigenous materials, etc. Environmental impacts are easily quantifiable and therefore easy to measure and justify. Increasingly they’re being legislated into developmental controls and rating systems to ensure environmental quality and performance of design.


Economic sustainability is so fundamental to the development community that it’s often overlooked as an issue related to sustainable design. Developers, corporate boards, government agencies – our clients – demand design value. They’re completely focused on projects with a sustainable rate of return on investment; projects that are marketable and leasable because they create platforms for economic opportunity and jobs; or projects that attract investment because they’ll grow in value over time. Although design that contributes to the economic sustainability of a community must have deeper economic significance than the simple percentage return on investment to the developer, it’s an impact that can be clearly measured and quantified.

Social sustainability is the most complicated of the three tenets of sustainable design, in large part because its impacts are often intangible and difficult to measure. However, now that the impacts of environmental and economic sustainability are becoming central to, and regulated in, most of our design work, social sustainability is quickly emerging as the new focus for the projects we’re designing. This is particularly true at the scale of master planning, new community development and landscape design. It’s also particularly important for our projects in emerging economies and in cultures with less history in providing social and community services and facilities.


Our recent work on the Lu’Luat Island Residential Community Master Plan at Al Raha Beach in Abu Dhabi, UAE, is an interesting example of the growing significance of social sustainability in urban design. Unlike other high-density developments in Abu Dhabi, Lu’Luat Island has an 11-storey height limit, which means buildings are lower, have a larger footprint, and feature podiums that create streetwalls at the pedestrian level and contain the public realm. Because the island has a maximum diameter of about 400 metres, community amenities are within easy walking distance of each other, and this proximity has influenced the design of the public realm. Waterfront promenades, cafés and restaurants, shaded retail streets, beach areas and public parks and squares make it active and social. The public realm will become a central gathering place for the community – a space where people meet, socialize and engage in recreational pursuits without the need for automobiles. It also means that all of the community’s amenities, services and mosques will be easily accessible, on foot or by bicycle, for use by everyone.


Another current project involves strategic master planning in a northern suburban district of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. This district is anticipating a period of rapid development and experiencing a massive influx of new families looking for a place to call home due to its location within the continuing expansion of the city. In order to accommodate this growth, many of the existing communities in the district – comprised of semi-agricultural operations, street-side commercial services and subsistence housing – will need to be relocated to areas with newer infrastructure and integrated residential developments. The strategic master plan coordinates this relocation so that existing residents can stay in the same community, while gaining the advantage of newly planned locations for retail and service businesses, improved quality housing, new schools and community facilities and amenities built to serve the needs of both existing and new residents. The master plan also includes the development of a central park within the northern district – a park on the scale of the great urban parks developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in many North American cities. Through the introduction of additional investment in transportation infrastructure, the entire district will have increased accessibility to the city as a whole and its economic opportunities.

To us as designers, socially sustainable design means we have the responsibility of planning and designing for the poorest and most vulnerable, the youngest and the oldest. It means creating a sense of physical and emotional security, accessibility and opportunity, health and well-being. It means providing all the services and facilities that every member of the community requires to live, above all, a meaningful and fulfilling life.