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Building sustainable communities: It is what you do - and the way that you do it.

Victoria Boelman, The Young Foundation

What does sustainable community mean to you?  Is it one where everyone recycles?  With a community orchard and plenty of green space to play?  Or perhaps a town powered by renewable energy and clean air, where people walk and cycle to work, school and shop.

At the tail-end of one of the hottest British summers on record, the need to embrace environmental sustainability has never felt more pressing.  The intensity and duration of the extreme weather broke (or almost) records across the continent, with impacts on everything from crop production to thousands of extra deaths from the effects of heat and flooding. Responding and adapting to climate change is an urgent reality that cannot be ignored.  

However, a sustainable community is far more than an eco-friendly one. At The Young Foundation we believe that a sustainable community is a community where everyone can thrive and flourish - they are vibrant and inclusive and support both our individual and collective sense of wellbeing. It is about people, places and the relationships between them.  The question of how best to design a sustainable community is one that we have been exploring and testing with for many years.  At its heart:

“Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.”

A socially sustainable community will have the resources and resilience to respond better to the challenges arising from issues such as climate change, as well as being more likely and able to mobilise to tackle and mitigate environmental problems.  We see this already in places around the world which regularly natural disasters - in Japan research suggests that communities with higher degrees of social capital (i.e. trust and connections in neighbourhoods) were more likely to survive the impacts of the Tsunami in 2011, and more likely to recover more quickly (in terms of rebuilding infrastructure).

As the pressure for housing grows, we have opportunities to design in social sustainability from the outset. Initiatives such as Healthy New Towns provide an exciting chance to trial and test new approaches to doing this.  However, for the majority of places, both in the UK and across Europe and beyond, we are now trying to design social sustainability (back) in to our places and communities.  Happily, there is a large pool of inspiration on which to draw - from place-based approaches, to digital solutions, to social ventures and networks of like-minded change-makers.

Some of our favourite place-based approaches are well-known - from Frome to Granby to Preston, or Eigg in Scotland - there will be somewhere not too distant to look at for inspiration.  Most of these examples illustrate the power of communities shaping their own vision and aspirations, and then stepping in to take ownership, sometimes literally of the place they live.   For a global perspective, the Transition movement and Transition Towns always provide ideas and resources in abundance. Totnes is a brilliant example of how citizens and stakeholders from all parts of the community have come together to create genuine systemic change and deliver integrated solutions and approaches to some of their toughest challenges. In a more urban and diverse context, communities such as Southall in London also demonstrate what can be achieved in a relatively short period of time, with a focus on green space and food security.

Place-based approaches and movements often rely on a significant level of strategic coordination - they reflect the importance in design of the infrastructure, amenities and systems to support that citizen engagement.  

Equally important are the amenities and space which allow people to evolve and develop their own ideas more organically and independently.  Zero Waste North West is a community-led movement in the North West of Northern Ireland. They organise a range of events such as the Enough Stuff Festival in Derry which provides a space for giving information and support on practical sustainable choices for zero waste in everyday life as well as hosting discussion on policy making for the sustainable future of food production and farming.  

But bringing people together need not have an explicit “sustainability” objective - increasing social connections through any means is part of strengthening the fabric of community. The Eden Project organises a wide range of activities with a nature theme and is behind the Big Lunch, which in 2017, was joined by 9.3 at over 90,000 events held around the UK.   Building social ties is also not dependent on organised events - sharing platforms such as The Library of Things or Edible Bus Stops also create new opportunities for people to meet or bump into each other.


This European Day of Sustainable Communities we’d love to hear about your favourite examples from around the world. You can also join the Social Innovation Communities webinar.  On Monday the 17th September at 11am BST / 12:00 CEST, join The Young Foundation, The Eden Project and ECOLISE to chat about the European Day of Sustainable Communities and the importance of sustainable and local communities taking action for a better, more sustainable world.  Sign up here.