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A new approach: Social factors in urban development
Bogotá, Colombia's Transmilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) system has been successful in integrating social equity into transport planning and urban design. Photo by RonaldHV/Flickr.

Bogotá, Colombia’s Transmilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) system has been successful in integrating social equity into transport planning and urban design. Photo by RonaldHV/Flickr.

When a new urban redevelopment scheme is proposed, developers and city officials typically take three primary concerns into account. One: how the development will be financed, and in turn, what economic benefits it can bring. Two: urban infrastructure’s environmental impact and sometimes its own sustainability. Three: how to gain the support of local stakeholders to implement the project. With the environmental, economic and governance dimensions of sustainable development considered, the social dimension is often a lower priority. Developers sometimes assess the social and health impacts of established plans but don’t integrate social factors into planning and design. Cities are dynamic places. Public areas, housing, and transport hubs all offer unique opportunities for developers to create potential positive social impacts and benefits that include strengthening community bonds, enabling access to jobs, and making streets safer for all.

Cathy Baldwin, post-doctoral Research Fellow at EMBARQ, along with other dedicated researchers, are investigating how planners, designers and builders can integrate social objectives into key stages of development plans, from scheme conception, design choices, to ongoing monitoring and evaluation to bring lasting social benefits to communities. This idea of “social sustainability” – the successful functioning and long term existence of communities – is evolving. There are few clear examples of how this emerging paradigm can work to improve urban development practices in the developing world. This article is an introduction to how social sustainability can positively impact urban communities; simultaneously, it is a request for your contribution to finding clear, powerful examples of this thinking in the real world.

Social thinking from the start

In 2000, Bogotá, Colombia opened its Transmilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) system to the public. From the early planning stages, the Transmilenio network was designed to provide access to jobs for the primarily low-income communities that live on the periphery of the city. Transmilenio’s success in improving social equity by providing free feeder buses connecting low-income areas to main routes supports a larger idea: beginning every urban development decision by stressing the good of its social impacts and benefits lays the groundwork for innovative solutions to integrate equitable practices into cities’ transport policies, benefiting residents across socioeconomic statuses.

Designs that support social and cultural outcomes

Large-scale policy decisions have far-reaching social impacts, while small-scale urban design choices can influence individuals’ interactions with one another. For example, neighborhoods in the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, with its history of sectarian division, contain areas that are the marked territory of either Protestant and Catholic communities. Even the smallest details – like which side of the sidewalk one walks on, the colors of flagstones, the direction from which one enters a building – can be powerful delineators of territory and ethnic identity. In one case, a developer who wanted to build a housing complex for younger tenants with less exposure to sectarianism hired anthropologists to ensure the development met this goal. The developer tasked these social scientists with exploring the ways that street features and individuals’ movements in particular signified their ethnic identities. These social scientists recommended locating entrances to the complex in neutral areas so that residents could enter without revealing their ethnic identity. All developers can learn from this example about the social and cultural ramifications of design decisions for specific communities and contexts. Then, they should make an effort in their designs to support similarly positive outcomes.

Ongoing monitoring of social input

The way that social input is incorporated into urban design and building requires ongoing monitoring and evaluation. This ensures that social objectives are met, plans followed, and future projects are better informed. Thailand’s Ministry of Health found a way to assess the health and social impacts of The Garden City Project – a scheme to build parks, gardens and green spaces in Yala, Thailand – for public benefit. After the project’s completion, street vendors and residents were observed and interviewed in the new green areas. Researchers found increased socialization with friends and newcomers and greater opportunities for income generation, informing a set of recommendations for local authorities to further improve the project and the lives of the residents of Yala.

A new measure of success

While not yet given the focus it deserves, urban developers are becoming mindful of the business benefits of incorporating social thinking that improves the wellbeing and quality of life for urban communities. In doing so, they grow their awareness of the need to consider social sustainability in order to fulfill sustainable development incentives. There are linkages between people’s wellbeing and quality of life and a range of factors, including a) their economic productivity; b) government spending on public services; c) political stability; and d) safety and security in a nation. These can all affect conditions for developers and stakeholders’ willingness to support a project. Finding more examples of the difference social thinking makes in a development’s ability to increase quality of life is imperative towards creating a new conception of a development’s success.

Get in touch!

WRI’s research team is on the lookout for more examples of projects, particularly but not exclusively from developing world, that show how integration of social thinking into urban development scheme conception, design choices, and ongoing monitoring and evaluation has had positive impacts on the affected communities. Get in touch with Cathy Baldwin or leave a comment below to start a conversation.  

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