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Urban social sustainability: Development of an indicator set

Panel: 5. A smart new start for sustainable communities

Mahsa Bagheri, Germany
Elisabeth Dütschke, Fraunhofer Institute, Germany


The rise in the world’s population in general and urban population in particular is a current concern for scholars. The consequences of this phenomenon, namely higher energy consumptions, limited resources for future generation and potential lower living quality is an impetus to consider sustainable ways for the operation of new and existing settlements. Knowing that the phenomenon is not limited to our century, this paper draws on the concept of “Garden Cities”. More than a century ago, the Garden City movement was proposed as a solution to the deteriorated life quality in growing cities, like London. It was an answer to the drawbacks posed by the rapid industrialization and its initial idea was to build self-sustained and healthy towns, with ample greenery, providing citizens with working opportunities and basic needs at walking distance. Garden Cities emerged in a variety of countries and often still exist today; however, not all of the initial ideas were fully implemented.

Around a century after the Garden City came into existence, the definition of sustainability was introduced in the 80s. Since then, this concept has been widely discussed by numerous scholars, who have redefined and reinterpreted sustainability at various fields and scales. While environmental and economic aspects received much attention at the beginning of sustainability debate, it was only in the late 1990s that social pillar was taken into account within the sustainability development agenda and social sustainability found its way towards various disciplines and resulted in introducing concepts like sustainable communities. Acknowledging the relationship between the environmental and social sustainability aspects, this paper takes the Garden City as an example to develop the indicators of a sustainable community.

From a methodological point of view, this paper tries to pave the way to study the social sustainability in this type of urban settlement by reviewing the existing literature in this field. It covers a wide range from definition and interpretation of social sustainability to the methods and indicators to assess the concept at different urban scales. The review has among others identified around 15 definitions and 30 assessment methods for social sustainability and analyzed around 50 indicator sets proposed in different studies. The present study shows that although urban social sustainability has been widely discussed, Garden City as a settlement with its own characteristics has not yet been addressed.

To close this gap, the existing study will be used as the basis for developing a framework for social sustainability in the Garden Cities, following a four-step approach. Through the literature review the indicators for social urban sustainability are identified (step 1). By eliminating the reoccurrences and similarities, key indicators are recognized (step 2). The short listed indicators are classified into six main categories, namely: livability, equity, social cohesion/interaction, safety and security, health and leisure and urban form (step 3). Considering the characteristics of the Garden City, the least relevant indicators are removed from the categories and the list of indicators is tuned (step 4).

The framework could be sharpened in the future by adding two additional steps: a) validation of the tuned list of indicators through a Delphi study with experts who evaluate the relevance and importance of the proposed indicators and alternatively suggest the new ones, b) analyzing and weighting the results of the expert consultation using the AHP method. The insights from the example of Garden Cities could be informative for current developments like eco-communities that often have similar goals as the Garden City movement.

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