12 December 2012 — Sustainable communities are more than just a collection of green buildings. We are so focused on the word “sustainable” that we seem to forget the word “community”. And in our recent studies we have often found that the missing ingredient in the recipe for unlocking the potential of sustainable communities is the consideration of social impacts.

The Green Building Council of Australia has recently published its Pilot Tool for sustainable communities, covering six key categories. It is the categories of “Governance” and “Liveability” that seem to address some of the social sustainability objectives, which we feel need the greatest attention in future developments.  Some of the easiest to implement are suggested below to help meet these objectives.

Governance

Sustainability Awareness

  • A development’s sustainability features need to be communicated and promoted if they are to have an ongoing and lasting effect. A residents’ centre or community meeting place is an ideal spot to display information, either as permanent displays or information leaflets.  Information could include awareness of rainwater tanks, waste disposal and passive ways of cooling and heating homes, to name a few.
  • A community user’s guide could be produced for all residents and tenants. This would cover topics such as location of community facilities in the surrounding suburb (parks, schools, playspaces), location of fresh food sources, recycling and waste facilities, public transport locations and timetables, car share schemes, cycling and walking facilities.

Adaptation and Resilience

  • A Climate Adaptation Plan could be prepared to demonstrate how the community will respond to this possibility.  Identifying risks (such as bushfire) and how these risks are being managed are key components of this plan.
  • A Community Resilience Plan could be prepared that addresses preparation, during and post disaster communication, safety and response.

Liveability

Access to Amenities

  • It is important that the surrounding area provides access to parks, schools, shops, child care and sports fields to complement amenities on development sites. Onsite amenities should provide diverse recreation opportunity (playspaces, kid’s pool, fitness tracks), more shade, to adapt to climate change, and community gardens to foster social interaction and improve health outcomes.

Community Development

  • A program of events could be developed to strengthen social connections for the new community. Planned barbecues, drinks, street parties could be organised.

Healthy and Active Living

  • Provision of paths to encourage walking
  • Centralised bicycle parking facilities to encourage bike use
  • Incorporate more active play or exercise facilities into parks to cater for the expected demographics.
  • Way-finding signage to indicate location and distances to other active lifestyle infrastructure (sports fields, bike paths)
  • Urban design to promote walking and cycling and reduce use of cars – connected paths, shaded routes, pedestrian priority, permeable street networks

Access to Fresh Food

  • Incorporate a community vegetable garden into left-over open space to encourage healthy eating habits and foster social interaction.  Include access to harvested rainwater.

Of course that is not to say that green building design isn’t still important. It is. But in this regard it is not the buildings but the soft and hard infrastructure around them, which really needs to be given more consideration.

Community-based distributed energy and sustainability infrastructure is the next frontier and one that similarly has significant social and community impacts.

The idea is simple.  Design efficient buildings, consolidate capital and build integrated, community-based energy (including renewable energy), water and waste infrastructure and plug-in buildings to this sustainable infrastructure.

To achieve this, provision of district level sustainable infrastructure must be encouraged by strong environmental commitments from governments and be supported by the local government policy and planning instruments and economic infrastructure.

This system provides for better social inclusion and equity as sustainable infrastructure is made available and accessible to all community stakeholders. This two-pronged approach (buildings and infrastructure) also makes efficient building construction and operation more feasible as the large-scale sustainable infrastructure is provided at the precinct level and the cost shared by all stakeholders and not only the developer. Independent and transparent assessment of sustainability infrastructure will provide a platform for councils and developers to demonstrate their environmental credentials as well as an instrument to attract like-minded commercial partners to further foster local economic and community development.

The result is a win for the end-user, a win for the investor and a win for the environment.

Forward thinking “new communities” could be independent from mainstream utility providers. Decision-making could reside with local communities, allowing them to pool resources and develop their own integrated approach, which suits their needs.  It’s all about empowering communities to be in charge of their own destinations and be more self-reliant.

Barriers to these opportunities come in our apparent lack of foresight in the planning of our cities. Consultation with communities needs to go beyond considering immediate requirements and visioning a desired future. There is greater need for qualitative measures to assist with our analysis, reasoning, and planning for cities. This requires innovative thinking and new approaches to be considered. We must forecast a probable future and use a variety of foresight techniques to assist them in strengthening their ability to understand and plan for plausible futures.

Having worked with city planning strategies in Melbourne, and researched many others from across the globe including those of Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro, it would appear that a key challenge is to ensure that strategic plans for major urban centres are robust and adaptable enough to change as our communities change

For us to successfully develop sustainable communities, social engagement is critical. We really need to understand what type of cities we are planning for. And what exactly we are trying to sustain.

Dean Thornton is leader – Sustainable Communities Group and Tom Harrington is state leader – Land Development (VIC) at Meinhardt Australia