Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Social Sustainability, Residential Design and Demographic Balance: Neighbourhood Planning Strategies in Freiburg, Germany

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Social Sustainability, Residential Design and Demographic Balance: Neighbourhood Planning Strategies in Freiburg, Germany

Article excerpt

Social sustainability remains a relatively underdeveloped and contested field. Recalling older notions of social mixing and 'balanced neighbourhoods' two concepts of 'sustainability of community' and 'social equity' have recently emerged as core social sustainability principles, but uncertainty remains over the spatial scale at which the principles should be applied. The aim of this paper is to broaden the existing literature by means of detailed case study research on neighbourhood development in the German city of Freiburg, where demographic concentration has led to ageing in place and the undermining of community infrastructure and services. Although new car-reduced neighbourhoods of Vauban and Rieselfeld look likely to replicate this pattern, the city has shifted policy towards smaller 'fresh cell' developments designed to inject younger residents into ageing neighbourhoods to create a more even social balance, viable services and community infrastructure.

Keywords: social sustainability, demography, car reduction, neighbourhoods, Freiburg


Although sustainability discourses continue to dominate governance and planning policy agenda across Europe (Rydin, 2010), the social dimension often remains eclipsed by environmental and economic concerns. If, as a number of authors propose, these three elements together form a sustainability 'triple-bottom-line' (Davidson, 2010, 872) or even a 'three legged stool' (Evans et al., 2009, 686), then, for many, disjointed and uneven work remains. Reasons for this continuing anomaly are varied. Vallance et al. (2011, 343) note that the term social sustainability has become intimately associated with a 'brown-agenda' concerned with social development in less developed and developing countries, with only limited relevance to the higher-order needs of concern to policymakers in more developed societies. Another reason is simply that the 'conceptual chaos' undermining the utility of the term (Vallance et ab, 2011, 342) means that, in the absence of an agreed definition, common principles or goal, this element of sustainability may best be put aside until greater conceptual clarity prevails.

Ultimately, therefore, social sustainability remains widely viewed as a work in progress. Recently, however, the two concepts of 'sustainability of community' and 'social equity' (Dempsey et ab, 2012; Bramley et ab, 2006) have begun to anchor the term more securely, and have emerged to tether a range of supporting factors, including social inclusion, social capital, safety and residential stability (Dempsey et al., 2011, 291). In this way, the emergence of the two concepts as a structuring framework for a range of related and interdependent concepts has reinforced social sustainability's relevance for all societies, and has begun to draw on deeper, historic interests about residential social mix (Sarkissian, 1976) and 'social balance' (Mann, 1958) across urbanised societies.

Directly recalling these older ideas of social mix and neighbourhood balance, sustainability of community has been defined as the 'ability of society itself, or its manifestation as local community, to sustain and reproduce itself at an acceptable level of functioning' (Dempsey et ah, 2012, 94), while social equity is rooted in ideas of social justice, distributive justice and equality (Dempsey et ah, 2011, 292). The scope and complexity of the ideas that the two concepts draw upon mean that unresolved tensions can surface, for example, between the cohesive and exclusionary forces of social capital (Putnam, 2000) in community planning, the contested notions and evaluation of 'community' itself (e.g. Harvey, 2000) and in the details of community-strengthening factors, including the stability of a residential population (Sarkissian, 1976, 233) against the long-term regenerative force of residential turnover. Putting these detailed arguments to one side, a significant, if basic and long-running conceptual difficulty arises over the question of spatial scale, and the physical units of planning to which the principles of social sustainability should apply. …

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