‘The architecture was award winning - but the lifestyle? There’s more going on at local cemeteries.’

The comment, in the German magazine Der Spiegel, described the City Nord development in Hamburg last year. But it could have been equally true of many new urban developments worldwide. In the UK, the only qualification to that comment might be to delete the phrase ‘award-winning’.

Half a century after Jane Jacobs wrote the seminal guide to city development, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it’s high time to stop talking about bricks and focus on people. Perhaps someone could tell that to the UK government, whose view of housing’s role in stimulating the economy seems to have come straight from the cement-mixer.

A new report from the Young Foundation is bravely trying to correct the balance. Design for Social Sustainability argues passionately, and on good evidence, that housing developments will fail unless they promote the conditions needed for full and energetic community life. Social sustainability needs to be considered as much as environmental or economic sustainability when planning new developments, it says.

HafenCity, Hamburg: design for social sustainability?


It defines this as ‘a process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work. 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.’

In doing so it builds on a decade of constructive thinking about what makes places work for people, from the Urban Task Force report of 1999 to the Egan Review of skills for sustainable communities in 2004, the good work of CABE and the under-appreciated regional centres of excellence.

But the tide has shifted. Where civil servants and ministers once sang the praises of quality design and community-led planning, the emphasis now is on getting bricks on top of each other in a way that preserves the margins of commercial housebuilders. One little-noticed paragraph in the government’s recent housing strategy set out how developers could renege on previously-agreed planning obligations if they thought they could no longer afford them.

The Young Foundation argues strongly that in a rapidly urbanising world, some of the mistakes of the past can be avoided by enabling people to create their own futures and providing ‘space to grow’ - frameworks rather than blueprints. This ought to chime with the government’s belief in localism, although it is likely to run up against the growth-at-any-price agenda that dominates Treasury thinking.

One thing missing from the argument for social sustainability, though, is a clarity about how it can align with local economic and environmental sustainability.

The vast majority of the homes built since the 1980s have been boxes for private sale, dominated by poor quality design-and-build estates developed by companies looking for high margins inflated by rising land values or a shortage of supply. The firms that have given us these homes and are energetically lobbying for the relaxation of planning rules are not suddenly going to become converts to social sustainability.

To achieve the people-focused communities envisioned by the Young Foundation and others, the process of building and development needs to be placed as far as possible in the hands of people with a continuing stake in those communities - through local builders, housing co-ops, community land trusts and neighbourhood development companies.

We will never create human, sociable cities through the efforts of people whose overriding priority is to return their sector of the economy to the old days of huge contracts and property bubbles.

But local ownership is just a start. New communities need to foster economic activity among their residents, not just link people to a wider economy that is floundering. They need to be designed in ways that allow flexible uses, homeworking, the creation of local business hubs and the exchange of locally produced goods and services.

And for economic sustainability, environmental sustainability must be central. The places we build now will need to last for centuries, not decades. They need to be as flexible and self-sufficient as possible, generating enough energy to meet their own needs and providing space to grow food..

Such adaptable, resilient places will work be more likely to work socially. But that demands vision and a determination to look to the long term - qualities in short supply as builders and planners focus on short-term survival.