Broadly speaking, sustainability is usually thought of as being built upon three different pillars; economic, environmental, and social sustainability. Though these pillars are separate and unique, they interact with each other in a myriad of complex ways. ‘Economics’ is a term that has been fairly well defined, and it has played a central role in directing human operations for much of our species’ recorded history. Coupling sustainability with economics simply refers to maintaining our historical monetary systems, but modifying them in such a way that they are able to sustain themselves into the future. Similarly, environmental sustainability is a term that is frequently used in modern discourse, particularly as public awareness of environmental issues like climate change increases.
Defining Social Sustainability
Unlike the previous two pillars, social sustainability is much more difficult to define, and thus it is often considered to be the weakest of the three pillars. This is unfortunate, as social sustainability is immensely important for a city like Maple Ridge to function from day-to-day in a sustainable manner. Generally, it is understood as ‘the ability of a social system to function at a defined level of social well-being indefinitely’. The challenge that arises from this definition is that there is no clear, universal way to determine what that level of social well-being should be. It is often connected to optimizing the quality of life for those living and their descendants, but again, the understanding of ‘quality of life’ is extremely subjective and differs between groups based on nationality, religion, political affiliation, status, and many other factors. There is no tangible indicator that we can point to, the way we use the quantitative measure of GDP to evaluate economic growth.
Social sustainability is much more qualitative than it is quantitative. It addresses the ways in which members of a community live their lives and interact with each other. It intertwines the maintenance of basic human needs along with the exercising of political, economic, and social freedoms. Think of it as the difference between a surviving society and a thriving society. In a surviving society, people have enough food, shelter, and water to meet their basic needs; whereas in a thriving society, these needs are supplemented by nutrition, education, freedom, and other factors that improve the society’s health and well-being.
The central elements of social sustainability are:
Equity – equitable opportunities and outcomes are provided and barriers are broken for everyone in the community. This is especially important with regards to the poorest and most vulnerable members.
Diversity – should be promoted and encouraged within the community.
Social Cohesions – processes, systems, and structures are provided to promote connectedness and inclusion within and outside the community.
Quality of Life – the basic needs of community members are met and good quality of life (health, education, safety, employment, housing, etc.) is ensured at the individual, group, and community level.
Democracy and Governance – the community is governed through democratic processes that form open and accountable governance structures.
Maturity – individuals in the community accept the responsibility of consistent growth and improvement.
Each of these elements is important to ensure social sustainability for a community. By providing everyone with the same services and opportunities, our city will grow and develop into the sustainable community we envision it to be. Because the three pillars of sustainability are intertwined with each other, embedding the social pillar within our community will help support environmental and economic initiatives in the future. Public consultation is an excellent example of this; it is a strategy that promotes social inclusion and sustainable development.
By consulting with members of the public regarding their fears and concerns about a topic like climate change, we are able to better understand how to address those issues moving forward. Remember that climate change, and other environmental problems, disproportionately impact poorer people and minority groups, despite the fact that these people are rarely the cause for these problems. By including these people within the strategic discussion, we are better able to provide them with services and safe places in the event of an emergency.
For a society to be truly sustainable, it must address social needs and pay attention to economic opportunities within limits imposed by ecosystems and the environment. Unfortunately, there is a perception that a trade-off exists between economic success and environmental or social action. We can see this reflected in corporations who refuse to pay their workers a livable wage, or openly dispute irrefutable evidence that their actions harm the environment. These companies are happy to continue conducting business as usual, as they are able to transfer the cost of their business onto their workers and the surrounding community; thus protecting their financial bottom line.
The Benefits of Social Sustainability
Disproving this perception is extremely important for the sustainable development of a community or a municipality. Members of our community provide a wealth of educational, cultural, and economic backgrounds; and utilizing them as a resource will only benefit our city in the long term. Providing people with a high quality of life, affordable housing and services, and healthy, well-planned, walkable neighbourhoods allows the city to attract new investments and migrants. This adds economic value to the city by creating jobs and driving growth towards optimal densities, allowing services like transit, water and sanitation, health, and education to be provided in a more cost-efficient manner.
This type of sustainable development and growth allows the city to form strong connections between urban and rural communities, and to balance territorial development. This provides all our residents with greater access to markets and employment, secure food supply chains, ecological services, and well-regulated peripheral land planning. As the climate changes and adjusts our natural world around us, it is the city’s duty to protect its citizens and help them become resilient against everyday disasters and climate risks. The primary mechanism by which this is accomplished is through reducing the vulnerability of citizens to these risks. Vulnerability is reduced through provision of universal basic services, well-regulated building construction, effective ecological infrastructure like storm water drainage, early warning systems, and effective disaster management and emergency services.
By taking a holistic approach to sustainability, and addressing its economic, environmental, and social aspects, the City of Maple Ridge will be able to develop into a strong, sustainable municipality that provides fair and excellent service to our diverse community.