Sustaining communities

By Will Howard - on 02/12/2015

HACT's Research Officer Will Howard blogs on why investment into building strong communities will reap benefits in the long term.

Social sustainability has recently gained prevalence alongside environmental sustainability. However, the concept itself is not necessarily a new one. Whether we call it sustainability, resilience, or another similar term, the notion that we should be aiming to create communities that can sustain themselves independently has been how we understand what matters in communities for some time.

In the last couple of decades there has been significant work done on bringing social sustainability into the core of neighbourhood and community based regeneration. However, at the current time of spending constraints and major changes for social housing providers, where does social sustainability stand? Can we afford to move away from these concepts and their community investment?

Whilst community investment offers an attractive prospect for costs savings, there is reason to suggest that we should think twice before doing so. Cutting activities that incubate social sustainability may deliver short term savings, but also has the potential to drive up costs in the long term and put the value of assets at risk. This is because, at its root, behind some of the jargon, a sustainable community is one where people want to live, where they have prospects, access to services, employment and opportunity, and one with which they feel an affinity and sense of ownership.

For these reasons, a sustainable community will be cheaper, long term for a housing provider. Principally, this is because there will be fewer voids. A sustainable community has high levels of interaction and community spirit and gives the perception of being an economically improving community, both of which create a sense of belonging and a thriving community that is much more likely to be a place residents wish to remain. Of course, this also makes it an attractive prospect as an area to migrate to, meaning that, where voids to unavoidably arise, filling them should be easier.

In addition, reduced levels of antisocial behaviour is another area for potential savings in socially sustainable communities. Communities where there is a collective sense of ownership of, and pride in, their area are less likely to engage in or tolerate disruptive or destructive behaviour, as they feel more sense of connection with what is being damaged. Further, existing antisocial behaviour problems in an area creates a vicious cycle as, as people value the area less and therefore care less about it being damaged and thus antisocial behaviour increases. Conversely, a community with low antisocial behaviour, a key aspect of a sustainable community, will see a virtuous cycle: lower antisocial behaviour creates a more attractive area, which means people value it more and hence antisocial behaviour decreases yet further.

Therefore, an unsustainable community will be more expensive over the long term, as it would experience higher voids, high turnover and more antisocial behaviour. This could potentially have an even bigger knock on effect. This sort of community is clearly not going to be one in which people want to live, which ultimately means depressed asset values. In short, a housing provider will not get much value from a home in a community in which nobody wants to live.

This should certainly sound a note of caution for housing providers looking to their community investment to deliver large savings, especially as many social housing areas teeter on the edge of sustainable and unsustainable. This means they can easily be pushed over the edge into highly unsustainable, and as we have seen therefore more expensive, communities. The positive flip side of this is that equally it does not take a huge investment to see big improvements in their sustainability.

Nonetheless, community investment does need to cut its cloth, like all areas of social housing providers’ businesses currently are. It needs to be focused on the things that matter the most, and their impact on the bottom line. Social sustainability should not be seen as an expense, but a lens through which this can be achieved. It must be a key framework that underpins the analysis of all community investment work, driving up asset values and reducing long term costs for the housing provider, whilst also making sure that we are creating communities where people want to live, now and for generations to come.

More detailed discussion of social sustainability can be found in the white paper, available here:

Are you interested in these issues? What is the role of social landlords in creating socially sustainable communities? We’d like to hear from you – contact Will at

community investment; sustainability; communities; local; investment; regeneration

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