Sustainable Neighbourhoods and the Importance of Community

Angus Chambers, with art by Theo Verden

In light of climate change, increased effort is being made to incorporate sustainability into urban design. Across Asia, “eco-cities” emerging, like Masdar City and the Songdo International Business District. These two are both 21st century, and were designed and built entirely from scratch.  

Similar efforts can be seen in the west, where cities are being redesigned and renovated. Building cities from scratch may be something we don’t have the capacity for in the West, due to space and financial constraints, but, we can still adopt some of these ideas on a smaller scale, such as with sustainable neighbourhoods.  

This article will look to explain how sustainable neighbourhoods should not only serve environmental interests, but also should help foster the feeling of community, and how creating this social feeling should be at the forefront for policy makers.  

What is a Sustainable Neighbourhood?

Although their definition is still largely debated, sustainable neighbourhoods can be characterised by net-zero carbon emissions, minimising waste production, green spaces, biodiversity and use of renewable resources. With these features, sustainable neighbourhoods allow citizens to meet their needs and enhance well-being without damaging the natural world or endangering the living conditions of others.  

For example, Masdar City, still under construction, in Abu Dhabi, plans to be powered by 88,000 solar panels, have only public transport and ensure 80% of water used will be recycled. In addition, they are using new technology, with movement sensors being preferred to light switches or water taps, to halve electricity and water consumption.  

Similarly, Songdo City in South Korea, completed in 2015 has also used sensors to control central heating, traffic flow and water. No resident or visitor within the city will ever be further than a 15 minute walk from a park due to the amount of green space, and there are 25km of bike lanes to encourage greener travel.  

Why are these projects so important?

Accounting for 17.5% of global emissions, energy use in buildings contributes more to climate change than transport, and emits similar amounts to the agriculture sector. Given that such a large proportion of emissions come from this sector, it is clear effort must be made to renovate and decarbonise, and sustainable neighbourhoods can help to achieve this. When designed effectively, these neighbourhoods can bring about a number of benefits, such as reducing environmental impacts, improving urban and social health, creating an aesthetically pleasing area, encouraging a connection to and respect for nature, and, most importantly, fostering a feeling of community. Examples of effective design, and their benefits will be expanded on.  

The Importance of Community

When considering environmental policies, often the impact on the people involved is not the principle concern. Sustainable neighbourhoods should tap into the social aspect of sustainability, in terms of providing a good area to live and community to be part of. The focus of this article is on this social side, and that if policy makers focus on creating communities, these neighbourhoods can be socially sustainable first and foremost. This in turn will make for a better chance of success when it comes to the environmental aspect of sustainability, which will be explained in more detail later.  

Boris Johnson, for instance, recently claimed that Margaret Thatcher’s decision to close coal mines was environmentally motivated. Despite this being a dubious claim, if we were to take it to be true, it is evident that some environmental policy, such as closing coal mines or other industrial activity, can have detrimental effects on people, and their communities. While this is not to say we should not be looking to stop environmentally harmful activities, we have to do it in a fair, just way that does not destroy communities and livelihoods. To prevent this, sustainable neighbourhoods should seek to place people at the forefront of policy. Building a community involves the environment, economy, social relationships and social justice- components which are all important in building a sustainable future.  

The Current Problem 

It is clear building a proper community is important when looking to cultivate sustainable neighbourhoods. Particularly in the West, there is reluctance among many to embrace or engage in local communities. Especially in larger cities, there is a lack of communal feeling, with many of us having become far more individualistic. While this is not always in a selfish way, capitalism has undoubtedly played a role in the destruction of community, and the pursuit of our own ends rather than those of wider society. Rather than looking outwards, many of us work for ourselves, rather than for each other, thus halting the overall improvement of communities. 

While this problem does not solely exist in the West, it is more prevalent. Community, and taking care of others is ingrained in Eastern Culture. For example, there is a cultural expectation in Japan, that younger members of the family will always look after their elders. However, it is the societal expectation in the West for children to move away from home at a certain age. Furthermore, psychological studies have shown people from the US place higher value on independence and personal achievement, and not the views of other people or wider society.  While collective sentiments have been worn away over time in the West, they remain elsewhere. While these communities can vary, we can still learn and take a lot from these ideals. For example, looking out and caring for each other, working together towards a common goal, and taking pride in where you live and working to preserve it. 

How can we make Sustainable Neighbourhoods work?

Based on information from environmental groups and academics studying in this field, systematic overhaul would be needed to achieve global climate goalsMany argue the materiality and greed associated with capitalism does not allow for actual sustainable development to occur. Essentially, while we live in a profit-motivated and money-defined society, no meaningful progress towards climate goals can actually take place. This concept can be taken further by suggesting that we also need a cultural shift, in terms of how we view nature, and what a good, flourishing society looks like. Sustainable Neighbourhoods can address both of these requirements. Similarly, it is important to consider these social and environmental elements collectively, due to their interconnectedness.  

While increasing the proportion of green space and, consequently, biodiversity, may not have the biggest impact environmentally, they can help shift the way people view nature. Being surrounded by nature can encourage a feeling of respect, and help re-position ourselves from existing alongside the natural world, to existing as part of it. Children have had time in nature gradually cut down in recent years, and studies have linked this not only to less well-rounded children and poorer academic engagement, but also to a lack of appreciation of nature. Accordingly, we must surround ourselves again with nature. Increased green space and biodiversity in sustainable neighbourhoods can work towards achieving this. Green initiatives are not only valuable with respect to their environmental impact, but also, their societal and cultural one. 

Other initiatives, such as the introduction of new technology as mentioned in Masdar City and Songdo, or more open, shared spaces could also prove to have long-term social and environmental benefits. This argument is similar to that of providing good social housing and, which is that when these facilities are provided properly, and occupants are happy, they will be looked after properly, and there will be a culture of togetherness, rather than resentment. Through these initiatives, this culture, formed through the shared goal of maintaining a sustainable neighbourhood, can be achieved. 

Providing well-run, friendly and green neighbourhoods can help with their upkeep and permanent success. Accordingly, policy makers must work towards making these communities a reality. 

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