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Social sustainability: linking research to policy and practice

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In recent years the social dimension (or ‘social sustainability’) has gained increased recognition as a fundamental component of sustainable development. Previous research on sustainability has been mostly limited to environmental and economic concerns. However, social sustainability has begun to attract interest in the academia, and has recently received political and institutional endorsement as part of the sustainable communities agenda and the urban sustainability discourse. This paper explores the notion of social sustainability, together with its main research approaches, assessment methods and indicators. Further, it examines how social sustainability theories have translated into policy geared towards the promotion of social capital, citizens’ participation, capacity building and, more recently, city liveability strategies. The paper argues that traditional ‘hard’ social sustainability themes such as employment and poverty alleviation are increasingly been complemented or replaced by ‘soft’ and less measurable concepts such as happiness, social mixing and sense of place in the social sustainability debate. This is adding complexity to both the analysis of social sustainability and its implementation policies, especially from an assessment point of view. Within this context, the paper builds upon the recent ‘reductionist’ versus ‘integrated’ sustainability assessment debate and contends that there is paucity of social sustainability assessment methodologies as such. At practical level, social sustainability assessment is often conducted (i) through social impact assessment (SIA), which is extended to incorporate biophysical and economical variables or (ii) by broadening the definition of ‘environment’ and hence the thematic coverage of theme-specific assessment such as SIA. For these reasons, future research will have to focus on unravelling the underlying inter- and intra-linkages between social sustainability assessment methods, policies, indicators and themes. Further, it will have to investigate how the latter can be ‘quantified’ using simple and user friendly methods, which can be readily translated into policy by decision makers.

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