Building Magazine


Web Exclusive: Linking Communities and Built Environments

The relationship between people and built communities showcases the social side of living green.

A key aspect of building green homes, one that is gaining in importance, is paying close and careful attention to the building site. Increasingly, the emphasis is on building green neighborhoods, not just green buildings. New Urbanism has been a force within urban planning and architecture to bring the components of a village — walkability, mixed-use, neighborliness — back into North American planning. The group BioRegional has begun developing One Planet Communities within North America (they already have several in Europe — London’s BedZed being the most famous) where 10 guiding principles ensure the community adheres to strict ethical, social and environmental standards. The green building movement itself has begun to follow internal leaders like Joe Van Bellegham in taking the community, rather than individual buildings, as the unit of analysis. The LEED rating system recently expanded to include a category for neighborhoods; its 2007 annual conference GreenBuild was titled “Communities.” All of this recent interest is for good reason: creating sustainable communities is important to not only the environment, but to people’s well-being and even survival.

Douglas Farr eloquently illuminated the connections between communities and human health and well-being in his book, Sustainable Urbanism. He described the vast numbers of North Americans living in neighborhoods which encourage automobile dependence and discourage walking or spending any time outside. Housing has developed to reinforce sedentary life styles, spent mostly indoors and in isolation from one another. At the center of sustainable urbanism is an intention to reverse these trends to, among other things, create, support or revitalize neighborhoods where the requirements for achieving a high quality life can all be met without ever getting into a car. When sustainable communities happen, they not only improve environmental conditions, they get people exercising, experiencing nature and breathing clean air both indoors and out. As creatures of the planet, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that what’s good for the planet’s health is also good for ours.

But there’s another way that sustainable communities improve human health and well-being: they increase social capital. By getting people walking in their neighborhoods, by encouraging participation in local economies, people become more tightly woven into their communities. Social capital refers to the ways that we are connected to one another through trusting networks and is often thought of as the glue that holds communities together. The influential writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs was the first to bring the concept of social capital to bear upon on understanding of what makes a city safe and organized versus unsafe and disorganized. Cities that are designed to maximize informal contact among neighbors are better in almost every way.

According to many social scientists, social capital is increasingly scarce. In 2000 Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone to much acclaim and attention. His book described the unraveling of civic involvement in the last three decades of the 20th century as tens of thousands of community groups dissolved, voter turnout diminished, charitable donations decreased and myriad other indicators revealed a United States of increasingly isolated individuals. Putnam documented the toll that this disintegration of social capital has taken on everything from health to crime to educational achievement.  In our research, we found that social capital is an important element in living green; it operates as a mechanism to support long-term green living. Having social connections and meaningful bonds facilitate environmental sustainability at both an individual and a community level. As Putnam noted, “social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily.” We certainly found this to be the case for the collective problem of environmental degradation. On an individual level, I can more easily recycle, compost, not drive my car (or even not own one) and generally consume less if I have a network of neighbors, friends and like-minded comrades to help. In his book Deep Economy, Bill McKibben presented a convincing argument that hyper-individualism has taken its toll on planetary health. Acting on something as abstract as the environment is more difficult in a society which encourages us in every conceivable way to look out for Number One. When we have strong social connections or social networks, we’re more likely to think beyond our own personal needs to something larger. To see how we are connected to others and them to us is to understand that our actions impact others.

But, instead of encouraging connections, our communities and built environments have increasingly done the opposite. McKibben argued convincingly that the solution to the damage inflicted by hyper-individualism is a shift to economies that are more local in scale. By engaging in local economies, McKibben said, we are exploiting fewer resources and taking less of an environmental toll. But, perhaps even more importantly, this engagement “requires that [we] reorient [our] personal compass a little bit. Requires that [we] shed a little of [our] hyper-individualism and replace it with a certain amount of neighborliness.” And such engagements in neighborliness can begin a cycle that initiates and perpetuates the change it is seeking.

The hyper-individualism discussed by McKibben is part of the social, political and economic change that has taken place largely since World War II. Within the social sciences, a definition of the very term community is no longer taken for granted. Often used to describe and constitute a seemingly culturally distinct group, geographically bounded area or close-knit group such as a family or a town, a community is today understood as far more complex. People belong to multiple communities at any given moment; whether by self-acclamation, by socially assigned label or by engagement in social networks we move across borders by choice and necessity; we align ourselves politically with and against many engagements; we interact with, move away from and form bonds with a far larger network of virtual and real friends. Community presently is an evolving set of ideas and practices.

Dr. Vandana Shiva, world renowned environmental leader and recipient of the 1993 Alternative Peace Prize (The Right Livelihood Award), understands community in terms of citizenship; she illuminates the connections among knowledge, power, environmental and human equity. The increasing and cumulative ownership of the natural world – seeds, water, soil, oil and other resources – is the starting place for her ecological activism. “Environmental sustainability takes place when people have a stake and a share in the rewards of the conserved resource. If people have the ability to drink water from a well and look after that well, and will suffer the consequences of contamination, they will not contaminate that well. People who pollute a well or a river are the ones who don’t have to drink from it.” The challenge is to make these connections more visible in our daily lives, to speak truth to power and to shed light on the many actions that are taking place to resist environmental and social degradation.

The relationship between sustainability and communities is interdependent. The survival of the planet is not just about plants, animals and natural resources but also about people and resources. As environments become degraded, animals and plants become endangered, but so too do the cultures, languages and societies interwoven into the physical landscapes. In this context, the vividness of human culture and society as part of
the very fabric of planet Earth becomes clear.

Highlighting the Social in the Three Es of Sustainability

In 2008 when we founded Social Green, a non-profit research and educational organization devoted to social sustainability, we wanted to underscore the ways that social is already part of built environments. This book is one way to demonstrate the many ways people are already integrating social, economic and environmental sustainability into their daily residential lives. The sites described in this book showcase ways that sustainable developments repair and protect the Earth in all of its tangled complexity. They bring together human experience — with its attendant cultures, symbolic systems and politics — with the natural world. Everything is connected and interdependent. Paul Hawken equates sustainability to an infinite game. We play finite games to win, he says, but we play infinite games to keep on playing. “Sustainability; ensuring the future of life on earth, is an infinite game, the endless expression of generosity on behalf of all.” As an infinite game, sustainability necessarily involves any and all projects aimed at preserving life or promoting justice on planet Earth. Hawken goes on to say, “Any action that threatens sustainability can end the game, which is why groups dedicated to keeping the game going assiduously address any harmful policy, law, or endeavor.” In this way, Hawken declared the fundamental interconnectedness of all sustainability endeavors.

Social and environmental sustainability have long been linked. In North America, the connection between the natural world and the human community is a foundational principle of cultures in both the United States and Canada. From 19th-century indigenous communalism and religious communities to 20th-century bioregional, ecological and commune movements, people have been creating various ways to integrate and, at times, separate from the distancing effects of mainstream society.

Concepts like the triple bottom line (economic, environmental, and social sustainability) and the Three Es (economics, environment and equity) prompt us to stay focused on not just one but multiple axes by which injustices occur. When building technologies or materials increase energy efficiency, for example, the economic result is lower utility bills and increased affordability for residents with the associated social result of being able to stay in one’s home in the event of retirement, loss of a job or other financial hardship.

Like other writers on sustainable development, we draw distinctions among the economic, environmental and social, but we do so to point to their oneness. In the everyday real world, evidence of the tight links among them is abundant. And while we will demonstrate these links, as sociologists our goal is to document our observations and insights into the third circle — the social — by offering our findings and sociological lessons learned as we traveled through cities, neighborhoods and communities.

For this book, we traveled across the U.S. and Canada: from the boreal forest to urban centers, from rural outposts to coastal cities and Pacific islands. In these places we conducted research at selected communes, co-houses and lands that resist classification, urban eco-villages, social housing developments, condominiums and single-family suburban homes. We offer stories of these places: accounts of the extraordinary people who are getting them built and stories of the everyday practices of living in them. These emerged from our interviews with residents, observations of their daily residential social life and research into their development. We tell these stories alongside photos of the people and communities we met and saw. Visuals are increasingly part of the telling of one’s stories — from family photo albums to websites and blogs, people use pictures to communicate, organize and make sense of their lives. We do the same here.

What all of the sites we visited have in common is a vision of how it is possible to live differently on our planet. Each in its own way offers a beacon of hope in a world increasingly overrun by images of what is going wrong. We found a complex set of ideas underpinning people’s decisions to live green: at times these are to be good stewards for the Earth and at other times it is to struggle against injustice and inequity. Often these motivations intertwine. Multiple paths lead to the common principle and practices of sustainability we witnessed. We believe that these practices can be incorporated into all of our lives, regardless of where and how we live. In so doing, each of us can help bring about many of the individual, social and environmental benefits that living green has to offer.

Laura Mamo and Jennifer Fosket are PhD trained sociologists who have each made a career out of documenting people’s experiences and ideas as they concern health and everyday living. Jennifer Fosket is an independent researcher and writer living in Berkeley, California. Laura Mamo is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. They are co-founders of Social Green, a non-profit organization and write the blog, Social Sustainability Musings on the Social Side of Sustainability. The preceding is an excerpt from their upcoming book, Living Green: Communities that Sustain by New Society Publishers.

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