Social Sustainability: Answering to the Cohesion Needs of Globalized Cities

By Rahil Adeli

Introduction: Globalization Creates Problems and Opportunities for Social Sustainability

The quantity and quality of community cohesion in cities has undergone great changes through globalization. In terms of social and community cohesion, researchers harken to the days before the 1950s, when local communities were almost entirely oriented around a single local industry. For all of the faults, we can find with this pattern of close-knit “company towns” and their ilk, the globalization processes that have created vast new economic realities and opportunities for cities have also broken down these interdependencies, probably irreparably.  Against this baseline, processes of globalization can be said to have an inverse relationship with social cohesion. This was noted by Max Lerner in the 1950s as a crisis of “integral community” after the World War II due to “rise of the middle class accompanied by a geographical transformation of society” (Okura Gang, 2011, p. 283) due to globalization process based on emerging neoliberal societies. Beginning after World War II, emerging neoliberal societies developed new socio-economic characteristics, particularly via new migration patterns, and these imposed “new barriers to collective life and social support,” incidentally  (Klinenberg, 2001, p. 512). These transformations have increased in pace in the decades since, such that a new urban social order now exists in which the traditional bindings that once shaped urban communities no longer exist  (Forrest & Kearns, 2001). New patterns of social interactions have taken their place, but these are only imprecisely understood and not yet deeply analyzed. Understanding these new social dynamics represents a profound challenge for the urban planners of the 21st century, and an opportunity to “place the citizens at the center of public policy and realize the many ways of sharing life” (Polèse & Stren, 2000, p. vi).

Social Cohesion

Bruhn provides a historical overview of the notion of social cohesion and its definition and measurement in large groups (Bruhn, 2009). According to his research, “large groups play a major role in defining the identity and social roles of their individual members”. In larger groups such as urban settings, social cohesion is usually explained as “social order in a physical or non-physical social setting” (Dempsey N., 2009). An example of such a conception is proposed by Bramley and Power who refer to social cohesion as “people being involved and having a vested interest in society” (Bramley & Power, 2009). Different aspects are included in the proposed definition of social cohesion, from socio-economic equality to the sense of belonging to a community. Dimensions and indicators of social cohesion suggested by many scholars can generally be divided into two broad categories: social equity and sustainability of a community. In this division, social equity refers to “a fair distribution of resources and an avoidance of exclusionary practices”, and sustainable community relates to “the ability of society itself, or its manifestation as local community, to sustain and reproduce itself at an acceptable level of functioning in terms of social organization and the integration of individual social behavior in a wider collective, social setting” (Dempsey, Brown, & Bramley, 2012, p. 94; Dempsey, Bramley, Power, & Brown, 2011).

Sustainable Development and Social Sustainability

The term “sustainable development” entered the literature and practice of urban development since 1987 in the World Commission on Environment and Development. Since the release of this international formal definition and structure, the pursuit of sustainable development has vastly influenced cities. It is now mainstream in urban planning and policy-making in today’s urban management. Therefore, the future of cities will be shaped by sustainability-related concepts. The definition of sustainable development proposed in this commission is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN, 1987). The focus of this notion is to guide policymakers towards considering the equity dimensions of their decisions on others elsewhere in the world, as well as future generations’ rights to social and natural resources  (Shirazi & Keivani, 2017). Three principles of ‘ecology, economy, and society’ have been extracted from this definition as the three pillars of sustainable development. However, Barton finds this term paradoxical in nature, as “it puts together two irreconcilable principles, that of environmentally sustainability, and economic development”, that has led to “two interpretation of the term, one, eco-centric: which puts global ecology first; and one anthropocentric, which puts human well-being first” (Barton, 2000, p. 6). Providing a balance between these two standpoints is not easy to achieve and requires wise and precise theoretical and empirical explorations.

The UK government proposes an interesting definition for sustainable development: “ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come” (Government of UK, 2017), that can subtly reduce this contradiction. Such a definition “implies that we value the natural world not primarily for any abstract virtue it might have but because it is critical to our life support” (Barton, 2000). Such perspectives enhance the social and humanistic approach to sustainable development. However, it seems that such endeavors have not been that influential or successful in theory and practice inasmuch as many scholars have accused sustainable development of neglecting or paying little attention to the social dimension (Shirazi & Keivani, 2017). In order to respond to these critiques, researchers in the field of sustainable development, especially in recent years, have tried to include social aspects in addition to environmental, physical and economic concerns to fill this gap  (Bramley & Power, 2009) , usually under the name of ‘social sustainability’ (Shirazi & Keivani, 2017).

Scale Makes a Difference in Pursuing Social Sustainability and Social Cohesion

Research on social cohesion and social sustainability is conducted in different physical settings, i.e. national, provincial, city, regional, and neighborhood scales, while it is more prominent in the last three mentioned scales. In scholarly works on sustainability, many researchers consider the neighborhood scale an appropriate one at which to theorize and practice change (Sturgeon, Holden, & Molina, 2016). The relationship between high levels of social cohesion at the scale of the neighbourhood and the social inclusion and cohesion properties of whole cities, however, is contested. While the company towns of the industrial era may have offered high levels of internal cohesion out of a need for mutual aid, in today’s cities, higher levels of cohesion within the neighbourhood may indicate an unwelcoming attitude to newcomers and to change, and also to the integration of neighbourhood with larger scales. In this way, progress toward social sustainability at the neighbourhood scale may improve, have no effect on, or deteriorate the likelihood of socially sustainable cities and may instead fragment them  (Forrest & Kearns, 2001; Sturgeon, Holden, & Molina, 2016). Also, because many of the social needs of today’s citizens are answered outside the scale of the neighborhood, a socially sustainable neighbourhood may be insufficient for an overall sense of social sustainability for anyone. Therefore, the scale of physical setting considered is influential on the expectations and dimensions of social sustainability.


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