Sustainability: placemaking and social value

What it means for the sector to be sustainable

4 February 2019

Although the environmental component of sustainable development is critical in construction, it cannot be achieved without integrating it into considerations of good-quality placemaking and social value

Sustainability is shorthand for sustainable development, a term originating in the 1987 Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, where it was defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. This original definition encompasses economic, social and environmental needs. In recent years, however, the term sustainability has frequently been used to refer to environmental responsibility alone. This is an unhelpful simplification.

In 2016, 170 countries agreed to 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a global call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. These interconnected goals are all in the spirit of the original Brundtland definition of sustainable development, covering issues as broad as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, and peace and justice, among others.

The way we at the London Sustainable Development Commission (LSDC) interpret sustainability is also in the spirit of Brundtland. The LSDC advises the mayor how to make the capital into a sustainable world city. For us, sustainable development is about creating a better life for everyone, both now and in the future. This includes:

  • having access to quality education, jobs, services, housing and leisure;
  • living in an environment that is healthy, resilient and stable, now and in the future; and
  • living and working in a society that is democratic, just, engaged, diverse, responsible, supportive and vibrant.

This is something that LSDC measures for London in its Quality of Life Indicators reports, which will soon align with the SDGs.

The construction sector is central to achieving sustainable development, first and foremost because of the significant impacts it has on people and planet, but also for the positive contribution it can make through the quality of places that it creates. In terms of environmental impacts, more than 40% of the UK’s carbon footprint can be attributed to the built environment, with 10% arising from the heating of buildings alone. Construction is also the sector responsible for the greatest consumption of natural resources, and the greatest source of waste.

Following the Paris Agreement of 2015 and the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report we know that we must limit global warming to 1.5ºC, and that by 2050 all businesses and nations will need to operate at net zero carbon emissions. Recently, the UK government has asked for advice from the independent Committee on Climate Change on setting a date for meeting this target.

The World Green Building Council (GBC) has meanwhile confirmed that to achieve this, all new buildings will need to be operating at net zero carbon emissions by 2030, and all existing buildings some time before 2050. The UK GBC has launched a programme called Advancing Net Zero that will see construction and property businesses work together to lead the transition to a net zero-carbon built environment in the UK. The multi-year programme will develop consistent approaches for the measurement, mitigation and reporting of in-use energy performance and whole-life carbon emissions.

In London alone, population is projected to increase by 70,000 every year, reaching 10.8m in 2041. This means that just to meet demand at least 66,000 new homes need to be built every single year, as well as providing spaces for tens of thousands of new jobs. If London is to achieve the mayor’s objective of becoming a zero-carbon city by 2050, a commitment made in the draft London Plan and the London environment strategy, new development needs to be net zero carbon from both construction and operation.

Similar moves are being made by other metropolitan mayors and by businesses that have London and global footprints, as evidenced by the World GBC’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment.

As well as moves to reduce the carbon intensity of construction, there has been a big rise in interest in social value in the built environment. There have been a plethora of initiatives, studies and policy developments aiming to promote quality placemaking that substantially improves the quality of life for existing and future occupiers and neighbouring uses. Partly in response to public-sector requirements and partly because construction businesses are keen to communicate the value they bring to communities, more and more companies are investing in measuring social value outcomes. When done well, efforts to measure social value are highlighting which activities are particularly beneficial for local communities, encouraging more targeted investment with a greater impact.

All of this will require quantity surveyors, project managers and other built environment professionals to improve their skills and gain new ones, quickly, and deepen their knowledge of low-carbon and wider sustainability measures. Significant work has already been done by the Green Construction Board to establish the knowledge and skills required for the transition to a sustainable construction industry, and to define standard protocols for data collection and knowledge transfer by built environment professionals. Importantly, RICS itself stressed the importance of sustainability factors wherever relevant in its revisions to the RICS Valuation – Global Standards 2017 (the Red Book).

So, it seems clear that the long-term financial performance of built assets will be motivated as much by environmental factors and social value as by basics such as location and connectivity – precisely what one would expect and hope for from a broad interpretation of sustainable development.

Sustainability: sense of scale

  • 170 countries agreed to 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals in 2016.
  • More than 40% of the UK’s carbon footprint can be attributed to the built environment.
  • All businesses and nations will need to operate at net zero carbon by 2050.
  • London population is projected to increase by 70,000 every year, reaching 10.8m in 2041.
  • To meet demand, at least 66,000 homes need to be built in London each year.

Julie Hirigoyen is a commissioner on the LSDC and chief executive of the UK Green Building Council

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