Chapter published in Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment to 2050 by Saffron Woodcraft and Constance Smith

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A chapter has been published in Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment to 2050 - A Foresight Approach to Construction and Development by Saffron Woodcraft and Constance Smith. The chapter is entitled 'From the ‘Sustainable Community’ to Prosperous People and Places: Inclusive Change in the Built Environment'.

Chapter 4

From the ‘Sustainable Community’ to Prosperous People and Places: Inclusive Change in the Built Environment 

Saffron Woodcraft and Constance Smith

The ‘sustainable community’ as a planning goal has become so detached from lived experience it is now frequently used to describe development models that are unsustainable in local terms. Drawing on two qualitative studies in East London, this chapter examines tensions between planning policy, professional practice and everyday life in communities that are experiencing regeneration. Conflicts centre on different understandings of prosperity, sustainability and value. In local terms, sustainable communities enable people to prosper and thrive in diverse ways that go far beyond orthodox notions of prosperity as wealth and economic growth. Yet dominant models of urban development override local understandings of value. New models are needed if we are to take seriously the notion of sustainable futures in the built environment. This chapter argues for the adoption of a diverse, inclusive and sustainable understanding of ‘prosperity’ as a guiding principle to consider alternative models of urban change. A new ‘prosperity model’ that reflects local aspirations for sustainable and prosperous communities in East London is presented. Using two futures methods – scenario planning and backcasting – the authors connect current experience and future aspirations to identify three pathways to change. First, a new conversation between government, business and citizens about the about the kinds of futures we value. Second, catalysing social innovation to find new models. Third, adopting new prosperity measures to monitor progress towards change. 

Key words: sustainable prosperity, sustainable communities, alternative economies, regeneration, urban planning

4.1 Introduction: The ‘sustainable community’ in crisis
Creating sustainable communities has been at the forefront of planning policy since the New Labour era. In this chapter, we argue that the ‘sustainable community’ is no longer a meaningful or productive planning goal. We draw on new qualitative data from two research projects in East London: one exploring what the idea of a sustainable and prosperous community means to people living and working in three neighbourhoods in and around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park[1]and a second with a team of architects, planners, house builders and regeneration practitioners engaged in planning and designing a new urban neighbourhood (Woodcraft, 2016). We argue that the term ‘sustainable community’ has become so elastic and ambiguous it is now frequently used to describe development models that are unsustainable in local terms. We examine how people living through change and regeneration in three East London neighbourhoods experience conflicts between planning policy that promises sustainability and day-to-day realities of unaffordable housing, insecure employment and anxieties about displacement. Our research shows these conflicts often centre on questions of value: What value does change in the built environment generate? Who benefits and how? How can the ‘social value’ of a strong and inclusive community be reconciled with the economic value generated by rising land and property values? 

We argue that to take seriously the question of sustainable futures in the built environment, policymakers and practitioners must confront the tensions and conflicts inherent in current models, which are undermining trust in the planning system. We need new ways of thinking and working that are more closely aligned with lived experience and which take into account communities’ own aspirations. We present a ‘prosperity model’ as a way to challenge current thinking about what constitutes sustainable and prosperous communities and to identify new pathways to sustainable futures. Grounded in the day-to-day experiences and aspirations of people living in East London, the model represents the conditions and aspirations that research participants say they, and their communities, need to prosper. This work clearly shows sustainable and prosperous communities are understood as places that support people to flourish and thrive in diverse ways that go far beyond orthodox notions of prosperity as wealth creation and economic growth. We argue for the adoption of ‘prosperity’ as a guiding principle to building equitable, sustainable futures (Moore, 2015). Understood as diverse, inclusive forms of human flourishing within sustainable environmental limits, prosperity offers new ways of thinking about the built environment holistically, as a long-term social good rather than as short-term financial gain. Using the qualitative findings of our East London research, and based on the experiences of the research participants, we develop a scenario of a sustainable and prosperous community in 2050. Using backcasting techniques, we then identify pathways that can lead from current experience towards the realisation of this future scenario.


4.2 Sustainable communities: an ambiguous goal in an unsustainable system

In 2003, the Labour government launched the Sustainable Communities Plan (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2003). This defined the ‘sustainable community’ as a socio-economic model of place in which aspirations to create socially inclusive and economically thriving communities were integrated with good quality housing and infrastructure. The Sustainable Communities Plan listed 12 of the ‘most important requirements of sustainable communities’, four of which referred to social aspects: strong leadership to respond positively to change, effective engagement and participation by local people, groups and businesses in long-term stewardship of their community, a diverse, vibrant and creative local culture, encouraging pride in the community and cohesion within it, and a ‘sense of place’ (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2003: 5).

New housing and neighbourhood regeneration were established as the main policy instruments for delivering this vision. Under the plan, new social housing and social infrastructure were to be funded through the development and sale of private housing, which established a new reliance on partnerships between government and private-sector house builders (Raco, 2005). In the subsequent 13 years, an extensive body of literature has questioned how effective this policy agenda has been at creating places that are inclusive and sustainable in social and economic terms. Critics argue that estate regeneration, most notably in urban areas, has tended to displace low-income populations and undermine local social cohesion (Lees, 2008, 2014). New house building, meanwhile, often fails to provide homes that are genuinely affordable in local terms, pricing local people out of the market and producing social and financial exclusion of a different kind.

In this section, we explore the shifting political and economic conditions that have seen the ‘sustainable community’ evolve from a holistic policy goal to a fragmented idea used by house builders to demonstrate competitive advantage. We describe what the sustainable community has come to mean in practice, drawing on in-depth interviews with a house builder and team of architects and regeneration practitioners working on the planning, design and construction of a new neighbourhood in East London, and in-depth interviews with house builders, planners and architects working separately on urban regeneration and estate renewal programmes in London (Woodcraft, 2016).

In 2004, the Egan Review was commissioned to conduct an assessment of the professional built environment skills needed to develop the then Labour Government’s sustainable communities agenda. The Egan Review called for a holistic and joined-up approach to delivery involving a range of governmental, private sector and civil society actors (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2004: 37). However, since 2010, financial and institutional support for the sustainable communities agenda has gradually been withdrawn. This retraction has undermined institutional capacity, in local government in particular, to deliver on the Egan Review and subsequent strategies. Meanwhile, planning reform and the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) have moved away from the former holistic approach and strengthened the link between planning, development and economic growth, as this extract from the NPPF clearly shows:

Sustainable means ensuring that better lives for ourselves don’t mean worse lives for future generations. Development means growth. So sustainable development is about positive growth – making economic, environmental and social progress for this and future generations. (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2012: i) 

This shift towards sustainability-as-economic-growth illustrates the elasticity that the term ‘sustainable’ has acquired. This ambiguity has created a discursive space in which the ‘sustainable community’ can be reimagined and reinterpreted by house builders, planners and sometimes communities themselves. Woodcraft’s research (2016) shows that one consequence of this reinterpretation has been the fragmentation of the holistic ‘sustainable community’ into distinct elements. This extract from an interview with a major house builder illustrates the operational distinctions made between the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability: 

Environmental sustainability is a hygiene factor now everybody else is doing it. It doesn’t mark you out at all and you have no choice anyway. Being sustainable…in future, it won’t be about environmental. That leaves economic: not easy to deliver but easy to define and count jobs, apprenticeships, and you have to do it. And social: hard to count, hard to define, not assumed to be our expertise.

As this interview makes clear, environmental sustainability is now highly institutionalised and a taken-for-granted element of planning, architecture and construction. This is in part because it has become defined and understood in terms of environmental assessment frameworks such as the Code for Sustainable Homes, first launched by New Labour in 2007.[2]Social sustainability, on the other hand, lacks such institutionalised frameworks, and is much more amorphous and open to interpretation. One house builder described how it is regarded in the sector as ‘unclaimed territory’;a new space for architects, planners and developers to signify innovative practices and differentiate themselves in a highly competitive market. As such, the ‘social’ aspects of sustainable communities – such as the presence of community groups, positive relationships with neighbours, community events that make people feel involved, included and belonging to a place – are increasingly recognised by house builders as having financial value, even if is difficult to establish exactly how to quantify that value. In this sense, recognising the value of social sustainability to built environment initiatives follows a logic already established by the value-generating potential of the ‘environmental’. Several authors have described the emergence of entrepreneurial modes of urban governance in the UK during the 1990s and 2000s, which saw cities competing to attract investment (While, Jonas and Gibbs, 2004; Cugurullo and Rapoport, 2012; Brand and Thomas, 2013). Urban (environmental) sustainability has figured significantly in this space, in particular landmark projects like eco-cities or sustainable architecture (see, for example, While et al. (2004)). Cugurullo and Rapoport (2012: 2), for example, observed how many urban sustainability projects sought to fit environmental considerations into ‘a tool that is largely about property development’ and were ideologically grounded in the belief that sustainable development ‘can and should be a profit-generating activity’.

In consequence, professional perspectives on what constitutes the ‘social’ in ‘social sustainability’, and who should take responsibility for it, are often highly selective. Academic literature describes social sustainability as a product of the relationship between change in the built environment – specifically regeneration and new housing development – and the creation of well-being, social capital and certain practices of citizenship at the neighbourhood level (Colantonio and Dixon, 2010; Dempsey et al., 2011; Weingaertner and Moberg, 2011; Magee, Scerri, and James, 2012; Murphy, 2012). By contrast, Woodcraft’s research suggests that in practice many house builders de-limit their responsibility for the social aspects of sustainability by distinguishing between ‘placemaking’ activities and public services. For example, high levels of health and education are understood by house builders to be essential aspects of sustainable communities but, as public services, they are regarded as the remit of local government. Instead, ‘placemaking’ projects – interventions that support community engagement or foster a sense of belonging – have become a popular way for house builders to indicate that their projects can contribute to sustainable communities. These projects can take a range of forms, including timebanks, street parties, pop-up cafes or community gardens. They can be useful ways to build community interaction and local participation, but are not able to address more deep-seated community concerns. In this way, the social aspects of the sustainable community – originally defined as social cohesion, inclusion and belonging – are broken down into ‘deliverable’ categories that can be operationalised as part of development and regeneration programmes. 

Over the last decade, the holistic definition of the ‘sustainable community’ has slowly disintegrated, with the social dimensions gradually being separated out and reinterpreted. Our research shows that the terms ‘sustainable community’ and ‘social sustainability’ are used loosely, interchangeably and in ambiguous ways. Increasingly, social sustainability is being reconfigured as a value-generating practice. This has had the effect of hollowing out the ‘sustainable community’ as a policy goal. We argue the very elasticity of ‘the sustainable community’ in discourse, policy and practice has allowed its application to unsustainable models of development, from regeneration programmes that displace homeowners and tenants to the rise of affordable housing policy that bears no relation to median household incomes. It is clear from these accounts that policymakers and practitioners need to acknowledge these tensions and reconfigure both what we mean by sustainable futures and the most appropriate methods of arriving there.

4.3 Local perspectives on sustainable and prosperous communities
The language of sustainability is not merely an academic concern, it has material repercussions in everyday life. As the previous section shows, the discursive framing of the sustainable community determines the parameters for action and works to ‘transform the perceptible into non-obvious meanings’ (Rydin, 1999: 467). In this section, we examine what a sustainable and prosperous community means to people living in three East London neighbourhoods and how these meanings are mediated by rapid changes in the built environment. The accounts we present demonstrate how interviewees – despite their different circumstances – described a shared understanding of the conditions needed for people and places to prosper, and how these conditions vary in each neighbourhood to produce different experiences of change. Building on these accounts, we develop a ‘prosperity model’ as a tool to consider alternative pathways to sustainable futures, which we argue are more meaningful and productive because they are grounded in lived experience.

In 2015, the authors were part of a research team at University College London (UCL)'s Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) working on a pilot study exploring new ways of thinking about, and measuring, the development of sustainable and prosperous communities in East London. The pilot study sought to respond to the tensions and shortfalls revealed in studies of the sustainable communities policy agenda by developing two new strands of thinking. First, to explore what a sustainable and prosperous community means in local terms, particularly in the context of the rapid social and economic change underway in East London that is associated with the Olympic Legacy and wider processes of urban expansion. Second, based on these accounts, to develop new tools for conceptualising and measuring sustainable prosperity that, crucially, reflect local experience, priorities and aspirations. The pilot focused on three case areas: East Village, a new neighbourhood directly adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (QEOP), part of a neighbourhood in Stratford and part of Hackney Wick. The research team included academics and ten community researchers who live and work in the areas of study (see Figure 4.1). The local knowledge of the community researchers was invaluable, and they participated from the outset in designing research questions and developing methodologies.


4.3.1         Pioneers and paninis: local narratives of change
Each research site has its own distinct experience and narrative of change, which shapes how people living and working locally feel about regeneration in East London. The diversity of individual experience was considerable – the pathways that had led interviewees to start a life in East London had, unsurprisingly, taken enormously divergent trajectories. Yet despite this, there were interesting commonalities across the study sites. The majority of interviewees, regardless of social or ethnic background, housing tenure or employment status, said they welcome investment in housing, transport and the public realm. Yet at the same time, almost all felt anxious and uncertain about the likelihood of ‘local’ people and organisations being able to benefit from new housing, facilities and employment. A common theme was the sense that urban development in East London is an unstoppable process – a ‘tsunami’, as one interviewee said – that local communities feel they have little power to influence. This was not only reported by those who had lived in low-income neighbourhoods in East London for many years, but by those who had recently moved to new housing developments. Though interviewees had had different experiences of change and regeneration, their perspectives about the opportunities represented by such changes did not correlate with their class, culture, profession or length of residence in East London. 

What was clear from the study was that very few of our interviewees felt secure amid the changes that were underway in their neighbourhoods. The confluence of rising housing costs, changing working practices, urban development and wider economic conditions affects people from a variety of backgrounds. Young professionals living in East Village were as likely to share anxieties about the pressure of rising housing costs and the prospect of being priced out of the neighbourhood as long-term social housing tenants in Stratford and Hackney Wick. Many interviewees were frustrated at the lack of scope for communities to shape planning or have a stake in future development, and were keen to see alternative housing and development models alongside conventional, private-sector-led schemes. Urban development models that focus on generating short-term economic value for private corporations were generally felt to be at odds with a much broader, local notion of prosperity that prioritises social and economic inclusion, and where the benefits of investment can be recouped by existing communities.

People living in East Village – previously the Olympic Athletes’ Village of QEOP – are Olympic Legacy ‘pioneers’ and our interviewees frequently described themselves in those terms. They are the first group of people to experience the day-to-day reality of life in the Olympic Park. Being an Olympic pioneer brings with it a strong sense of belonging to the neighbourhood. People frequently expressed excitement at being part of something new and described how this feeling is translated into everyday social interactions in the neighbourhood. This quote from Lucy, who had lived in East Village for a year at the time of our interview, best describes this feeling:

It's almost like the normal rules of city living don’t apply to the East Village…we have met people we would never have met if we lived on a normal suburban street in London. The only connection we had was that we were all living in the spirit and that was enough to start friendships with people.

Nevertheless, interviewees of diverse backgrounds also described concerns about the way inequalities can be entrenched, rather than ameliorated, by new housing development in East Village and East London more widely. East Village residents described how tensions emerged between people living in private and affordable housing over housing management rules. Different categories of resident were subject to different restrictions, such as whether or not they were allowed to keep bicycles inside or dry laundry on their balconies. Community events were also not always inclusive of residents in different types of tenure. Irrespective of their tenure type – private rental, affordable rental or shared ownership – our research participants felt that such rules and restrictions worked to draw attention to social and economic differences in a way that undermined other types of community connection. Some interviewees also felt that residents had little influence over the future of East Village, and did not feel able to contribute to the future shape of their community. Developers who are currently building new housing in and around East Village were perceived as having ‘a free rein to do as they wish’. Although developers are clearly subject to planning regulations, this perception of unaccountability and lack of public engagement is important, as it helps to shape community sentiment and experiences. 

Generally, East Village residents described themselves as feeling prosperous – in the sense of having a very good quality of life and opportunities – but that this prosperity was not secure. Few interviewees felt able to make plans to stay longer than a year or two. The high costs of housing and management fees were reported as the main reasons why people are likely to move on, conditions that interviewees recognised as likely to undermine the sense of community that is so highly prized by pioneer residents. One resident, who lives in what is officially designated as ‘affordable’ housing, told us: 

It’s hard to make it sustainable because I pay such a premium to live here…If prosperity is living in a great place, having a fantastic school and great quality of life then I am prosperous. But it’s a struggle to hold on to this, to pay for it…You can get on if you can afford to live here. 

Interviewees in the study site in Stratford, on the other hand, had a different experience of regeneration. Participants here described regeneration as either ‘something that is passing us by’ or as synonymous with ‘gentrification’ and the departure of longstanding residents from local communities and the borough as a whole. Sometimes referred to as ‘old Stratford’, this site is relatively further from the recent radical reshaping of the QEOP, as well as related investments such as Westfield and multiple new housing developments. Seeing few material improvements in the immediate neighbourhood, many residents described a sense of exclusion from the Olympic Legacy. The dilapidated public realm, sex workers on local streets, and poor quality and overcrowded housing were cited as evidence that the Olympic Legacy was yet to reach them. A feeling of exclusion was compounded by the sense that local amenities and spaces were under threat from the development of new high-end shops at Westfield and luxury housing in the Olympic Park, which were not intended to appeal to local people. One interviewee who has worked in Stratford for more than 20 years made this clear when she described Stratford High Street and Stratford Shopping Centre as symbolic of the social divide between the ‘new and old East End’:

They have a view of a middle class, upper class set of people who are gonna move into these homes…Not everyone can afford to shop at Westfield. The idea was Stratford Shopping Centre would close, but it holds its own cos people can’t afford to eat at Westfield…Legacy should be about incorporating the past as well as the present…[but now] it’s all about elitism and not fitting in with the existing community…I wish we had the old cafes, that part of East London has gone…now it’s all paninis. It’s a shame.

The site in Hackney Wick was particularly varied in terms of diversity of residents and types of housing. Our pilot study interviewed a range of residents, from long-term tenants of a former council estate (now a mix of housing association tenants, privately rented and privately owned households) to artists sharing informal live–work units in ex-warehouses to owners of new residential flats. What was notable was that despite their socio-economic background and form of residency, many interviewees felt that their life in Hackney Wick was precarious, though this precarity was experienced in different ways. Many were concerned about the poor quality of local housing, rising housing costs and social rented housing being replaced with new private or ‘affordable’ housing as a consequence of new development. Job security, household security and opportunities for work and education were also discussed in anxious terms. Interviewees in shared live–work units were concerned about short-term leases that threatened their capacity to continue to live and work in the neighbourhood, while those from the former council estate described how it was particularly difficult for young people from working class and minority ethnic backgrounds to access employment. Interviewees felt that East London’s renaissance was not making the local community more sustainable, rather it was further exposing already vulnerable and disadvantaged areas through rapid changes to the social mix and intensifying competition for local resources. A long-term resident of Hackney Wick who runs a charity based in East London described this feeling of insecurity: 

The situation is precarious for people around here. The combination of unaffordable housing, zero hours contracts, portfolio careers…people have no security. This is a toxic mix…there are local kids who can’t get a foothold in the local job market regardless of their work experience. They are on zero hours contracts so they can’t get a house, and if they can’t get a house they won’t be able to stay locally.

Across the three sites, prosperity for our interviewees was understood to mean flourishing, thriving and doing well in a very broad sense. Material security – in the sense of quality employment and housing – was recognised as an essential foundation of prosperity, but it was felt that the current focus on wealth creation and economic growth was only delivering this security to a tiny minority. Indeed, current regeneration practices were felt to be increasing tenancy insecurity, population churn and anxiety about the future. Our interviewees’ remarks about employment contracts, tenure types, leisure opportunities and the importance of history and belonging demonstrated their understanding that building sustainable communities requires the intersection of many complex factors. In the full interviews, the importance of social networks, healthy environments, personal development, time for family and friends and maintaining a work/life balance were also emphasised. We collated these reported factors and used them as the basis for a ‘prosperity model’, which we describe in the next section. 

4.3.2         Sustainable and prosperous communities: a local model 
We have argued that local meanings and aspirations for sustainable places are in conflict with current planning policy and development practice. Analysis of our interview data shows that almost 100% of the 256 people who participated in the pilot study felt that East London’s regeneration strategies are not creating communities that are sustainable or prosperous in terms that are meaningful to local people. Tensions revolve around different economies of value and their place in hierarchies of power. The critiques of the ‘sustainable community’ presented here are a further contribution to a wider body of literature examining the social consequences of urban planning and development (Lees, 2008; Lupton, 2008; Lupton and Fuller, 2009; Cohen, 2013; Watt, 2013). East London has a particularly rich history of sociological work that dates back to Charles Booth’s Poverty Maps (Young, 1934; Young and Willmott, 1957; Dench, Gavron, and Young, 2006). The question of sustainable futures in the built environment is therefore neither new nor lacking examination. The challenge is to move beyond well-rehearsed arguments to identify credible and viable pathways to change. IGP’s prosperity model is directly intended to address this.

Despite their diversity of experience, our interviewees showed considerable commonality in terms of what sustainable prosperity means to them and the factors that are important or essential to achieving it. We use these factors as a basis for developing a prosperity model to advance thinking about developing new pathways to sustainable prosperity for local communities. At the time of writing this work is still in development as the findings of the pilot study are translated into a conceptual model and a set of prosperity measures capable of tracking progress towards, or away from, local visions of prosperity.[3]A close examination of the interview data revealed 16 general factors that interviewees in all three research sites described as the conditions people and places need to prosper. The relative importance of these factors varied depending on the individual circumstances of interviewees, but they were sufficiently consistent to represent a set of conditions that can be generalised to other neighbourhoods. The 16 factors were grouped to reflect the way interviewees had described the relationships and overlaps between different aspects of prosperity. This enabled us to produce a model with five high-level dimensions (see Table 4.1) articulating what sustainable prosperity means in local terms.

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 Table 4.1  Sustainable prosperity: contributory factors identified in the Prosperity in East London Pilot Study (2015) © IGP

 Analysis of the interview data using these categories identified that concerns associated with socially inclusive change and value creation were the most pressing in all three research sites. Good quality and secure local employment, housing that is affordable in local terms, improved local economic development with opportunities for local businesses and the meaningful involvement of local communities in decisions about change were the issues our research participants felt were most important to the prosperity of their local communities. Yet in many cases, these issues were also identified as the most vulnerable to pressure from planning and development that seeks to maximise financial returns on local land and assets. Rising land values, commercial rents and housing costs, in conjunction with financial models that rely on private sector investment to provide affordable housing are felt, as one long-term Hackney Wick resident described, to privilege ‘outsiders over locals’. 

IGP’s prosperity model has been designed to respond directly to these concerns about value. What frustrated many people was the lack of scope for alternative economies of value that reflect local priorities that could co-exist with dominant models. Cafes, pubs, low-cost workspace and neighbourhood shops are what our interviewees described as ‘ordinary’ places, which are important sites for social life in the neighbourhood. Such spaces are often viewed in planning terms as ‘under-utilised’, ‘under-developed’ or ‘under-capitalised’, yet have social and symbolic value that matters as much as their practical and economic contributions to the neighbourhood. A long-time community activist working in Hackney Wick had this to say about the importance of ‘ordinary’ places in maintaining a sense of inclusion for long-term residents:

We don’t need more health food…no bulgar wheat or soy latte…we need normal food at decent prices so older people can afford a cup of tea or young people, who frankly have nowhere else to go, can find somewhere to get together.

All this suggests that understanding what prosperity means, and identifying how to move towards it, needs to be a localised effort. It is at the local level that policymakers, businesses and communities can interrogate what it means to live a good life and intervene to improve opportunities and conditions. In the next section, we use foresight methods to develop ideas for policies and practical interventions that can help to realise what our interviewees’ aspirations for truly sustainable, locally meaningful, community prosperity might look like. 

4.4 Connecting the future and the present 
In this section, we build on the accounts of research participants in IGP’s 2015 Prosperity in East Londonpilot study to develop a future vision. We use two foresight methods, scenario planning and backcasting, to construct a scenario of a sustainable and prosperous East London community in 2050. We then use backcasting as a method to suggest possible pathways, models and policy directions needed to make this future possible. Backcasting is a technique to connect future scenarios to present conditions by identifying possible causal relationships between pathways and outcomes. Well-established in foresight studies, backcasting is a popular approach in planning for sustainable development. In such studies, a future vision or outcome is imagined from which researchers or planners work backwards to identify the steps needed to make such a vision a reality (Carlsson-Kanyama et al., 2008). In this case, we use backcasting as a tool to contemplate the changes necessary to catalyse new approaches to urban development that are genuinely inclusive and socially sustainable.

The 2050 scenario we are working with in this paper is unusual in the sense that it is primarily grounded in qualitative data about lived experience and relies less heavily on macro socio-economic trends data than is commonly used for scenario planning. In addition, we are working with one scenario that articulates ‘sustainable futures’ from the perspective of research participants, rather creating a group of scenarios to ‘future proof’[4]a particular strategy. This decision is intentional. Our 2050 scenario seeks to challenge normative practices and open up space for thinking about alternative models of urban living.

Scenario: East Town, 2050 – A model for sustainable and prosperous urban development
It is 2050, 38 years after the London Olympics, and 20 years after the conclusion of the city’s Olympic legacy regeneration programme. East Town exemplifies innovative and experimental approaches to housing, urban development and regeneration in East London. East Town’s inclusive model of sustainable development was made possible by East Borough’s adoption of a Prosperity Innovation Strategy in 2016. The Prosperity Innovation Strategy to 2050 was produced in response to London’s 2015 work and housing crisis. It observed that pressure on wages, zero-hours contracts, poor educational attainment, entrenched poverty, ‘…rising housing costs and increasing pressure on inner-London neighbourhoods from global buy-to-let investors, combined with continued public sector spending cuts, were…’ [LM1] were forcing residents and employers to relocate and thereby threatening the stability and future prosperity of the borough.

The Prosperity Innovation Strategy recognised that fundamentally different ways of thinking about work, housing and education had to be developed to address these threats. East Borough set goals to develop socially and economically inclusive models of development and service delivery that recognised work, housing and education as inter-related and inter-dependent foundations of sustainable and equitable prosperity. The borough established cross-sector and cross-disciplinary partnerships tasked with identifying global best practice and bringing innovative thinking and approaches from business, the community and academia to bear on challenges related to work, housing and education. One such initiative is the Urban Development Innovation Institute – a partnership between East London councils, universities, developers and employers that was established to drive experimentation and test new approaches to urban regeneration.

As part of the Prosperity Innovation Strategy the council adopted a Diversified Development Programme (DDP) to provide housing and work space that is genuinely affordable in local terms. It also enables the council and local communities to capture the value of local development and to recycle the surplus into research and innovation, services and projects. The aim of the DDP is to encourage new development models that create inclusive, sustainable and prosperous communities with a mix of housing tenures and live–work spaces to rent or own. 

The DDP has encouraged a number of new development vehicles, including a council-owned development company to construct new housing and workspaces that are offered at ‘East Town living rents’. These were introduced in 2018 to ensure housing costs are no higher than 30% of median household incomes for the neighbourhood rather than the discounted market rent offered at the peak of London’s 2015 housing crisis. A Community Land Agency has also been established, with the remit to bring forward parcels of land for community-led development by co-operatives, land trusts or community co-living companies, and to build innovative ‘self-finish’ apartment blocks as low-cost home ownership options for housing associations and community co-operatives. These vehicles operate alongside conventional developer-led models offering private, for-profit housing for sale. Together these measures have reduced the ratio of median household earnings to house prices from the peak of 10.10 in 2015 to the 1999 ratio of 3.64.[5]

Sharing economy principles are embedded in new housing and commercial developments. New communities have food gardens – a mixture of individual allotments, community growing spaces and food business spaces – to localise food production and make fresh food more accessible in low-income neighbourhoods. Local planning policy ensures car and bicycle schemes are expanded for every additional 100 new households in the borough (including the conversion of existing houses into apartments by individual landlords) and developments above 50 new households include car share membership in the rent or sale price.

Olympicopolis, the Olympic Park’s cultural and educational quarter, has become established as the capital’s innovation, research and creative industries hub. Establishing a light industrial zone in the neighbourhood has protected East London’s long-established manufacturing businesses. East Borough’s council-owned development company purchased a portfolio of warehouse and workshop spaces that are now held in a Community Enterprise Trust to offer ‘East Town working rents’ – rents set to reflect the turnover of local businesses – in perpetuity for local creative and artistic enterprises. Affordable workspaces have enabled East London’s arts and creative industries to remain in the area, build new links with incoming major cultural institutions and develop educational outreach and apprenticeship programmes that now provide proven pathways to employment in creative industries for young people in East London.

East Borough has established a number of council-owned social enterprises. An example of these is a neighbourhood retrofit company that runs a programme to replace windows on social and private housing and commercial premises across the borough with energy-generating solar glass. The company is part of a green-tech R&D partnership working from Olympicopolis that provides jobs, training and apprenticeships to local people. The neighbourhood retrofit company is the first of its kind in the capital and generates revenue by providing services to other councils and private developers.

This scenario may sound idealistic in the context of the critiques described earlier in this chapter. Yet people’s aspirations for secure and good quality employment, decent schools and life chances, affordable and stable housing are not – or should not be – utopian. For our research participants, the absence of these aspects in their daily lives shapes their vision for individual and community prosperity. Furthermore, though this scenario might sound like a distant vision, in fact there are many innovative small-scale projects across London and the UK that are experimenting with alternative ways to create inclusive change and local value. Though small-scale, these projects nevertheless provide a basis from which to consider the pathways and policy directions that could connect the East Town 2050 scenario to the present. In the next section we propose three such pathways: first, a new national conversation about value and prosperity in the built environment that re-frames how we understand and balance social, economic and environmental needs; second, catalysing social innovation in the housing sector to bring new thinking to the complex problem of equitable and inclusive development; and third, developing new methods for understanding and measuring the relationship between local prosperity and change in the built environment.

4.5 Building prosperity: re-thinking value and innovation in the built environment
4.5.1         A new conversation 
The first step towards creating sustainable futures in the built environment is a new type of conversation between government, citizens, policymakers and built environment practitioners. By asking new questions from different angles, it becomes possible to gain fresh perspective on seemingly entrenched problems. This conversation must address fundamental questions about the kinds of futures that are valued and how building sustainable and prosperous places is integral to achieving this vision. Crucially, this debate needs to take place not only within boardrooms, design studios or council offices, but with and among communities themselves. It is, we argue, only when communities’ own experiences are properly engaged in every stage of urban development – from planning to evaluation – that key problems can be identified, and vital feedback loops and processes of learning can be integrated.

Our research identifies a disconnect between current approaches to urban development, which are highly fragmented and prioritise return on investment, and local notions of sustainability, which communities know from experience is shaped by a complex set of intersecting factors. This disconnect is, in part, a consequence of starting from the wrong problem. Rather than innovating for environmental integrity and human well-being, too often in urban development the primary concern is to maintain the status quo – and the bottom line. How do we look beyond urban development models founded in profit and economic growth to realise a form of planning that addresses social progress, quality of life, opportunity and aspiration? These are difficult questions, yet it is clear the current growth-focused, market-led mode of development is amajor obstacle to genuinely prosperous future communities. Failing to address such fundamental tensions will only continue to entrench issues of social and financial exclusion. 

There is growing consensus that orthodox economic growth models are unsustainable, not just in a context of finite planetary resources but because the forms of development they have delivered are acutely unevenly distributed (Eisler, 2008; Jackson, 2011; Gower, Pearce and Raworth, 2012; Mason, 2015). Jackson (2011) has argued that prosperity without growth is not only possible, but desirable; it entails a shift in perspective that puts people’s everyday lives back at the heart of economic planning and policy. Moore argues for the adoption of ‘prosperity’ – rather than ‘development’ – as a guiding principle for change. Understood as ‘diverse forms of human flourishing’,prosperity encompasses the health of society, inclusive models of development, civil liberties and active citizens who are involved in co-producing their equitable futures within sustainable limits of the planet’s resources (Moore, 2015: 804, 811). These kinds of debates about the social sustainability of economic models are re-evaluating some long-held assumptions about what constitutes national and international development and how we think about successful countries. We understand the challenge now to be how to expand on these conversations to rethink urban development policy, planning and practice. In short, to imagine a ‘new normal’for urban development that moves away from a singular notion of ‘value’ towards a plurality of ‘values’.

In the scenario above, we imagined how 2015’s housing crisis might catalyse such fundamental debates. In our vision for East Town, these conversations initiated a systemic refiguring of what delivering ‘sustainable urban futures’ might look like. This was a deliberate attempt to rethink the kinds of reactions the crisis has provoked thus far. London’s unaffordable rents and skyrocketing house prices – and in particular high-profile cases such as the New Era housing estate and the controversial redevelopment of the Heygate Estate – have indeed attracted considerable public comment.[6]Yet the official response has been short-sighted and far from comprehensive. In an attempt to relieve the pressure on housing and increase supply, the government is investing in expanding the private rented housing (PRS) sector. Two publicly-funded schemes are intended to stimulate development of 10,000 new private rented homes: the £1 billion Build to Rent Fund and the Private Rented Sector Debt Guarantee Scheme to support low-cost private sector borrowing (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2015: 9, 10). Such schemes, instead of analysing the roots of the crisis and tackling unaffordable housing by looking for new ways to radically cut housing costs, continue to entrench issues of affordability by replacing one increasingly unaffordable form of tenure (owner-occupation) with another (private renting). 

We use our 2050 scenario to illustrate an alternative future. In doing so, our aim is to illuminate tensions and contradictions with current policy and to identify potential pathways to change in order to begin new conversation. Such conversations are not easy to have and they do not deliver quick answers. But if future investments in the built environment are to support sustainable long-term and inclusive prosperity, then it is crucial that policymakers start from the experiences of the communities whose prosperity is at stake. The East Town 2050 scenario is based on our qualitative research with residents in East London, in which, together with local community researchers, we started by asking fundamental questions about what prosperity means to them, and what kind of changes need to happen to realise such futures. This has initiated a very different vision, one that recognises how an apparently discrete issue like unaffordable housing intersects with other factors like employment insecurity and poor educational and health indicators. And, just as importantly, how local prosperity is shaped by economic and political systems that are outside the neighbourhood. 


4.5.2  Catalysing social innovation
As we work back from this scenario to develop pathways to sustainable community prosperity, it is crucial that we keep such conversations in focus. This requires a multi-sectoral response and a diverse set of models, strategies and interventions that are grounded in local realities. This is why our imagined ‘prosperity innovation strategy’ engages councils, developers, employers and researchers, as well as communities themselves, in working together on situated responses. 

The second proposed pathway towards our Scenario 2050 moves from the discursive transformations described above to look at tangible, practice-led innovations needed to deliver equitable and inclusive change in the built environment. As our scenario makes clear, not only should new conversations about prosperity and value be rooted in communities, but new practices and methods of developing social change can be generated from the bottom up, led by communities themselves as they respond creatively to the challenges they experience. This form of social innovation, defined as new approaches to addressing social needs, will be crucial to testing new ways of working towards the built environments of the future, as we develop processes of urban change that are comprehensive, evidence-based and responsive to community needs. Catalysing these kinds of social innovation cannot be left solely to civil society alone, however. For innovative practices and processes to effect wider change requires inter-sectoral support as well as financial and legislative capacity. 

As we backcast from our Scenario 2050 to develop the pathways that can enable social innovation to occur at scale, there are examples around the UK from which we can learn. Innovative projects from housing co-operatives to community land trusts, self-build communities, co-living, printing houses using 3D printers and new forms of modular architecture are growing in frequency, and showing how community groups can work with designers, engineers, councils and businesses to meet the challenges of different localities. Many of these models are conceived as inclusive forms of development and set out to give people a stake in housing projects, tackle the lack of affordable housing or find ways for the financial gains from development to be retained and managed by local communities. Examples from London include innovative community-led projects such as the self-build housing at Angell Town in Brixton[7]and the London Community Land Trust (CLT), the first CLT in London to sell affordable housing that is linked to local earnings. The CLT’s first development at St Clements Hospital in East London will sell homes at approximately one-third of the open market value. The CLT model is designed to enable local organisations to use assets in the community to meet local needs. Land, buildings, workspace or housing are acquired – often below market rate – and held in perpetuity by the CLT for the community. In this way, the value of the land and gains from development are retained for the benefit of the local community.

A rare, but promising, recent example of inclusive development can be found in Brixton, South London in Lambeth Council’s partnership with Ovalhouse Theatre and Brixton Green – a community-owned mutual benefit society – to redevelop Somerleyton Road. Lambeth Council’s wider record on estate regeneration and new housing development has been much criticised by residents, housing commentators and housing activists, in particular for its decision to demolish Cressingham Gardens Estate in South London[LM1] [CS2] .[8] Such criticisms are justified, but with Somerleyton Road, Lambeth has rejected the conventional approach where a leasehold on the land is sold to a private developer and income from the sale of private housing is used to subsidise affordable housing. Instead, following an extensive consultation process, they adopted an innovative development model that has enabled the council to retain full ownership of the development site, borrow money for the development and procure a development partner to manage and build the project. Different financial scenarios were prepared to examine rental income from private rental, affordable rental and mixed tenure schemes. The council determined that borrowing £43 million at an interest rate of 4.5% it could pay off the total debt by 2060 from rental income of £60 million earned from mixed-tenure properties. This option was chosen over the £250 million that could be earned from a private-rented property (Melhuish, 2015: 23). This project demonstrates how communities and councils can collaborate to address difficult questions about the different forms of value produced by change in the built environment and develop socially inclusive and financially viable alternatives to dominant models. It shows how it is both practical and possible for local government to make responsible trade-offs between public – more specifically local – good and maximising private profit.[9]


4.5.3 Towards sustainable and prosperous places: new measures of change and progress
The East Town Scenario is a tool for imagining pathways to alternative futures. A crucial element of this process is to develop new methods of evaluation. Urban development projects need to be reflexive, responding constructively to feedback loops and enabling new indicators of change and success to be built in. Therefore, the third proposed pathway towards our Scenario 2050 is to develop new locally situated measures of change and progress. There is no doubt that indicators are powerful tools of governance (Davis, Kinsbury and Engle Merry, 2012) and audit (Strathern, 2000), yet evidence shows that clear links between indicator development and meaningful change are hard to identify (Holman, 2009; Scott and Bell, 2013; Turcu, 2013). To address this deficit, we argue that to identify pathways to sustainable and prosperous futures, new measures should be draw on both qualitative and quantitative data and, crucially, must be grounded in local lived experience. 

IGP is currently developing a dashboard of prosperity measures to connect the East Town Scenario to the contemporary accounts of change and broad notions of prosperity described by our interviewees in East London. Working with community researchers and local stakeholders, the research team has translated the 16 headline indicators in the prosperity model outlined in section 4.3 into 50 discrete measures of subjective experience. Developing these new measures requires extensive testing and refinement, and this work is still in progress. The final dashboard will not be released until after further research and evaluation, which is planned for 2016–17. Ultimately, it is envisaged that IGP’s prosperity model will enable researchers, regeneration practitioners as well as communities in Stratford, Hackney Wick and East Village to monitor how urban development projects and interventions come together to effect change in the area. 

We argue this work is both conceptually and methodologically innovative. Conceptually, our focus on prosperity as ‘diverse forms of flourishing’, rather than fixating on wealth creation and economic growth, creates space for local meanings to emerge. As our East London work shows, applying this prosperity lens to local experience reveals the importance of socially inclusive change and challenges existing planning policy. By taking account of lived experience, local conditions and real constraints, we can conceptualise and measure prosperity in local terms that are both meaningful andactionable. This attention to and evaluation of subjective experience means that our approach enhances the wide range of existing measures that report on local social and economic conditions, such as the UK’s Indices of Multiple Deprivation. More importantly, however, our holistic approach challenges conventional modes of categorising and organising the world. Instead of replicating the normative, yet artificial, distinctions between social, economic and environmental domains of life that characterise governance frameworks and public policy measures, we have designed measures that reflect how these domains are in practice mutually constitutive.

Methodologically, our focus on co-producing measures with community researchers and local people has proven to be essential to identifying measures that resonate with local experience. Moving forward, IGP will collect new quantitative data to produce small-area statistics about subjective experiences of place. We argue that this methodology is critical to identifying viable pathways to change because, as a comparative framework, it can identify how effects and experiences are distributed within and between neighbourhoods. This differentiates our approach from other subjective measurement frameworks, such as the UK’s National Well-Being framework (Hicks, Tinkler and Allin, 2013), which reports on levels of well-being at local authority and regional level, and other indices that compare global performance at the state level using secondary data (Social Progress Imperative, 2016; Legatum Institute, 2015) but do not draw on ethnographic or experiential methods.

It is important to acknowledge that indicators, while critical to planning, decision-making and evaluation, are not sufficient in themselves to bring about lasting change. Sustainability, well-being, resilience and quality of life indicators have proliferated since the 1990s, along with an extensive literature critiquing their construction, limitations and practical application to policy and decision-making (e.g. Turcu, 2012). For example, the field of sustainability measurement is now so extensive that there is not scope in this chapter to account for all the conceptual and methodological frameworks that are employed, nor to describe the numerous sub-fields (such as urban sustainability, social sustainability and resilience) and the various geographies at which indicators work (for a detailed description see Holman (2009)). Yet despite this proliferation of metrics, the widening gap between rich and poor, unequal service delivery and rising child poverty rates – to indicate just a few markers – suggest that our established methods of measurement are not increasing our capacity to tackle complex global issues such as social inequality, depleted ecological resources or the delivery of inclusive economic models.

To be effective, new measures must be meaningful, operational and, most importantly, situated in policy environments and stakeholder partnerships that can activate change. Our East Town Scenario identifies a cross-sector partnership of citizens, government, business and local organisations as one form of local governance that can build sustainable futures. In real life, the new forms of measurement initiated by IGP are already directly activating change, as we seek to make the forms of partnership imagined in Scenario 2050 a reality. IGP has established the London Prosperity Board, a partnership between universities, government, business, civil society and East London communities. The board will begin the new conversation we describe in this chapter, starting the work of catalysing social innovation and developing further measures in a responsive and iterative model of urban change. 

4.6 Conclusion
Contemplating socially sustainable futures in the built environment to 2050 is necessarily a speculative exercise, one with no certain outcomes and with a large degree of unpredictability. It is nevertheless vital to conceptualising, planning, implementing and evaluating what we mean by truly prosperous people and places. We have argued in this chapter that the notion of ‘sustainable communities’ has become so amorphous as to be no longer fit for purpose, allowing a reconfiguration of sustainability as a for-profit practice that undermines social cohesion, quality of life and resilient community prosperity. Related categories such as ‘affordable’ housing have similarly come to lose all meaning in relation to lived experience. Government responses to the recent housing crisis have been short-sighted and have tended to reinforce growth-based models of urban development, in which the generated value is not retained for the local community. 

In response, we have used a diverse, inclusive and sustainable understanding of ‘prosperity’ as a guiding principle to consider alternative models of urban change. Steered by IGP’s findings in East London and the experiences and perspectives of the residents who participated in the research, we imagined a 2050 Scenario in which current challenges were understood as a critique of established models, stimulating creative and constructive alternatives from local authorities, businesses, charities, education providers and civil society working in partnership. We propose that the pathways needed to make such scenarios a realistic, viable alternative can be divided into three new approaches. First, we need to not only acknowledge that current models are not working for communities, but to think about entrenched problems in fresh ways that holistic consider what it takes to enable communities to flourish. Second, we need to foster social innovation, finding new techniques, processes and practices that can initiate social change from the grassroots, but in an environment of supportive policy and governance that enables successful interventions to be scaled up. Third, we need to embed new forms of measurement and evaluation based on reported experiences of change as well as statistical data. These need to be actionable, setting in motion iterative processes of learning through ongoing critique and refinement. Fundamentally, we suggest, building the sustainable, prosperous communities of the future relies on moving away from growth-based models of development and instead initiating strategies and methods that are underpinned by a plurality of forms of value. 



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[1]The Prosperity in East Londonpilot study is a mixed methods research programme carried out by UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity, in partnership with London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). The purpose of the study was to develop new ways of conceptualising and measuring progress towards the creation of sustainable and prosperous communities in East London. The research was carried out in 2015. 

[2]The Code for Sustainable Homes was withdrawn in March 2015 and replaced with the Home Quality Mark, which measures a home’s environmental footprint as well as other indicators (BRE, 2015). 

[3]IGP established the London Prosperity Board (LPB) in 2016. The LPB is a cross-sector partnership, including government, public agencies, communities, third-sector organisations and businesses, which will oversee the development of new prosperity measures based on learnings from the Prosperity in East Londonpilot study.

[4]Future proofing is commonly understood to be a process of anticipating future social, economic, environmental and technological changes that have the potential to transform society. The goal is to minimise the impact and shocks to business and policy. In the UK, it is a futures technique used in industry and government.

[5]The figures used in the scenario are median household earnings to house price ratios for the London Borough of Newham as reported in Median and Lower Quartile Ratio of House Prices to Earnings(Department of Communities and Local Government, 2015).

[6]See, for example, Oliver Wainwright and Stephen Moss writing about the Heygate Estate for theGuardian(Moss, 2011; Wainwright, 2016), Kate Allen's review of regeneration and rent control on the New Era Estate for the Financial Times(Allen, 2015) and the Independent'sreview of the Cereal Killer café protests (Mortimer, 2015).

[7]The regeneration of Angell Town Estate in Brixton, South London, included 10 ‘self-build’ homes. Residents worked closely with the contractor Higgins, who provided training to enable people to decorate and fit their own kitchens and bathrooms (see

[8]Cressingham Gardens is a post-war housing estate in Tulse Hill, South London. Residents have led a high-profile campaign to protest against Lambeth Council’s plans to demolish their homes (Hill, 2015).

[9]There are other notable examples, including the St Anne’s Regeneration Trust (StART), a CLT led by a group of Haringey residents. They are organising an alternative to the planned redevelopment of the St Anne’s Hospital site, which would see only 14% of new homes classed as ‘affordable’. Instead, StART seek to acquire two-thirds of the site for a community-led housing development which will meet the needs of local people and be truly affordable in local terms (see