Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Planning for “socially sustainable” urban communities: a qualitative study from Brisbane

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Australia’s population is booming, and its cities are undergoing a transformation. Decades of urban sprawl have left devastating impacts, including environmental degradation and insufficient and expensive infrastructure. In urban centres such as Brisbane, high density living (60 to 100 dwellings per hectare) is thus viewed as a key strategy to manage urban growth while aiming to achieve environmental and social sustainability. Unlike cities in Europe, Asia and North America, however, there is little collective tradition of high density living in Australia. Furthermore, there is little understanding of how residents in high density housing, often characterized by social diversity, high rental tenure and high mobility rates, build local links or identify as part of a community. Consequently, Brisbane City Council is using careful urban planning in an attempt to create socially sustainable (or “caring and inclusive”) communities. As part of my Masters degree at the University of Queensland and to complement the work of Brisbane City Council, I conducted research into how residents of high density residential in Brisbane perceive and build a sense of community.

While sustainable development has often been approached in terms of economic and environmental goals, relatively little attention has been paid to the social aspects of sustainability.  Social sustainability can be defined as ensuring the well-being of current and future generations, by recognising every person’s right to belong to and participate as a valued member of his or her community (Castillo et al., 2007). Community lies at the heart of discussions surrounding social sustainability, as community shapes a person’s identity, value, self-worth, and the nature of their interactions with others (Kenny, 1994). However, communities are not always driven by “a common purpose for the common good,” as the term ‘community’ suggests (Botes and van Rensburg, 2000, p.55). Sense of community arises from the identification with characteristics or values that are shared with others, creating inevitable boundaries between those who share these characteristics and those who do not. As a result, communities are rarely homogenous, cohesive or egalitarian, but are often divided along the lines of gender, ethnicity, economic status, religion, and political attachments (Barett et al., 2005). Consequently, what constitutes ‘community’ is an important question in the context of modern, rapidly-growing cosmopolitan cities such as Brisbane, characterised by high levels of demographic and cultural diversity.


This qualitative study used semi-structured in-depth interviews with eleven residents of high density residential located within 10 kilometers of the Brisbane CBD (Central Business District). A combination of purposive and convenience sampling methods were used. Participants included a mix of ages ranging from 18-70, men and women, owner-occupiers and renters, and a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

Results and Recommendations

This research identified various ways in which residents of high density housing in Brisbane both identify and participate as part of their communities. Nearly all participants acknowledged place as having a significant role in defining their sense of community, beginning in their residence and radiating out to their street, to their local area, and broader community, reinforcing the importance of fostering a “sense of place” when developing new communities. The interviewees reported feeling varying degrees of ‘belonging’ to their communities, based on factors such as familiarity with the local area, cultural background, life stage and personality. They also described a variety of ways in which they participated as part of those communities, ranging from their relationships with their neighbours, to participation in local community events and organisations.

However, as some residents experienced discrimination or felt “left out,” much still needs to be done for communities to embrace diversity and foster social inclusion. Consequently, the participants also made a number of suggestions as to how their communities might be made more socially sustainable or “caring and inclusive,” addressing issues including shared facilities and common areas; community activities; affordable housing; and accessibility.

This study highlighted that when planning for socially sustainable high density communities, it is necessary to facilitate linkages between the residents of a building, as well as with the broader community.  It appears that residents tend to develop a sense of community when there is a sense of harmony between residents, as well as strong connections between the building and the community. For this to occur, it is important to maintain privacy, allowing residents to feel comfortable, happy and safe while also allowing opportunities for spontaneous and organised social interaction, both within the building and the wider community. Thus, when developing high density communities there needs to be direct connections between the planning of community and the development of buildings as ‘community’ cannot be developed in isolation. Furthermore, both residents and the wider community need to be engaged around issues of social diversity, in order to overcome barriers that may threaten the cohesiveness of ‘community’ and social sustainability, such as the perception of disadvantage and discrimination.

Quality social housing should be indistinguishable from private housing, in order to prevent the perception of disadvantage. Housing and open spaces should be integrated with local facilities to minimise car dependence. Shared spaces and facilities should be welcoming and multifunctional in order to encourage interaction, and be suitable for use by residents of all ages, including people with disabilities.  Finally, provisions to built form should be accompanied by community development activities that facilitate a sense of community both within developments as well as with the broader community. This last element is crucial, for as stated by Gordon Price, a past Councillor of Vancouver City Council, “Unless we get community acceptance we will fail.”



Botes, L. and van Rensburg, D. (2000) Community participation in development: nine plagues and twelve commandments. Community Development Journal, 35(1), pp. 41-57.

Castillo, H., Moobela, C., Price, A. and Mathur, V. (2007) Assessing Urban Social Sustainability: Current Capabilities and Opportunities for Future Research. The International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, 3(3), pp. 39-49.

Kenny, S. (1994) Developing Communities for the Future: Community development in Australia. Thomas Nelson: Melbourne.



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Dominika Ricardi

A mum of 2, always dreaming of a better world for our children. I have a Master of Development Practice from the University of Queensland and have worked in local government planning and the multicultural sector. I'm part of Future Challenges to learn, share and contribute to positive change.