Blog: 10 March 2022Planning sustainably means more than just cutting carbon...

Lucy Wood

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Lucy Wood

Environmental Planning Director

London office

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Planning sustainably means more than just cutting carbon – it’s about holistic social value.

Few words have taken such a battering in the past few years than ‘sustainability’. Used by everyone from green campaigners to oil majors with such radically different implications that we can risk losing sight of what it really means. The recent controversy over the proposed demolition and replacement of the Marks & Spencer headquarters on Oxford St put this into focus, with two rival reports claiming that demolition and retrofit were each the more ‘sustainable’ path to take.

But the truth is we do need our built environment to be sustainable – genuinely sustainable in the widest sense of the word – so that it delivers real social value for local communities across the UK.  Urban or rural, commercial or residential. This means thinking beyond tick-box carbon cutting measures and actually focusing on the valuable sustainable outcomes we want to achieve. Planners are at the heart of making this a reality.

In our sector, sustainability should mean the curation of a healthy world where the built environment supports and benefits society, the economy and the environment. Part of this is a conscious reduction in the creation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in construction and operation – which is now urgent if the natural world is to continue to support our society in the way we have come to expect. But addressing the climate crisis is broader than carbon, and sustainability is bigger than the climate. It’s about people and communities too.

Realising this means thinking beyond the red line boundary of a site when delivering projects sustainably. It is about taking a truly collaborative and community-focused approach that prioritises clear, achievable, sustainable outcomes and works backwards to the best way to deliver them and maximise the social value.

If the goal is cutting carbon and increasing biodiversity in an area, adding solar panels and tree lined streets to a development is quite good. What’s better is really understanding the local context and priorities and working with a local group to co-found a community farm or rewilding programme for the whole area, or coordinating with active travel enthusiasts to design a new cycle network that the development links in to. Beyond simple carbon calculations, ideas like these bring wider value to a community as well as having a more significant and long lasting positive effect on the environment and the economy, and in encouraging change in people’s behaviours and lifestyles for the better.

As planners and designers, we are in a prime position to push forward these objectives and methods. Both from their earliest stages within project teams: embedding people-focuses, carbon-saving, biodiverse and wellbeing-centred elements – and also engaging with communities to maximise the value of sustainable initiatives.

Within our organisations, it is about recognising that we need to break down silos, spark conversations, and bring people together from across the private sector, the public sector, and communities to achieve real change and sustainable development across the UK. Cutting carbon is good. Going beyond carbon is better. Let’s work together to build a truly sustainable world that puts people and nature at its heart. Embedding this holistic and creative mindset about sustainability is what really drives the best value for both businesses and communities in the long term. We’re ready to make it happen.

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Social Value, Sustainable, Environment, Healthy Communities