Center for Fair & Alternative Trade

Colorado State University

“What Does a Socially Sustainable Community Look Like?” Douglas Murray and Lynn Hempel

Presented by CFAT Co-Director Douglas Murray and Lynn Hempel, Assistant Professor of Sociology, CSU


On Friday, April 06, 2012 CFAT Co-Director Douglas Murray and Lynn Hempel, Assistant Professor of Sociology at CSU presented “What Does a Socially Sustainable Community Look Like?”

This interactive seminar included a network of scholars and practitioners and was devoted to examining the concept of social sustainability within development programs in order to problematize more effective operational protocols. In recent years, CFAT has expanded into applied work both internationally and locally as seen in its recent participatory action research within South Africa as well as its collaboration with the Fort Collins Downtown Development Authority, which is seeking to promote a business and community culture that is supportive of local sustainability and global fairness.

Over the past several decades, sustainable development (SD) has become increasingly prominent in development discourse. Whereas the focus has largely been on the developing world, SD is emerging as well in community development circles within the developed world. Despite the potential that this shift offers, SD remains poorly understood due to a lack of theoretical clarity and consequently weak and diverse array of operational strategies. SD has essentially come to mean all things to all people, and there has been little effort to agree on basic operational tenants. Moreover, while communities in so-called developed countries may increasingly share concerns and goals in common with those in the developing world, efforts to establish a more integrated dialogue remain nascent.

The seminar began with a discussion of the concept of social sustainability, which has broadly been recognized as the least well-developed dimension of SD. Sustainability has frequently been described as a triple-bottom-line approach to ensure economically sound, environmentally viable, and socially equitable returns on development efforts. However, these three SD dimensions have different levels of precision and clarity: (1) economic soundness has been built upon the basic tenants of business profit and loss, with some integration of environmental and social features; (2) environmental viability has subsequently become more refined around the metrics of carbon neutrality and energy conservation, and (3) social equity metrics prioritize poverty reduction. The development agency focus on basic needs reflects a limited and distorted reliance on Sen’s notion of entitlements. Within the world of trade certifications, Fair Trade represents the social equity gold standard, but even this group continues to apply a narrow understanding of the terms fairness and equity.

While basic needs are important, social equity metrics must be retooled to capture broader social development obstacles, but in doing so, SD experts must be careful not to conflate empowerment with engagement. Within SD the concept of empowerment is often viewed as an individualized process, rather than as a relational concept that occurs within a given social setting. This overly individualistic understanding serves to separate actors into ‘experts’ and ‘beneficiaries’ and this may represent a form of symbolic violence in which some actors maintain privilege and power at the expense of less advantaged stakeholders. Furthermore, social equity models must capture both absolute and relative deprivation in order to more effectively unravel the relational attitudes and behaviors that may be limiting the potential for participatory action.

After clarifying social equity prospects and challenges, the seminar turned to the question of operationalization within the context of Fort Collins social sustainability. The City of Fort Collins has a number of distinct advantages in terms of generating a socially sustainable community, including:

On this last point, a number of residents have chosen to live in Fort Collins due to its characteristics, and many plan to live out their lives in this community. As such, residents may be more likely to contribute to and participate in longer-term efforts toward making Fort Collins truly socially sustainable. After discussing how these attributes may provide focal practices for motivating participation and contribution to the public good, participants queried how to more effectively engage this community’s diverse citizens in sustainability developments, as well as how to link local sustainability efforts with global fairness initiatives. CFAT’s involvement with the Downtown Development Authority will presumably focus on the marginalized groups in the community via the premise that Fort Collins cannot become sustainable until those groups are empowered and included in the broader community.

Seminar participants discussed potential barriers to community participation then explored how these may be addressed so as to increase and expand the participation of diverse groups and individuals in sustainability decision making. The seminar group concluded that efforts should entail strengthening intercultural networks, highlighting the historical and current contributions of diverse community groups, and assessing and addressing basic obstacles to social equity, including local access to health, education, transportation, business and employment, as well as recreation and culture. Participants further examined whether ‘problem-focused’ approaches may be more effective than ‘group-focused’ approaches to social sustainability. Empowerment and inclusivity are critical dimensions of community engagement; thus a participatory action research (PAR) approach may enable project stakeholders to become involved in determining guiding principles, terms, and operational protocols. In other words, social equity conceptualization and operationalization may be seen as circular, rather than linear process, in which engagement clarifies further understanding and future action. PAR will also enable the collective generation of community baseline metrics which may be used to measure sustainability needs and stimulate participatory information exchange and action planning.

CSU may play a positive role in generating global-local linkages. University internationalization offers a plethora of opportunities for sustainability scholars from all over the world to become involved in local initiatives via intercultural information sharing. Professors may offer globalization seminars that likewise provide a local focus, enabling students to directly engage with the city of Fort Collins through research projects. As CFAT and other development groups seek to further align local sustainability with global fairness, it will be necessary to generate the right combination of pragmatic idealism for this and other projects to move forward. CFAT has been in discussions with the City of Fort Collins over the past three years regarding the development of the Community Marketplace and is now working on developing a globally local vision rather than a defensively local one. By expanding these discussions to incorporate social equity and inclusivity precepts in City policies and programming, CFAT has also been engaged in discussions with international certification organizations and the CSU College of Business to enhance approaches to social equity both locally and internationally.