The holy grail of socio-economic sustainability

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Anne-Sophie Blin
EMEA Upstream Sustainability Services

A while ago, I found out about a research project led by the London School of Economics, called Mappiness. The purpose of this project is to gain data to explore how people’s happiness is affected by their local environment (e.g. air pollution, noise levels, green spaces). I think this project raised a very important issue: there are some strong links between high quality built environment, people’s levels of happiness and wellbeing and sustained economic development. This link is not currently systematically measured and valued by real estate investor-developers. This is mainly because, whilst environmental metrics are now fairly established in the industry, it is not the case for socio economic outcomes.

But this is starting to change and we are seeing an interest in measuring buildings’ socio economic outcomes. This interest is often a direct consequence of the increasing pressure placed on developers to fund public infrastructure through mandatory community investment in areas where local authorities’ budgets are constrained. It is also motivated by an understanding that a building that becomes part of the long term social and physical fabric of an area will most likely sustain its value over time.

As an example, I recently worked on a project where we measured the social value of tree conservation, enhanced public realm and good building design relating to a refurbished office building through a very comprehensive stakeholder engagement. Interestingly, the fact that trees were preserved by the developer in the refurbished asset was quoted by all the occupiers and other stakeholders as being a major source of wellbeing and satisfaction. There are plenty of studies that show that monetary values can be attributed to high quality public realm, good building design and how it can help foster strong local economic development.

If anything, this example goes to show that an almost exclusive focus on the hard numbers when it comes to socio-economic outcomes (i.e. mandatory community investment and local economic development metrics) often comes at the expense of other socio economic benefits that buildings may bring to a local area or to its occupiers (through increased employee productivity for instance. Understanding local needs and addressing them through sensitive design is fairly fundamental to the long term resilience of a building and ultimately its sustained financial performance. The key thing is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure; so the more tangible evidence we can find to measure socio economic outcomes, the better our buildings will be designed… and the happier we will all be!

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