Sustainable communities – the formula for success

Sustainable communities – it’s a phrase that is regularly bandied around by politicians, businesses and local organisations. But what does it actually mean in practice and is there a one-size-fits-all definition that transcends international and cultural boundaries?

Philip Dearden, Head of the Centre for International Development and Training (CIDT) at the University of Wolverhampton, believes the simple definition of a sustainable community is “a place where people want to live and work, now and in the future.”


This seems like a reasonable aim, no matter what part of the world you are in, but how does a community then go on to measure success?

In the Western world, measures of success in sustainability are increasingly focused on economic indicators, such as job creation and individual business targets. In recent publications, global accountancy firm Ernst and Young has talked extensively about the chief financial officer’s expanding role in sustainability - reinforcing the financial measures of success that are applied to such projects. It also gives cause for concern that the Western world could become too narrow in its approach to sustainability, with CFOs tracking the success of activities and projects purely against business performance criteria.

The economic benefits brought about by sustainability have been the wake-up call for many businesses to take action, but it shouldn’t be the only driving force behind such efforts. Is there a danger that we are too focused on the prosperity of our own patch – i.e. our business – rather than the wider community impact, which will benefit generations to come? Phil believes this is a risk and that the next challenge is to strive for real sustainable communities, where the balancing of economic, ecological and social aspects of life are carefully considered and provided for. We have an example of this broader and more inclusive way of thinking right on our doorstep in South Birmingham and it certainly isn’t new, having been established for more than a century.

According to Phil, Bournville village is a world-class example of a sustainable community. He explains: “This is a good lasting example of the Cadbury family’s vision of attempting to integrate many of the aspects of what we now call “sustainable communities” into practice. The village is located close to the famous Cadbury chocolate factory but physically separated from it, and consists of relatively high quality housing, with a variety of integrated community amenities and a fairly attractive physical environment. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has claimed that it is still “one of the nicest places to live in Britain.”

So, if the Cadbury family could achieve something so significant and lasting more than 100 years ago, surely business has a leading role to play in creating truly sustainable communities for the next century. According to Phil, there are four key areas that can help to guide businesses in ensuring that their approach to sustainability extends beyond the workplace:

Ecological integrity

Businesses should take a serious look at how their practices may impact negatively on the environment. This should be wide ranging and look beyond the obvious areas such as recycling and think about less obvious pollution such as noise that may affect the local community. As well as taking small steps, some organisations may be able to make more significant commitments, such as energy self generation via solar panels.

Economic security

Being financially responsible is an important part of creating a sustainable community. It’s about running a business with the wider community in mind and not taking undue risk that could compromise the long term wellbeing of the local area and its residents.

A high quality of life

Businesses need to think about how they reward their employees beyond the monthly salary. Flexible working hours, childcare schemes, subsidised public transport and a pleasant working environment can have a dramatic impact on the quality of life for employees and the local community, but these aspects are in the hands of employers.

Citizen empowerment

Enabling staff to have a voice is an important part of motivating a community to care about things beyond their own garden fence. This should extend beyond the running of the business itself and could manifest itself in a corporate social responsibility programme that allows staff to get involved in local community projects to really make a difference.

These four areas would have resonance with businesses and communities across the globe. The steps those businesses take and priorities for their local communities may be very different, but it does show that there are universal ‘pillars’ for building sustainable communities no matter where we are in the world.


Wolverhampton Business Solutions Centre

01902 321272