Organising and translating social sustainability : A study of difficulties in implementing social strategies in municipal urban planning

University essay from KTH/Urbana och regionala studier


During the past decade policies and strategies for social sustainability have been developed in order to draw attention to the issue of redistribution of resources in the city and the creation of environments for everyone, and to “enhance social sustainability” is a common policy objective in contemporary Swedish urban planning. It is, however, not clear or predictable what social strategies actually deliver in terms of tangible results. On the one hand, the introduction of the concept has encouraged a debate around equality and democracy in urban areas. On the other hand, in a context of an entrepreneurially oriented urban development, the concept seems to legitimise actions “in the name of sustainability”, that do not necessarily have any redistributive effects. The aim of this project has been to explore how social sustainability as a policy objective is framed and realised in contemporary Swedish municipal urban planning, and what difficulties might occur in the implementation of social strategies. The purpose has been answered through the following research questions:

  • How is the concept of social sustainability incorporated and operationalised within the sphere of urban planning and city administration?
  • What kind of obstacles and goal conflicts that obstruct implementation do the actors involved experience?

In order to carry out the aim and answer the research questions a case study has been realised in the municipality of Huddinge. Two different qualitative methods have been used. Analysis of policy documents has demonstrated how the concept of social sustainability is defined in the municipality and what goals and strategies are set up in order to reach there. Semi-structured interviews with planning actors in the municipal organisation have created an understanding of how the public servants handle the issue in their everyday practice and what kind of obstacles they encounter. The theoretical framework consists of two components. Theoretical reasoning around the concept of social sustainability sheds light on what possibilities as well as contradictive and conflictual aspects the concept entails. The approach of Actor Network Theory has allowed an understanding of the municipal organisation as an assemblage of different human and non-human actors involved in the task of making Huddinge socially sustainable. Furthermore, it has encouraged an open-ended inquiry emerging from the interviewees' own perspectives, preventing an understanding limited to explanations anticipated beforehand.

The most important results show that the social sustainability work in Huddinge consists of ambitious objectives but that the efforts are performed in a loosely connected network of heterogeneous actors where the work is rather fragmented and many efforts are dependent on individuals. Artefacts in terms of, for example, check-lists play an important role in order to allow all planners to function as agents of change. Implementation difficulties has shown to be wider than usually indicated, and are mainly related to lack of political prioritisation among objectives, lack of routines and knowledge, preconceptions and lack of representation among planners, lack of possibilities to influence market conditions as well as the prioritisation of economic aspects over social issues. In order to facilitate implementation a number of suggestions are being made, including the promotion of a political debate around social objectives and the meaning of social sustainability, to increase resources for the development of routines and an increased knowledge base in order to stabilise the network, and to find means to limit the influence of private actors. It is also concluded that social sustainability has to be prioritised and that goal conflicts with the economic dimension has to be handled in order to produce substantial change.

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