Academics, policymakers, professionals, students and others concerned with sustainability will come together to consider social sustainability at the inaugural Integrated Network for Social Sustainability (INSS) conference on May 28 and 29 at UNC Charlotte Center City.
The three “pillars” of sustainability – economic, environmental and social – are intimately inter-related and linked. Economic vitality relies on the integrity of healthy ecosystems, which hold all the earth’s resources. Likewise, economic well-being and social well-being are inextricably linked, which can be seen in society’s suffering during the economic recession.
Environmental and social well-being are similarly connected, as can be seen when people who are impoverished and socially marginalized live in places with environmental issues that are caused by people who are less socially marginal.
Despite its critical connections to the other two aspects, social sustainability is the least understood and defined of the three. Broadly speaking, social sustainability looks at relationships, interactions and institutions that affect and are affected by sustainable development. Beyond this broad definition, people often hold a wide variety of perspectives on what it is and how it can be discussed, implemented, and assessed. People’s historical and cultural contexts, their institutional connections and other societal factors can affect their perspectives.
People have reached fairly common understandings of economic and environmental sustainability, including how they are connected and how to implement and measure them. For sustainability issues to be addressed more comprehensively, a similar common understanding of social sustainability and its inter-connectedness to the other two domains is needed.
The INSS and its conference seek to address that gap. They are part of a five-year initiative funded by a $750,000 National Science Foundation grant developed by the UNC Charlotte Infrastructure, Design, Environment & Sustainability Center, or IDEAS Center, and led by Nicole Peterson, a faculty member in the Anthropology Department. Peterson is joined by Brett Tempest and Helene Hilger of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Liz Miller and Jen Munroe of English; and Thomas Gentry of Architecture.
While at the conference, attendees will hear from leaders in the field, including keynote speaker Sarah Bell of University College London. They also will work in teams to consider the issues.
On May 27, in pre-conference sessions, attendees will visit the Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center and hear from Special Superior Court Judge and historian Clarence E. Horton, Jr., before touring the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm to consider the role of local food in promoting sustainable rural communities. They also will hear a talk on ways to develop socially and environmentally friendly business plans for the textile industry.
On the final day of the conference, attendees will tour and eat lunch with Friendship Trays, which is focused on urban sustainability. Friendship Trays provides meals to those who cannot leave their homes or prepare their own food. Chefs-in-training prepare healthy, local food that is grown in coordination with a community gardens program.
Each year, the initiative will bring a diverse cross-section of academics, professionals, and representatives from non-governmental organizations to UNC Charlotte, which will become a focal point for advancing and disseminating social sustainability science and measurement tools. The network also will work virtually, through its online presence.
At a fundamental level, clarity on social sustainability is crucial to helping people understand how human activity affects – and is affected by – environmental and economic sustainability, the researchers say. Interested members of the science, environmental, business, planning, health, policy, engineering, safety, and arts communities are encouraged to learn more on its website and to join the network.