Pillar: Social Sustainability

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

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The third pillar of sustainability, social, is the least quantified pillar in Civil Engineering compared to economic and environmental. The ongoing research in other disciplines, especially in the arts and sciences, has developed measurements for aspects of communities that have more success in addressing and solving problems. One such well-known community attribute is social capital. People are connected by social networks, and the exchange of trust and resources within those networks comprises measures of social capital. Community attachment is also recognized as another characteristic of engaged communities. The difficulty in measuring these well-known aspects of communities, however, lies partly in the differences between data sources, coverage, and availability. Much research has been performed with secondary data, often based on census data. This is because those publicly available datasets are available, affordable, and generally have widespread geographic coverage and large sample sizes. While many research projects collect primary data, primary data is more often limited to a relatively small population and/or geographic area as it is generally based on interviews or surveys. Primary data is expensive to collect and is also more difficult to use for generalizing because of limits in coverage, sample size, and/or comparability.

Metrics, to be effective indicators of a system, have four characteristics: relevancy, understandability, reliability, and accessibility. Relevance is key because the metric must provide information about the system one needs to know. Understandability is important so that even nonexperts can grasp the meaning of the metric. The metric must be trustable or reliable or the metric is of no use, and the data or information for the metric must be obtainable in a time frame suitable for decision making. The quandary for measuring societal sustainability and application to civil engineering comes in establishing effective metrics to answer three critical questions:

  • 1. What level are we targeting for sustainability?
  • 2. Who are we sustaining for?
  • 3. Who gets to decide the answers to the first two questions?

In addition to these three questions and the difficulties with data mentioned earlier, other considerations are important as w'ell. For example, if one area of society has a well-developed metric, does that influence other areas that do not have it? How do these metrics scale from a local or regional level upward to state, national, and international levels? Social metrics exhibit spatial heterogeneity, or unequal geographic distribution, which can further complicate scalar relationships. In general, many of the existing social metrics fall under four emerging areas: human wellbeing, access to resources, self-government, and civil society. These four emerging areas have provided much of the foundation of agencies and frameworks discussed in this chapter, including the UN, the Oxfam Doughnut, and the Human Development Index (HDI). There are many common themes throughout these three concepts. Another perspective of the social pillar of sustainability is through the Social Impact Assessments (SIA), which provide a framework for discussing societal impacts of Civil Engineering projects. This is similar to a Safety Data Sheet or an Environmental Product Declaration, but instead of focusing on safety or the environment, the SIA focuses on social issues. Finally, there has been significant movement in corporations in recognizing and addressing the social pillar of sustainability. While this will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 10 (Section 4), under the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) section, an introductory discussion on the concept of the social purpose of corporations will be provided here.

Unlike the economic and environmental pillar, most existing social metrics have a short time horizon, and many are only available as cross-sectional data. Even those datasets that are longitudinal cover time-periods of a few decades, not 50 or 100 years. How will these metrics change over time frames appropriate for sustainability planning - in 10, 20, or even 50 years? This concept is explored in how groups of researchers are examining different perspectives of the social pillar of sustainability in Civil Engineering. One very specific and fast-growing area in Civil Engineering is social media, and how social media can be leveraged for the public’s benefit, especially in the field of transportation engineering. While this chapter does not comprehensively answer all these revolving around quantifying the social pillar of sustainability in Civil Engineering, it does expose the reader to multiple tools and resources that can help identify potential paths forward.

Existing Civil Engineering Concepts

As discussed in this textbook’s introduction, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) incorporates social aspects of sustainability into many portions of their Code of Ethics. In the fundamental principles, engineers are called to “use their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare” and to be “honest and impartial and serving with fidelity the public.” This theme continues in the ASCE’s canons, where engineers “shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.” The difficulty with following these charges in part comes with understanding the concepts behind specific terms. For example, w'hat exactly is human welfare? What are the dimensions, attributes, and qualities of human welfare, and can these dimensions, attributes, and qualities be quantified?

There has been limited research performed specifically in the area of society and civil engineering. Yet, several groups within the civil engineering community have examined the issue. In 2007, for instance, Cheng et al. identified the need to measure sustainable accessibility in regional transport and land-use systems (Cheng et al.,

2007). They developed a model that utilized the average trip length and accessibility to jobs in an area and created a four-dimensional analysis that studied whether both parameters (trip length and access to jobs) were positive, negative, or a mix of the two. Accessibility was enhanced by either increasing the travel speed or bringing urban activities closer. Only car commuting was considered in this study. If a mix of trip length or access to jobs occurred, a better transportation system could be implemented or more jobs could be moved into an area. Similar to the gravity model, Cheng et al. also established that friction factors could be developed to represent other barriers associated with commuting from home to work. While the authors acknowledged the study was limited, they were confident it could provide a platform for further work. Another group that has examined the issue of society and civil engineering is Lucas et al., performing work in a similar area of regional transport and land use (Lucas et al., 2007). Lucas et al. focused on five areas of social sustainability, and they associated various engineering metrics with each one. The first area, poverty, was quantified examining total household expenditure on travel. The second area, accessibility, focused on weighted journey times to employment, education, health care, and food shops. The third area, safety, analyzed the number of child pedestrian casualties per 1,000 children in population. The fourth area, quality of life, captured the percentage of residents living within a 1-km or 15-minute “safe walk” to key destinations, including education, health care, leisure and cultural facilities, food shops, and the post office. The fifth and final area, housing, studied the lowest 10% value of house prices within the average local journey times to employment from the town center or other key centers of employment. Fields et al. sought to understand the relationship between transportation disadvantage and social exclusion specifically among lower-income older adults (2019). Study participants used a daily transportation diary app to share their transportation experiences as related to three domains of social exclusion: quality of life, participation, and resources. Based on responses, five primary themes relating transportation disadvantage and social exclusion emerged. These included constrained autonomy and flexibility, safety concerns, diminished emotional well-being, barriers to community engagement, and burdensome. This study captured qualitative data which contextualized lost opportunities and showed how economic disparities exacerbate the risk of transportation disadvantage. From these findings, valuable insight was gained for expanding conversations surrounding transportation planning, moving from a mobility focus to an equity focus. Additionally, this use of a digital platform for collecting holistic data related to transportation disadvantage potentially creates better opportunities for transportation planners, engineers, and social service providers to work together in addressing the needs of environmental justice populations.

As researchers have begun to qualify social aspects of sustainability in civil engineering, more focus has turned to identifying ways in which engineers can incorporate enhancing social equity and accessibility into transportation planning. Guthrie et al. sought to utilize general transit feed specification (GTFS) data to understand accessibility impacts of proposed transit projects in early planning stages to maximize social benefits associated with these large public investments (2017). GTFS is a data specification which allows public transit agencies to publish transit data in a more generally accessible format that can be utilized by a wide variety of software applications. Based on current GTFS data and proposed 2040 transit improvements for the Twin Cities region of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota, Guthrie et al. developed a hypothetical transit network to explore impacts on access to job vacancies in historically disadvantaged areas. They found that quantifying accessibility during planning stages paints a comprehensive picture of the benefits offered by proposed improvements , allowing for more informed decisions to be made. This type of analysis also allows for more effective communication and debate surrounding planning decisions and provides a methodology for incorporating social sustainability into transit planning. Kuzio also conducted a research with a planning-focused approach, exploring how 20 different metropolitan planning organizations (MPO) prepare for emerging technologies and consider the implications on equity (2019). Results indicated that MPOs are making social equity an increasing priority; however, more consideration throughout the entire planning process is needed, including considering the implications of emerging technology on equity. By surveying approaches taken by MPOs across the country and of varying planning environments, this research sought to provide a starting point for planners and policymakers to understand how others are evolving policy and planning strategies to more effectively incorporate social sustainability.

Outside of accessibility and planning, additional work has considered social implications of transportation material selection. Alkins et al. examined the social benefits of in situ pavement recycling by exploring cold in-place recycling (CIR) (2008). This study examined the Ministry of Transportation Ontario’s (MTO) promotion of using technology that reduces, recycles, and reuses, qualities deemed important for a society. CIR, which mills existing pavement in-place, stabilizes with a binding agent, and then places the material back onto the same roadway for an enhanced structural layer, fulfilling all three of these goals (reduce, recycle, reuse). They also discuss other social benefits of CIR, including improving safety. They found that safety is improved with the use of CIR by reducing traffic disruption and user inconvenience, reducing unsafe exposed edges and drop-offs (the milled pavement has a similar grade as the existing pavement after compaction), and expanding workers’ ability to work through certain types of incremental weather since the material is placed at ambient temperatures. In addition, Alkins et al. point out that with all of the CIR work being performed in place, there is reduction in noise and disruption from traditional asphalt mixture production, transportation, and construction.

Another group of researchers have taken a unique approach to incorporate social sustainability into civil engineering education (Valdes-Vasquez and Klotz, 2011). In this work, both the traditional instructor to student teaching approach and the more innovative student to student teaching approach were utilized to convey social sustainability concepts. In both approaches, four dimensions of social sustainability were explored: community involvement, corporate social responsibility, safety through design, and social design. In addition to providing mapping and resources for both approaches, preliminary results were encouraging as initial feedback from students was positive for both the approaches. The authors concluded by recommending that other civil engineering programs also strive to incorporate social sustainability concepts into the curriculum.

Example Problem 4.1

List the potential social metrics that have been developed within existing civil engineering concepts.

The potential social metrics that have been developed within existing civil engineering concepts include time, accessibility, poverty, safety, housing location, and quality of life.

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