Embedding Social Value in the Design of Transit-Oriented Developments

Transit-oriented developments (TODs) typically yield positive economic and environmental impacts. Yet if we also embed a people focus in the design, TODs also bring more social value, and overall increased benefits.

Bermondsey Square in London, UK was completed and went to market just as the 2008 recession struck. Managed by igloo Regeneration, the large mixed-use development features a boutique hotel, cinema, retail stores, a farmers’ market, a world-famous antiques market, and apartments including affordable housing. “What’s most interesting about this development is that Igloo put a restrictive clause in its lease where people could not buy to sell or use it as an investment. It wanted people to stay in the long term, to build a community. Many thought it was a ridiculous idea, that it would never work. But the reverse actually happened. People were so drawn to the idea of it not being a part of a “makeshift” event, of being able to actually put down roots and have a community,” says Snigdha Jain, a London-based Principal Sustainability Consultant at WSP in the UK.

Snigdha Jain

Bermondsey Square is a ten-minute walk to London Bridge and provides easy access to multi-modal public transport. No additional car parking is provided. In addition, cycle storage is allocated for 100% of the residents. Four parking spaces have been provided for car club use with electric vehicles operated by Streetcar. Beyond the obvious environmental benefits, facilitating the use of active transportation and public transit further fosters a sense of community.

If people value community, how do city planners make sure to value people?

Alongside improved mobility (and less car dependence and pollution), TODs can create livable, vibrant and sustainable places where people want to work, live and play—all the while addressing the growing issues of climate change and energy security. For years, designers and engineers focused on addressing client goals and put environmental and efficiency concerns at the forefront in property and transportation projects, while somewhat neglecting the people who use them. A larger reassessment may now be needed.

Millennials favour urban communities like TODs that are vibrant, dense and walkable and provide a sense of social unity and engagement, as well as offer the right blend of services and recreational conveniences. And, as baby boomers set upon retirement (with the last of this generation hitting the age of 65 in 2029) and get older, they too seek the qualities these neighbourhoods espouse, albeit for similar and divergent reasons. With respect to generational settlement patterns, city planning and development priorities, a 2017 survey reiterates this sentiment and urge providers, developers and planners to plan for inclusivity and employ better design practices to address changing demographic needs.

Due in part to the enormous transport-related investment involved, transportation planning usually takes the lead and drives TODs. However, it could be viewed in more balanced terms, with the human element and the idea of social value brought to the forefront or having equal footing when compared to economic, environmental and financial value. Dr. Ellie Cosgrave, a lecturer in Urban Innovation with the University London College’s City Leadership Laboratory in the UK, furthered this notion in an ICE discussion paper: “Value for money and the traditional cost benefit analysis should not always trump our intrinsic values as engineers wanting to create a better, more sustainable society with infrastructure that is fit for purpose. Too often our profession is informed only by financial limitations and not the social value of the things we build. It is also true that social sustainability is often overlooked in favor of environmental and economic sustainability.”

Jain, who also has design background, advocates using a walkability approach in the design of TODs. Often during the masterplanning stage, a layered approach is undertaken where the road network alongside the location of subways, airports, surrounding towns as well as road widths and congestions are noted. Rather than thinking of a place in terms of numbers and widths, a people-focused layer should be added to help answer: How can well-designed environments support health and wellness? How can spaces foster inclusivity and diversity? How can mixed-income and affordable housing and offices fight income inequalities and encourage economic development? How can crime be reduced? How can air quality be improved? How can loneliness be abated? How can noise pollution be reduced? How do we make people feel safe, day or night? How can we attract the best talent to the area? The solutions to these questions should then be incorporated into the design.

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Social value is nothing new

Social value might have been coined differently in the past, but it stems from something that has always existed. It’s now taking center stage due to heightened awareness of the fact that disadvantaged, marginalized and vulnerable groups are bearing the brunt of the negative climate justice. We’ve built for the short term and in some instances this has culminated into disastrous outcomes. In fact, what social value attempts to do is level the playing field by promoting inclusion, advancing equity and justice to the benefit of all people.

Social value in the built environment is a theme that has picked up steam lately and rests on three main pillars – jobs and employment, health and wellbeing, and communities. For example, the UK Social Value Act, which came into effect in 2013, calls for the evaluation of wider social, economic and environmental benefits to be factored in when commissioning public sector works. In June 2018, UK Minister for the Cabinet Office David Lidington announced that the scope of the Social Value Act would be reformed so that all government contracts be awarded based on social value, and not simply value for money. In a similar vein, the Australian government has specified a target number of contracts be awarded to Indigenous businesses, by each governmental department, through its 2015 Indigenous Procurement Policy in support of Indigenous community development, engagement and inclusion.

“Social value is hard to define as most people look at it from a financial angle. For example, if you have one pound or dollar to spend, how can you spend it so that you have the biggest benefit?” asks Jain.  “There are obviously public, private and vested interests, land ownership constraints and other types of complexities that come into play where the benefits of social value are indeed distributed throughout the system,” she states. “If you’re a developer and are asked to make an investment but the fruits of your investment are being reaped by a wider set of stakeholders, then what? This remains the biggest challenge to achieving social value.”

Jain believes that social value must be looked at from an inception to governance perspective. It must be viewed in terms of its distributed benefits and be measured to make the business case fair from an investment point of view.

Social Value Driving Commercial Success?

When we create spaces where people enjoy being and feel safe (social value), generally economic value follows. Hudson Yards in Manhattan, New York City was known as a neighbourhood that lagged behind the rest of the island on residential, commercial and retail use, with significantly higher amount of low-grade garage and storage space. A few years ago, the anticipated arrival of the subway extension to Hudson Yards, combined with investment in green spaces, including the conversion of an old elevated rail track into the High Line Park, began to draw companies including Google, Sony and IAC to locate there. Soon after the area was growing five times faster than the rest of Manhattan, and has become the number-one destination for galleries, restaurants and parks.

Hudson Yards

Community-based organizations can also help propel commercial success in TODs. Such was the case with Unity Council, a community development corporation that led the development of the Fruitvale BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station in Oakland, California. Initial plans involved building a parking garage between the station and the neighbourhood’s commercial centre. The community was concerned that its development would accelerate the decline of a neighbourhood already suffering hardship. BART withdrew its plan and worked with the community towards a mixed-use, mixed-income TOD. Today, the Fruitvale Village is a commercial development with plazas, shops, apartments, offices, community services, and more.


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