environmental, cultural, social and economic sustainability

While we all agree environmental crisis is the consequence, it would be a mistake to think it is the cause too.

It is the economical and, specially, the social crisis those which have leaded us to the environmental crisis. Capitalism, globalization, etc., have provoked that all societies around the globe have progressively imported the territory and society’s Anglo-Saxon model. The new imported collective urban conducts, not only they have been breaking social and cultural structures but relations between individuals.

The fact that, firstly Europe, and now Asia are copying the Anglo-Saxon social model and erasing their cultural and identity features (cultural sustainability) increases the environmental impact of these new models over the historic territories.

This has brought a higher generalized consumption of resources as well as, consequently, an increase of waste.

In short, solution of the environmental problem not only has to do with the environment but, and above all, with the reconstruction of social and cultural tissues, as well as with economical policies that take into account the natural capital as one of the biggest values for the future.

Therefore, it is extremely important to broaden the concept of sustainability to an ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL point of view.



Today, in its web, the United Nations General Assembly defines –by citing ‘Our Common Future’ report (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987)  and also known as ‘Brundtland Report’- the sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Then, it states that “sustainable development has emerged as the guiding principle for global long-term development.” And finally, it specifies that it consists of three pillars: “economic development, social development and environmental protection.” While this triple understanding was implicit in the Brundtland Report -which advocated “economic growth, social inclusion and environmental balance” as both global and national and local strategic development principles- it was not formulated as three separated categories until the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where it was stated that the main goal of “sustainable development is to achieve economic, environmental and social development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Two years later John Elkington coined the concept ‘Triple bottom line’ (abbreviated as TBL or 3BL) to describe this new triple paradigm of sustainability. Since then, it has become the structuring axis of almost all the different global, national and local policies on sustainability. However, there have been many voices demonstrating the inadequacy of this threefold description to reflect the intrinsic complexity of contemporary society. Felix Guattari, whom we recognize as a reference, is one of these voices. Even the Brundtland Report (1987) referred to the ‘cultural’ numerous times. But also in this group there are institutions such as the World Summit on Sustainable Development and UNESCO asking that ‘culture’ is included in this model of development. In fact, the UNESCO already in its Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001) and, more specifically, in its Convention on the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005) claimed to consider “creativity, knowledge, diversity and beauty” as unavoidable premises for the “dialogue for peace and progress, as they are intrinsically related to human development and freedom.”

As a result of this ideological drive worldwide on defining a complex and holistic understanding of sustainability, the United Nations on page 2 of its #1 draft document entitled ‘Accounting for Sustainability 2008’ asserted the following:

“(…) Triple bottom-line accounting is an instance of this with ecological and social sustainability being tacked on the back end of a continuing economic imperative of profitability. In the present context of global climate change, intensifying urbanization, increasing transnational insecurities and a heightening divide of rich and poor, there is a pressing need for new ways of finding a balance across the domains of economic, ecological, political and cultural sustainability.”

On the other hand, already in 2004 the Agenda 21 for Culture is approved, becoming the founding document of the Committee on culture of the world association of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), which is defined as a “global platform for cities, organizations and networks to learn, cooperate and to launch policies and programmes on the role of culture in sustainable development” whose main objective is “to promote culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development.”

There is hereby established the cultural understanding of sustainability. However, we also see a shift from the social to the political and from the environmental to the ecological. This idea of the ‘four pillars of sustainability’ is reset in what is called ‘Circles of Sustainability,’ a new method to understand and evaluate sustainable development which is structured precisely around these four pillars of the reality: economics, politics, ecology and culture. Currently, this is the method and ideology behind The World Association of Major Metropolis and, more importantly, behind the United Nations Global Compact Cities Programme (or Cities Programme), urban component of United Nations Global Compact. This program argues that “cities, in particular, have the potential to make tremendous progress in creating sustainable societies” across “four social domains: the economic; ecological; political; and cultural.”

Even though More Than Green is situated here, we rather focus on the idea of the social instead of the political as well as the environmental instead of the ecological. We can not ignore that ecology studies already the interrelationships of the various living beings with each other and with their environment. And these relationships are not only environmental but also social, economic and cultural. In other words, to think ecologically is to think of this relational and holistic manner: the four sustainabilities. Ecology is everything, not a part. The same is true even of politics: the political thought must assume all matters alike. In short, we add the cultural interpretation of development to the most commonly defended trio: social + environmental + economical.

Therefore, More Than Green is in line with current global policies, seeking to expand the most widespread and simplistic understanding of sustainability from the green to the social and economic, in the first instance, and culturally, in the final.

*** One of the cases that exemplifies better the put into practice of this expanded vision of SUSTAINABILITY is found in the city of CURITIBA, Brazil. In this article we explain you in a clear and precise way how all this theory can be materialized in one of the most successful and celebrated urban developments in recent history of cities. Therefore, we strongly suggest you its reading to complete your understanding of this super philosophy about SUSTAINABILITY:

/// The Curitiba of Jaime Lerner ///

Once done this tour we can move on to define each of the four sustainabilities:




This understands the exercise of sustainability and sustainable design from recognition of the value of culture as an agent that characterizes both the social and physical environment –natural and built. The physical environment is the heritage, buildings, natural resources, geography, metabolism, biodiversity … The social environment are the lifestyles, ways of living, local knowledge, celebrations, traditions, symbols, myths and beliefs … We are talking about collective subjectivity as a great value for development. However, cultural sustainability also defends the expressions of individual subjectivity: creativity, diversity, freedom of expression ultimately.

For this reason, this understanding of sustainability not only involves recognizing how culture has shaped both the physical and social environment -as a first principle of efficiency because it leverages the existing and learns from what has been learned – but also, and especially, ensures freedom of expression of any individual or group in any format as well as “universal access to culture and its manifestations, (…) to information and resources.” In other words, it understands that the new should not be built on nothing but contextualized in the cultural framework that houses it, not only recognizing the value of existing expressions of subjectivity but encouraging new collective, individual, etc. modes

So this sustainability advocates IDENTITY as one of the main concepts on which to build sustainable development: not only from the enhancement of existing identity -embodied in the physical and social- but from the promotion of new individual and collective identities. This means, first, an economy of means and resources and, second, amplification and consolidation of cultural values.

In this sense, a culturally sustainable action discovers, first, and uses then all tangible and intangible assets of the CONTEXT in which it operates: placing value on the natural, human or nonhuman built heritage or reappropriating it even to the extent of deciding not to intervene, learning of existing knowledge and ways of doing characteristic of a group or community that facilitate the implementation of any action, recognizing that people behave and formulate their dreams, desires, frustrations and beliefs both individually and collectively in very different ways …

In short, a culturally sustainable action encourages society to recognize and identify itself with it. Thus, a society that loves and respects both the human and social, and the natural and built environment in which it lives – because it recognizes itself with them- is a more prepared, conscious, informed, free society, caring, involved, etc. to take on other issues of sustainable development – “social inclusion, economic growth and environmental balance.” (Brundtland Report)

Some stories on Cultural Susainability:

The Water Tank Project // Land of Giants // Hitachi Tsunami Park // Ricardo Bofill’s Cement Factory // Luz Nas Velas // Sky Orchestra // New York’s High Line // The Parisian Petite Ceinture



This understands the exercise of sustainability and sustainable design from the “reconstruction of human relationships at all levels of the socius.” (P. 45 Guattari) In this sense, this involves not only encouraging and enabling social relationships and interactions in living spaces (public or private) of any scale but above all, improving the degree of coexistence between groups of people with different income, gender, cultures, ages and professions through designs, actions and policies that promote integration, equitable redistribution of urban benefits and resources, social justice, solidarity, equality, inclusion, resilience, acceptance of the dispute or difference as a positive value, access to housing, consolidation and creation of equipment and public facilities, etc. Following this approach, the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen summarizes social sustainability in 6 dimensions: equity, diversity, social cohesion, quality of life, democracy and governance, maturity.

In short, this sustainability emphasizes the importance of fostering relationships between individuals and cohesion among these. So, to give a clearer example, is not just a matter of creating public space per se but also to design the necessary devices to allow society to “participate” in its management or “decide” their use and destiny. Likewise, this understanding of reality requests that these spaces are inclusive, enabling difference and diversity in the way of enjoying them. But this is not only unique of public space, also private; in the same way, infrastructures and transportation means should encourage social interactions and all these associated values: a tram route can integrate in its path neighborhoods of people from different income, age, culture, etc. So this idea of ​​sustainability should not be limited only to public space because the living spaces are as numerous and diverse as the people themselves.

In conclusion, this reading of a socially sustainable development is twofold: firstly involves fostering INTERACTION and secondly, ensuring COHESION. Thus, this sustainability promotes a society that behaves collectively and cohesively, facing individuality and segregation typical of less sustainable models of urban development -such as the Anglo-Saxon, which promotes the “dispersed” consumption as its “capitalist therapy against the collective loneliness” it constructs.

This understanding of sustainability shares with the cultural those considerations concerning diversity and freedom of expression. However, it is important to clarify that in this case these issues would not be affected by conditions of identity and creative subjectivity but rather by the human condition itself and our need to relate, and to do so in a context of relatively stable coexistence.

Some stories on Social Sustainability:

Green Way in Manhattan // Sustainability and Social Movements by David Harvey // Rebel Architecture by Santi Cirugeda // Alejandro Aravena Ted Talk // Empowering Communities Through Architecture // Diary of an Architect // Can Batllo by Lacol // Parkcycle: Modular Parks // Life in Public Spaces by Jan Gehl // Park-ing in San Francisco // Guerrilla Gardening // Reusing Underused Spaces // Green Invasion in Lima // Escaravox by Andrés Jaque



This understands the exercise of sustainability and sustainable design from an intelligent and creative use of economic resources. It strives not only to save, but to achieve that the value of the intervention is much higher than its price. This, unfortunately, is not always like this.

Thus, it proposes an economy of means, matter and energy, as well as proportionality between means and goals. It is the “pay one, get two” (or three). This reading of sustainable development defends that smart and strategic management of budgets can have a much richer drift that the one established by a priori goals.

Ultimately, it is the politics of common sense. It builds places that undertake a rational consumption of the possible and in balance with the natural and cultural environment. So the economy ceases to be an end to become a means, another means to achieve sustainable development.

Some stories on Economic Sustainability:

The Curitiba of Jaime Lerner // Colors in Tirana // The Smurfs Village // Rehousing of 1200 families in Elche // Ted Talk: Toni Griffin about Detroit // Ted Talk: How Architectural Innovations Migrate Across Borders by Teddy Cruz // Ted Talk: The Power of Informal Economies by Robert Neuwirth // Street Economy and Contemporary Cities // Ouishare



This understands the exercise of sustainability and sustainable design from “the maintenance of the natural capital” (Goodland, Robert; The Concept of Environmental Sustainability; Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Volume 26, p. 10), ie, of “natural resources such as plants, minerals, animals, air or oil from the biosphere seen as means of production of goods and ecosystemic services: oxygen production, natural water purification, erosion control, pollination and recreational services themselves.” This understanding of sustainability, unlike the traditional, argues that the nature and nonhuman life are active and productive natural resources whose use should be rationalized. Therefore, natural and productive capital are equated.

Similarly, its put into practice involves all metabolic issues concerning efficiency and / or energy, water self-sufficiency and waste management -striving for minimizing the ecological footprint- as well as a clear defense of the biodiversity and nonhuman life as great values ​​of sustainable development.

Bike Line by Ecosistema Urbano // Cyclist Highway // Ele Solar Bike // Van Goth Path by Studio Roosegaard // Halo Passive Home // Silk Leaf Project // Lighting a Football Field with the Energy of Players Footsteps // Wattcher: Energy Display // Supermarket Without Packaging // How to Green the World’s Deserts // Energy with Your Footsteps // La Fabrique 125 by Huma Design // Recycled Meeting Point by Basurama // Vertical Forest