Book Review: Social Sustainability, Climate Resilience, and Community-Based Urban Development

Review of Social Sustainability, Climate Resilience and Community-based Urban Development: What About the People? by Helen Baldwin and Robin King. Routledge Focus on Environment and Sustainability, New York and London, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-138-47801-5 (hbk); ISBN: 978-1-351-10332-9 (e-bk)/ Hardcover $48.00  eBook $12.50  (

Reviewed by Donald Watson, author of Design For Flooding: Resilience to Climate Change (Wiley 2011), editor Time-Saver Standards for Urban Design (McGraw-Will 2003) and the web-based library of resources, “Organizations Addressing Resilience and Sustainability.”

It is a pleasure to read and to review a well-written book. Especially one that is crucial to community resilience, our capacity to survive, recover, and heal after disaster. The book’s title, Social Sustainability, Climate Resilience and Community-based Urban Development, being a bit of a mouthful, the subtitle, What About the People? serves better as a mnemonic. It’s thesis and main point is stated on its first page:

“Strong social networks and social cohesion can be more important for a community’s resilience than the actual physical structures of a city. But how can urban plan and design support these critical collective social strengths?”

The answer is presented in 154 pages of texts and table. Co-authored by Dr. Cathy Baldwin, an anthropologist with a public health background, and Dr. Robin King of World Resources Institute, the book is fully annotated with glossary, case studies, and citations sufficient to serve as reference for public policy, academic coursework, and further research. It is served up within the 5 x 9 in. [14×21 cm.] format of Routledge Focus books, a worthy addition to their earthscan series.

Authors of any book will find here an exemplar on how to present complex information. In addition to a summary on its first page, the preface gives a five-page précis, and its opening chapters gives further context and rationale, repeated in a summary chapter.

This book’s message could be the lead sentence in any proposal to create resilient organizations, communities, and cities: the direct and full participation of people most affected by the threats of climate change should be fully engaged for planning for resilience to succeed. Citizen engagement must, for the outset, be part of any proposal for rebuilding after disaster or plan for emergency preparedness.

This is not a new proposition or recommendation. It is familiar to emergency managers and planners in the United States who work on FEMA mitigation planning and preparedness assignments, particularly after Katrina after-action reports and FEMA’s “philosophy” developed shortly thereafter to engage the “whole community” in FEMA plans for mitigation and resilience.

Baldwin and King’s recommendations will be familiar to professionals engaged with community development in both the developed and developing world, of how best to listen, draw from local strengths and resources, gaining full participation of community groups by involvement with project design. A weakness of prior community development work had been a bit too much reliance on the anecdotal, but lack of documented “best practices.” Those most skilled at the art of facilitating community participation have been busy “doers,” not having time or resources to document what works and what does not. Facilitating community participation, called for by “social sustainability,” is indeed an art with a set of skills that must be learned in practice (Ivan Illich’s Watch one, Do one, Teach one” is a good model for aspirants). These skills are all the more demanded in any project in the real life-and-death situations of disaster response and recovery. Baldwin and King here provide in their little book a detailed set of examples and recommendations of how best to do so.

Their closing Chapter 10 details twenty-one recommendations that give some of the nitty-gritty of effective citizen engagement. They describe “four stages” to characterize a sequential process, beginning with “Stage 1” schematic design and real estate “pre-development,” to account for social, health, and community well-being impacts. [..In major development projects in the U.S., such accounting is done if an “environmental impact” is required…after the major planning and engineering design costs are invested and documents are completed, long after the easily gained opportunities are lost.]

The “Stage 2” recommendations includes documenting social capital and community cohesion as resources, following practices of participatory planning and co-design, as well as seeing social-demographic diversity as a source of strength. […Implementing these steps is not easy or simple. Major projects take many years, players often change, those involved early on may not be present to follow through on prior decisions and commitments].

“Stage 3” recommendations include providing social spaces (“infrastructure”) for community events within housing (and other) developments, with many examples given in earlier chapters. […suggesting the need and promise to provide for social networking, contacts, and continuity in emergency sheltering and community recovery projects].

The “Stage 4” recommendation is to establish “community participation in monitoring and evaluation,” […a practice familiar to U.S. social scientists, exemplified by the work of Dr. Shirley Laska and colleagues at Univ. of New Orleans-Center for Hazards Assessment, Response & Technology].

The strengths and contribution of this book are its diligent research, clear exposition (though limited by the academic format), and recommendations that meet the test of “evidence-based” best practices of citizen engagement.

As such the book deserves a place alongside other “key references” essential for scholars and practitioners in the emerging field that the New Orleans Times-Picayune once aptly described as “disaster knowledge.” Two additional references are worth noting in this review because they give further substance to the principles and practices of “social sustainability:”

  • A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management ( FEMA 2011)
  • Principles of Community Engagement 2nd Ed. (CDC 2011. National Institute of Health Publication No. 11-77882

The takeaway from these texts is simply stated:  To what extent is the community of impacted people, groups, and resources directly engaged in local plans for sustainability and climate-resilience? 

The answer you are able to give will be a gauge of its value and worth, a simple measure of resilience.

Professionals engaged in resilience planning will be well guided by each and all of these three publications.



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