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WACOSS Housing and Sustainable Communities Indicators Project

1Leanne Barron and 2 Erin Gauntlett

1Senior Policy Officer, 2 Housing and Sustainability Project Officer, Western Australian Council of Social Service

This paper is an abridged version of the WACOSS Model of Social Sustainability which will be reported in full in the Stage 1 report of the Housing and Sustainable Communities Indicators Project. The report will be available in April 2002. For further information visit the WACOSS web site or contact Erin Gauntlett or Leanne Barron on tel: (08) 9420 7222 or via email: , .


The Western Australian Council of Social Service (WACOSS) is a peak non-government organisation for the social service sector. WACOSS represents more than 350 individuals and agencies providing social and community services to disadvantaged people and low income earners across Western Australia.

The WACOSS Housing and Sustainable Communities Indicators Project (Indicators Project) represents a substantial research project undertaken by WACOSS and is part of the organisation’s engagement with the sustainability agenda.

It was funded in the first round of the Lotteries Commission of WA’s Social Research Program, and is being undertaken in partnership with the Social Change and Social Equity Network at Murdoch University, with research supervision provided by Associate Professor Patricia Harris.

The Project grew out of the concerns of WACOSS membership about a range of housing issues impacting primarily on low income households including: the supply and location of low cost housing; concerns around housing design; and the persistence of homelessness particularly amongst some groups within the community. The Project is an attempt to address these issues in a holistic manner, with the notion of sustainability and sustainable communities being a useful framework.

In essence the Project focuses on the development of housing indicators for socially sustainable communities in Western Australia.

Project rationale

Non-government concerns about a range of housing issues and the need for improved housing outcomes provide the rationale for this Project. In particular there are three central elements of the rationale:

  • the right of citizens to housing, which is based on the notion of citizenship rights and responsibilities as applying to everyone regardless of individual characteristics;
  • the need for a coordinated approach to housing which seeks to integrate housing with other social policy areas and with environmental and economic agendas; and
  • the need to adopt broader measures of social well being rather than relying on economic measures alone — while considerable work has been undertaken in other locations and contexts on building social indicators, there is clearly a need for this work to be adapted to the Western Australian and housing specific contexts.

Project methodology

The research seeks to answer the following questions:

  • What are the characteristics of socially sustainable communities in Western Australia?
  • What are the housing related indicators of socially sustainable communities?
  • The Project is being undertaken in three stages:
  • Stage 1 — Development of a model of social sustainability
  • Stage 2 — Consultation phase to develop housing indicators of socially sustainable communities
  • Stage 3 — Compilation of indicators and production of a final report.

Project framework

A framework for moving from broad principles through to housing specific aspects has been developed as follows.

Stage 1 Research methodology

In terms of developing the content of the model of social sustainability the Project has:

  • Undertaken an extensive literature search around such areas as: social capital; community development; resilient communities; individual/group/community well-being and quality of life; culture (diversity, the Arts, preservation of historic cites); equal opportunity, equity, diversity; social exclusion and social inclusion; leadership, self sufficiency, empowerment and responsibility; capacity building; strengthening communities; international conventions; democracy and citizenship.
  • Undertaken a focus group with metropolitan based stakeholders and interviews with regional stakeholders;
  • Undertaken a pilot statewide consultation using web technology

Sustainability models

In commencing work on the Project, it became apparent that there is no one model for conceptualising sustainability.

From our research, the two models most commonly used are the interlocking circles model and the concentric circles model, both of which provide different ways of conceptualising sustainability and the relationships between the social, environmental and economic spheres in the context of communities. The 2 models are represented below:

The model informing the work of this Project is the interlocking circles model, the underlying assumption being that an understanding of sustainability involves, as a first step, an understanding of what sustainability means within each sphere.

In this model, sustainability is understood in terms of an appreciation of the connections between the three elements and also through achieving a balance between them. It enables an examination of the dynamics that occur within each sphere and at the boundaries between the spheres.

In terms of this Project, then, the focus is very much on the dynamics within the social sphere and where the social interacts with economic and environmental spheres. This reflects the fact that while there has been considerable work done on the environmental and economic aspects, the social has tended to fall off the sustainability agenda and remains relatively unexplored in any depth. This Project therefore attempts to provide an in-depth and detailed understanding of the social dimension.

Because the concentric circles model is an embedded model, i.e. the economy is embedded within the social, and the economic and the social are embedded in the environmental, it doesn’t lend itself to this separating out of the spheres. We would argue, however, that once a detailed examination of the social has been made, i.e. once we are clear about what we mean by social sustainability, there is then clearly a need for further work to be done to integrate the three spheres as per the concentric model.

The model of social sustainability

In the same way that the Project developed an overall framework to move from the general to the specific, a framework was developed for moving from the general notion of social sustainability through to the detail of what we actually mean by this term.

The first stage involved developing a definition of what is meant by the term ‘social sustainability’, which was no small task given that the concept is explored through a range of ideas and concepts including: social capital; sustainable communities; community strength; resilient communities; community development; healthy communities; community capacity; well-being; social exclusion; and citizenship.

Following the literature review, five overarching principles were formulated and a mapping exercise was undertaken to clearly identify the areas covered by each of the principles. Finally, in order to further define the principles, a range of consultations were conducted aimed at developing a series of statements for each area covered by the principles.

Defining social sustainability

The definition developed for the purpose of the Project is:

The impact of formal and informal systems, structures, processes and relationships on the current and future livability and health of communities.

There are three critical elements of the definition:

  • firstly, it highlights the importance of the current and future health and livability of communities, which is linked to the notion of inter and intra generational equity.
  • secondly, when most people think of social sustainability, they immediately think of connections that occur between people. While this is a significant component, the definition also highlights the importance of structures, processes and systems.
  • finally, the definition captures the importance of formal and informal dimensions.

Principles of social sustainability

The five principles developed were.

  • Equity — the community provides equitable opportunities and outcomes for all its members, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable members. While equity is listed as a separate principle, it is such a fundamental component that it is really an artificial separation. Equity in fact operates like a filter through which all other principles are viewed. For example, while quality of life includes people’s sense of connection with nature, this needs to be understood in terms of the extent to which all people have access to a positive environment.
  • Diversity — the community promotes and encourages diversity.
  • Quality of life — the community ensures that basic needs are met and fosters a good quality of life for all members at the individual, group and community level.
  • Interconnectedness — the community provides processes, systems and structures that promote connectedness within and outside the community at the formal, informal and institutional level.
  • Democracy and governance — the community provides democratic processes and open and accountable governance structures.

Areas covered by the principles

Each of the principles incorporates a number of different elements as follows:

  • equity includes equal opportunity, Indigenous rights, human rights and overcoming disadvantage
  • diversity is achieved through inclusiveness and valuing difference
  • quality of life includes subjective well being (including things like people’s sense of belonging, sense of self worth); objective living conditions (such as levels of education, health, housing); and opportunities for personal and social development
  • interconnectedness covers quantity of social processes (participation and links with organisations and systems); quality of social processes (the extent to which interactions are based on trust, shared norms); structures governing social processes (leadership and mechanisms for resolving conflict); and community infrastructure (including public and civic institutions, planning and physical infrastructure and community services amongst other things)
  • democracy and governance covers people’s ability to access information, knowledge and expertise and their ability to participate in decisions that effect their lives as well as the effectiveness, integrity and accountability of processes and structures. It also incorporates justice and legal rights components.


The Project is now in the final stages of developing statements for each of the principles that bring together information from the literature and the consultations undertaken with metropolitan and rural/regional and remote communities.

Rather than go through all the statements developed, a couple of examples have been selected which highlight the focus of the Project on examining the sphere of social sustainability and also issues around where the social interacts with economic and environmental dimensions.

The first example relates to the principle of equity and Indigenous rights, and the statements developed are as follows:

The community …

  • acknowledges Indigenous people as the traditional owners of the land and their connection with the land
  • supports and encourages connections and mutual respect between Indigenous and non Indigenous people
  • provides services based on understanding and respect for Indigenous culture
  • provides an apology for and ongoing recognition of the continuing oppression, dispossession and disadvantage perpetrated on Indigenous people
  • encourages and supports actions aimed at decreasing and eradicating the gap between indicators of health and well-being for Indigenous communities and those of non-Indigenous communities
  • integrates Indigenous culture into all educational, cultural and ceremonial activities to provide outcomes that are beneficial to the whole community and that advance the opportunities for people to get along in the long term
  • at the direction of the Indigenous people, develops and implements policies to redress past wrongs and supports Indigenous people to achieve the outcomes they desire
  • provides education and information about the Indigenous culture and history of the local area
  • provides opportunities for Indigenous people to participate in local decisions

The statements cover a range of issues including a recognition of the importance of the land in terms of Indigenous people being the traditional owners and also their connection with the land; the importance of building connections and mutual respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people; the importance of providing services based on understanding and respect of Indigenous culture; and the importance of Indigenous people participating in decisions that effect them.

The second example relates to the quality of life principle and specifically the issue of subjective well-being and people’s sense of belonging. The interaction between the social dimension and the environmental and economic is highlighted in statements related to employment and the importance of natural beauty, as can be seen below:

The community …

  • provides security so that members feel able to plan for the future
  • recognises and promotes its cultural heritage, history and natural beauty
  • provides opportunities for meaningful employment
  • provides opportunities and support to enable people to settle into and contribute to the life of the community
  • provides opportunities for people to participate in shared interests
  • creates opportunities for connections and collaboration
  • meets the needs of current and future generations

In fact some issues such as employment appear in a number of places which is indicative of the fact that it has multiple meanings for people — so while it clearly has an economic consideration (and therefore appears in the quality of life statements related to income and poverty as well as employment), it is also a strong factor in people’s sense of belonging and sense of self-worth. Another example is housing which is critical in terms of planning and physical infrastructure as well as income and poverty. However, housing is also a key factor in aspects of quality of life (including people’s sense of empowerment and responsibility and their sense of safety) as well as diversity.

Where to from here?

The final report from Stage 1, which will document the complete model of social sustainability, will be available in the next month or so. The next challenge is to develop housing indicators that help us to gauge the extent to which the housing in different communities contributes to achieving socially sustainable communities.

About the authors

Leanne Barron has 15 years experience in the non-government sector in the areas of family support, disability discrimination, housing and welfare policy. She is employed as a Senior Policy Officer with the WA Council of Social Service and is undertaking a thesis on sustainability as part of a Masters in Public Policy at Murdoch University.

Erin Gauntlett has worked in both the government and non-government sector across a range of portfolio areas including industrial relations, justice, education, health and housing. Erin has worked in a number of different roles including teaching, human resource development, social policy and research. In recent years, the focus of Erin’s work has been in housing policy and research. She is currently employed as a Project Officer for the Housing and Sustainable Communities Indicators Project with the WA Council of Social Service.

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