Bracing for impact; or embracing the change?

As New Zealand gears-up to meet spiraling demand for residential, agricultural and industrial real estate and its associated infrastructure, the scale of geographical change will be unprecedented – as will the degree of social impact. The recent RMLA Auckland event, Fresh Approach to Social Impact Assessments, shone a light on how stakeholder engagement and social impact assessment can make or break both the project and the community.

The mere mention of change can strike fear into the heart of local communities. If left unmanaged, this fear can result in tangible and sometimes undesirable results. Loss of social cohesion, a change in the value people place on their environment, and impacts on people’s material well-being, are just a handful of examples of the social impacts of change.


Worst-case scenario?

Yet, while some ponder the dilemma of how to minimise and mitigate the negative impact of change; others are assessing how, by including the community in the design process, positive and sustainable outcomes can be achieved for both the developer and the community. RMLA’s Fresh Approaches to Social Impact Assessment event in Auckland this month co-presented by Amelia Linzey, Technical Director at professional services consultancy, Beca, and Adele Cubitt, Head of Strategy at creative place-making firm, Fresh Concept, provided an excellent presentation of these divergent approaches.

Delivering a detailed overview of the what, how and why of social impacts, and the differing approaches to managing these, the two presenters provided valuable insight into the mindset and tools that councils, developers, planners and designers should consider when undertaking urban projects.

Not just a ‘nice to have’

In many recent urban development success stories, consideration and response to social impact has not been a warm, fuzzy ‘nice to have’ response. Rather, it has proven indispensable to supporting informed decisions on the urban form and design aspects that foster thriving, happy communities.

From a macro perspective, a thriving community reflects a buoyant local economy – good schools and social infrastructure, flourishing commerce, high employment and stability.

From a financial and risk perspective, both social impact assessment and social impact design responses can provide developers with the right information for building enduring stakeholder relationships with the local community. This, in turn, reduces the risk of ill-informed decisions that could result in litigation and compensation payouts down the line.

It’s all about the people  – Central Auckland (Image – Todd Eyre Photography)

Allaying the fear

The presenters’ divergent approaches to managing social impact demonstrated the degree to which a project’s outcome hinges on how well – or poorly – social impact is considered and managed. “Fear of the consequence of a project generates a change in people’s behaviours – it impacts their manner of operation and can influence whether they choose to remain in a community”, explained Beca’s Amelia Linzey.

Ms Linzey explained how the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) process seeks to “identify the human consequences of projects on people and communities”, noting that undertaking SIAs generally yields a win-win for all parties involved.


Amelia Linzey walks delegates through the fundamentals of SIA

Her in-depth overview of the conventional approach to SIAs, coupled with case-studies, illustrated the degree to which due diligence can make or break a community and how it can assist in improving the quality of environment outcomes for residents and communities.

The conventional approach to an SIA is similar to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA): to identify the impacts, then advise on the best way to avoid, reduce or mitigate.

While acknowledging that social impact assessment does not necessarily result in all people being ‘happy’ with the outcome, Linzey notes that it provides an important dimension of impact assessment that provides for and recognises that such projects are not simply about physically changing the environment, but also about changing the place and way people in a community will be able to live, work, play and relate to one another. “For the communities involved, the very process of being consulted can provide them with a sense of ownership, control and pride in the change taking place”, she said.

Seeing the possbilities

But there are other, community-centric, ways to approach urban design and development, notes Fresh Concept’s Adele Cubitt. Rather than approaching every project with the mindset that negative social impacts need to be reduced or mitigated, ‘place-making’ firms like Fresh Concept advise that developers, architects and planners should be designing the community into projects from the outset.

“There is a lot of disconnect in our society in terms of what is being built and designed”, said Ms Cubitt. By incorporating and involving communities early on, SIA ceases to be a two-step process, or a remedial afterthought, and instead becomes embedded in the project design to the extent that it informs the final project outcome.


Adele Cubitt explains the benefit of weaving the community into the project

False economy

The common misconception is that community engagement is costly and time-consuming. In reality, the financial and time cost is nominal within the scope of any project, and when considering the long-term repercussion of a failed project, there is tangible value in creating places, homes, workplaces and communities that people genuinely want to be in.

In any case, says Cubitt, “if you look behind the bricks and mortar, positive social change or impact is the inherent purpose of any development, so people should really be at the front and centre of the entire process”. A well-executed approach to social impact will assist developers in creating spaces where communities want to be, she explained. “It makes [the community] actually buy into the changes happening in their neighborhood and gives them a sense of ownership.”


People-friendly Britomart, Auckland

Linzey concurred, citing an example of reserve restoration plans on the Waterview project, where the final design of open space areas, including Waterview Park and Saxon Reserve (now Kuaka Park), was the product of the local community input into the design process. “The result of this has been a positive social outcome, evidenced by the level of park usage”, she said.

“You need to be very clear about who you are doing it for; not the client, but the end result, the legacy of the project. You need to be asking yourselves: how do you want to live and what do you want for those around you?”, explained Cubitt.


Self-contained creativity – Temporary Cashell Mall, Christchurch

To achieve this result, she stressed the need to fully involve the community in order to ‘weave in’ the benefits from the outset. “If you plan to bring the community with you, the community will actively contribute to the project, take ownership of it in some form, and take pride in the final outcome”, she added.

Need further proof of why your team should put SIAs and communities at the heart of the project design process? Then simply look to the Washington DC’s Monroe Street Market; or London’s once-infamous, newly regenerated King’s Cross; or closer-to-home, Auckland’s Britomart and Wynyard Quarter, where people-friendly urban spaces now support flourishing communities and booming local economies.

Thank you to Bell Gully for hosting this RMLA Auckland event.