Implementing social impact assessment in local government

Summerville, Jennifer A., Buys, Laurie, & Germann, Roseanne E. (2004) Implementing social impact assessment in local government. Queensland University of Technology.



The overarching aim of this research was to examine the social and ecological factors impacting on water quality and usage, specifically focusing on the social dimensions that impact on a community’s ability to initiate and implement sustainable environmental practices. Recent research has suggested that social capital, broadly defined as the social connectedness of a community, fosters vibrant, sustainable and healthy communities that are more likely to work collaboratively together to solve community issues. However, to date, few organisations have studied how both the social and ecological components of neighbourhoods might influence a community’s ability to adopt sustainable environmental practices. This study is unique, bringing together local and state governments, educational institutions, engineers and social scientists in a collaboration that aims to understand the best way to engage with communities and increase environmentally sustainable behaviours.

The social scientists concentrated on aspects of communities, such as the effect of housing type and human activity on water pollution and conservation, whilst our partners studied the ecological component, specifically the impact of manmade pollutants on waterways and the protection of urban water resources. The challenge faced by urban planners today is how best to engage, encourage and empower communities so that they will implement and maintain environmentally sustainable behaviours. Thus, the long term goal of this research collaboration, combining both the social and ecological perspectives, is to gain a better understanding of a community, identifying how the council can foster greater resident engagement. The ideal outcome would be for communities to be highly engaged with local governments and work collaboratively with them to formulate local solutions for local problems.

This report focuses on the social science component, with researchers collecting both qualitative (i.e., focus group) and quantitative (i.e., survey) data to better understand one community, measuring social capital, housing type, environmental attitudes and behaviour, residents’ satisfaction with features of the environment and their house, community participation, quality of life and demographic data. The research suggests:

Findings from the focus group: • The beauty of the natural environment provided a sense of belonging for Highland Park residents. Privacy was highly valued and residents’ interactions with neighbours were relatively few, informal and instrumental. Levels of trust within the community were generally high. There were clearly defined expectations about Council’s role in managing development and protecting the environment, although individual behaviours were recognised as being important as well. • Preliminary findings suggest that although residents regarded the environment highly, their community relationships were instrumental and they did not experience deep connections with neighbours.

Findings from the survey: • Highland Park is best described as a “community of individuals”, with residents living and enjoying the private lifestyle considered normal in today’s urban environment. Residents are assertive and proactive on an individual level, with little community involvement. These opposing features create the potential for tension between what is best for the individual and what is best for the community. • Highland Park has limited “stocks of social capital”, with residents less involved with their neighbours and the local community than a comparison neighbourhood in inner city Sydney. However, all residents report caring about the natural environment and feeling responsible for environmental conservation. • Although the neighbourhood is low in social capital, this shared environmental concern has the potential to bind residents together as a community at a later stage. Already residents gardening and car-washing behaviours exhibit their water conservation and environmental awareness. Their attitudes and behaviours suggest that they will be receptive to new conservation initiatives. • There were consistent similarities across the Highland Park community with all residents, regardless of housing type, sharing a concern for the environment and enjoying similar lifestyles.

Community participation is an essential element of any plan to improve and encourage sustainable environmental behaviours. This research suggests that Highland Park has relatively low levels of social capital and is essentially a “community of individuals”. The one thing they have in common, however, is a shared concern for the environment. This provides a good foundation for any future plans that involve new water and environmental initiatives. Low levels of social capital and community involvement at this time means that Highland Park residents must be understood and treated as individuals. Therefore, behaviour change must be targeted at an individual level, building on residents’ appreciation of the natural environment. For example, their desire for privacy and limited community involvement may mean that traditional public consultation approaches, such as public meetings and forums, will not be as successful in Highland Park. This means alternative methods of engagement that acknowledge residents as individuals who value privacy are more likely to be successful (e.g., individual contact and provision of online information). Over time, a sense of community that is developed around this shared concern for the environment will bind residents together.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 20485
Item Type: Report
Refereed: No
Additional URLs:
Keywords: sustainable community, liveable communities, social capital, quality of life
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY (160000) > SOCIOLOGY (160800) > Social Change (160805)
Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY (160000) > OTHER STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY (169900) > Studies in Human Society not elsewhere classified (169999)
Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY (160000) > SOCIOLOGY (160800) > Urban Sociology and Community Studies (160810)
Divisions: Past > QUT Faculties & Divisions > Faculty of Built Environment and Engineering
Past > QUT Faculties & Divisions > QUT Carseldine - Humanities & Human Services
Past > Schools > School of Design
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2004 [please consult the authors]
Deposited On: 15 May 2009 04:50
Last Modified: 09 Jun 2010 13:39

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