What is socially sustainable development? Dorothea Breier studies accessible subcultural spaces

Sustainable development can also be studied from the perspective of social sustainability, which is a speciality of an ethnologist and urban culture scholar.

According to the UN’s Commission on Sustainable Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, sustainable development must be implemented in the present, instead of making it the responsibility of future generations. In addition to environmental and economic dimensions, sustainable development also has a social aspect.

“Development that only takes into account the environment and the economy cannot be sustainable,” says Dorothea Breier.

Breier is an ethnologist and scholar of urban studies at the University of Helsinki. She believes the social dimension is often neglected in the discussions. More attention is paid to the environment and climate change. However, without a social viewpoint no sustainable goals can be achieved, which is why the UN has highlighted this as one indicator of sustainable development alongside the environment and the economy.

From the research perspective, social sustainability is an elusive concept. In the UN’s Agenda 2030 goals for sustainable development, social sustainability includes for instance aspects like equality among all individuals, gender equality, health and education. And yet, not much research has so far been conducted on the topic.

“The lack of related research may come from the difficulty of grasping social sustainability, as the notions on the concept are often subjective. It’s very fragmented and complex, something that evades definition.”  

Breier herself investigates grass-roots initiatives through the prism of equality, social inclusion, accessibility of urban spaces, and the potential of bottom-up solutions to solve certain issues.    

How can civil activism promote sustainable development? 

The operations of small, grass-roots non-governmental organisations and civil activism can help in achieving sustainable social development. Through their own activity, citizens have the ability to remedy societal weaknesses without having to wait for the rigid decision-making of authorities.

Among Breier’s research topics is the Loukko Center of Subcultures, established by young adults and recently opened in Helsinki’s Kallio district on the street Castréninkatu. Loukko is a socially and physically accessible cultural centre open to all regardless of background.

Loukko’s principle is to serve as a safer space for people who might elsewhere feel marginalised due to their gender identity, social or physical limitations or any other reason. What makes the space safe is a principle according to which all visitors must be treated with respect.  

Loukko supports sustainable development

Breier chose Loukko as a research topic due to the elaborate ideas and ideals underlying the community, as well as its critical approach to society and cultural institutions. In a neoliberal world, young adults are without a proper unbiased, open and accessible place for cooperative and communal activities.  

“If you don’t have the money to meet your friends in cafés, where can you go?” Breier asks. “Young adults are at risk to become marginalised and fall through the safety nets from not having money. At Loukko, you pay what you like for coffee, or don’t pay at all. The Monday café, for example, is open to all and is operated on donation-basis. 

Regular youth clubs are not open for young adults, and their operations are governed by the city or another authority. While Loukko is organised by a core group of people, they do rely on the input of each and every visitor.”

 The aim is for everyone to be on their own terms, respecting others with an open attitude regardless of gender, means, race, education and social skills.

According to Breier, such activism of young urban adults has huge potential for achieving a socially more sustainable society. Everything at Loukko is the result of voluntary work. The space is used for organising cultural events, gigs, accessible theatre, yoga sessions and workshops. Loukko’s activities are coordinated by a small core group, and participation is easy. Everything is based on openness.

“Everyone can do something for a better society. Instead of waiting for authorities to solve our problems, citizens themselves can do it faster and easier. Politicians and authorities don’t have all the answers, nor do they necessarily know all the problems. This is why we need operators at the grass-roots level and experts with personal experience to make an increasingly sustainable urban culture.”