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Sustainable Society: The Role of Surveyors in creating a Sustainable Society

There are thousands of definitions, ideas, concepts and models that define what a sustainable society is. Put simply, a sustainable society is one that “persists and thrives”. In this article we look at the role of surveyors in creating a sustainable society.

A sustainable society is one that can progress without catastrophic setbacks in the foreseeable future. For billions of years the Earth has been a sustainable system with the laws of nature ensuring a stable balance of population of all species of flora and fauna.

If species grew too quickly or became too dominant in its eco-system then nature had its way of suppressing it through starvation and disease. That was until the human race discovered other ways to utilise the reserve of natural resources that the Earth had accumulated in the past.

Humans have developed technologies to overcome sickness and disease, and use natural resources at an exponential rate to accommodate our ‘comfortable’ lifestyles. These natural resources are not an infinite supply, but a finite amount that has taken millions of years to create.

The modern human society relies solely on these reserves to operate and in just a few generations has managed to deplete these reserves to an almost critical level.

To compound matters, our expansive development is diminishing the Earth’s capability to ever generate new resources, meaning that our current society is not sustainable.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”. The unsustainable society that we are faced with today has not risen solely from ignorance, greed or a lack of planning but as a “collective consequence of rational, well-intended decisions made by people caught up in social, political and economic systems that make it difficult or impossible to act in ways that are fully responsible to all those affected in the present and in the future”.

In order to become sustainable we as individuals, communities, regions, states and nations need to change the way we live in order to level out the delicate balance between the current and future needs of the population of Earth.

A sustainable society will provide a fair and equitable (as opposed to equal) quality of life for all inhabitants while not depleting the productivity of the natural systems and resources that life depends upon.

Further development is a required part of our economic society, land is a commodity that can be bought, sold and traded in an open market economy.

In order for land to have an economic value, you must be able to use/develop the land. The challenge for the surveyor is to find the harmony between development and the surrounding environment


Below are some of the roles Surveyors play in creating sustainable environment.

1. Monitoring

In project management, it has been said that the last day of your project becomes Day 1 for the occupants. As the implementation of sustainable development in housing estates is only a relatively new concept it is essential to ensure that our current understandings, designs and the devices we install are working to reduce our eco-footprint and creating happy inhabitants.

Therefore it essential for the surveyor as a project manager to have post-occupancy surveys carried out in the short, medium and long term to not only identify what is and is not working but to also gain recommendations for future projects.

Monitoring/audit programs should also be established with utility and service providers so we can better understand how much water/energy we are saving. Surveyors are privileged with a unique set of tools and knowledge which gives them a professional responsibility to not only their clients and the community, but to the environment as well.

In order to achieve ecologically sustainable development a surveyor needs an in-depth understanding of all of the environmental, social and economic impacts of a proposed development. They need to adopt attitudes which embrace and promote the concepts of sustainable development and to find a way to successfully integrate development with the surrounding environment.

2. Development Design

A surveyor may be the first contact that a developer has with relation to any proposed development. During the course of their education, surveyors receive generalist training in a variety of disciplines. Other than the traditional areas of surveying and land use they also have a basic knowledge of water drainage and design, geotechnical aspects including soil and pavement design, hazard identification and site analysis, town planning and planning policies, sustainability and law.

This places them in a unique position which allows them to identify the best use and development of a site and places them in the best position to act as the leaders of any form of development. The ideas behind sustainability severely challenge the traditional ideas behind land developments. Surveyors are typically resistant to change and for a very long time the main forces driving the development industry have been population and economic growth.

3. Project Management

Surveyors need to take a more senior and integrated approach to land development and management. Invariably, surveyors need to become project managers from the onset of a development as part of the initial planning and design team.

Aspects such as road and lot orientation, as well as size, landscaping, house design and water and energy consumption all need to be considered.

4. Land Administration 

Surveyors are the creators and keepers of the cadastre and the land administration systems of the future will need to be able to handle an increasingly complex combination of rights, restrictions and responsibilities over land due to environmental, social and economic issues.

In order to make good planning decisions for sustainable development the authorities need access to accurate and relevant information.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) may be the tool for ensuring that the impacts of development do not have detrimental effects on the environment. There are large amounts of data available but access to them is often hamper due to a lack of standardisation and metadata.

Surveyors, with the support of other professions, can solve these issues and accurately map and identify both the natural and man-made environment and place the information into GIS to allow the relevant authorities to make well informed decisions.

The biggest threat to sustainability is low-density suburban growth, because it is very clear that low-density housing is high intensity in terms of energy consumption.

The Surveyors of today and tomorrow are in a unique position to influence the societies of the future and they need to establish their role as the lead professionals in the area of sustainable land development.


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