Sustainability is often conceived of as an attempt to balance competing economic, environmental and social priorities. Over the course of three decades of scholarship, however, the meaning and appropriate application of the ‘social pillar’ continues to inspire confusion. In this paper, we posit that the inherent challenge of understanding social sustainability is its many legitimate meanings plus a lack of interdisciplinary scholarship. We draw from literature in multiple disciplines to illustrate five different ways that the concept of social sustainability has been applied in scholarship and professional practice, and highlighting the importance of applications that acknowledge placed-based, process-oriented perspectives that understand social, economic, and environmental imperatives as integrated concepts. Ironically, this framing forecloses on social sustainability as an entity distinct from environmental and economic sustainability. We believe that organizing the conversation around these five applications can help advocates of sustainability use the concept of social sustainability in clear and powerful ways while avoiding applications that relegate the social dimensions of sustainability to an afterthought.
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