As a social scientist, most of what I write about is grounded in a shared intellectual perspective which serves to shape analytical and normative arguments, but also relies on my own experience as consumer, investor or simply as a member of that amorphous entity we nowadays term ‘civic society’. In this paper, however, I write from the perspective of a passive stakeholder, someone who is not an architect but whose life is affected by decisions made about the built environment not only in Cambridge but also in the wider world. Even from my privileged niche I am beginning to ask myself whose needs are being served by the plethora of buildings rising all around where I live, and whether the needs they seek to fulfil are physical, spiritual and emotional human needs, or simply the business need for increased revenue streams. My doubts are prompted by the premise that the resources of our planet are coming under increasing pressure, that more and more people live in densely populated urban environments, and that sustainability in all its aspects – social, environmental and economic – is now the central moral imperative for architects, planners, builders and everyone concerned with decision-taking related to the built environment. The problem at issue is: how is this moral imperative to be realised?