Space for community: strengthening our social infrastructure
From a study published by The British Academy, Power to Change, Bennett Institute for Public Policy and the Institute for Community Studies
The above organisations recently published research from a collaborative programme, exploring how social infrastructure contributes to communities’ wellbeing, helps develop their resilience and tackles deepening geographic inequalities.
Social infrastructure represents the places – such as local libraries, village halls, pubs and community centres – as well as the crucial organisations and support structures that enable communities to form and sustain relationships that help them to thrive.
Communities that entered the pandemic with strong social infrastructure were best placed to respond, as they were more resilient and benefited from strong community support and relationships. This taught us that place and geography matter to people in times of uncertainty. People placed great value on local green spaces and open spaces during Covid lockdowns for recreation and socialising. But the pandemic also showed us that the impact of crises – and the policy response to them – does not affect all places and communities equally.
The report from the research, 'Space for Community: Strengthening our Social Infrastructure' brings together the programme’s findings and sets out several considerations for policymakers and sector leaders to help ensure social infrastructure is effective.
Different themes emerged from across the different fieldwork sites and can be grouped under the following four headings:
Inclusivity and diversity. Researchers noted the importance that participants placed on spaces that promoted inclusivity and diversity. There is a need for more spaces where people of different ages could come together and identified a need for social infrastructure that “doesn’t irritate one generation or another.” For the participants it was important to have access to “places that build on community cohesion, respect and spaces that empower. That are diverse and identities and cultures and spaces that are inclusive.”
Accessibility. Respondents talked about the need for practical ways to use public space better and, more generally, the need to value public spaces. Public transport was described as too expensive and not running at the right times, with buses stopping too early. Free events and things to do were valued highly by people, both for accessibility and for a feeling of inclusion.
Ownership and belonging. Researchers reflected the importance of being able to make a space your ‘own’. “Anything you could do where if you could take someone who doesn’t feel like they have ownership, and if you can give the leadership, that’s going to be one of the most fundamentally amazing things you could do.” The theme of belonging also related to feeling safe. Faith spaces were important to respondents, both as physical places that could be visited, such as churches and mosques, and also as creating a more general sense of community that people could feel part of. Researchers felt there seemed to be something important about the ways in which these places provided a sense of continuity.
Green spaces. Participants spoke of how connected they felt to local green areas. People talked about the value of outdoor gyms, football pitches, tennis courts and parks for children as well as places to walk and cycle. Having easy access to parks not only had a positive impact on participants’ sense of wellbeing but was also a good way to facilitate social interactions as it was free to use. “In parks you see all kinds of people go, anyone’s welcome and there’s never any trouble.”
Dame Julia Unwin, Chair of the Programme’s Advisory Group, said, “As we face a 'polycrisis' of interconnected social, economic, health, and climatic challenges, it is more important than ever to prioritise and invest in the infrastructure that helps communities thrive. This research programme has studied the importance of social infrastructure in communities internationally and in England, finding that social infrastructure is central to providing hope and support for communities, particularly when led by individuals with a deep understanding of and connection to those communities.”
Download the full report from here.
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From a study published by The British Academy, Pow, 18/04/2023