The sociologist Robert Putnam calls the web of connections and relationships within our communities and neighbourhoods ‘social capital’ and it is vital to our wellbeing through the sense of identity, purpose and belonging that it provides. Social capital is something that develops over time but it needs help. It needs places, facilities and services that allow these community connections to thrive, something that is called ‘social infrastructure’.
Many large modern housing estates lack this social infrastructure. Shopping involves a car trip to a supermarket and, with the exception of schools, there are often few local facilities or spaces for the community to come together. This makes it harder for people to interact with people other than their immediate neighbours, stifling the growth of social capital. New neighbourhoods therefore need to be designed with a full range of local facilities and these need to be available to everyone (there is no point if they are unaffordable to half the community). This is not easy. Very often these facilities are not viable, particularly as the neighbourhood is being built, which can take many years. There is also a need to retrofit existing mono-use estates so that they can develop social capital.
What You Can Do
Support your local high street, shop locally and make use of local services. Involve local businesses, shop keepers and service providers in discussions; they are, after all, part of the community. Think about improvements that the community can make, such as high street clean up campaigns, planters and hanging baskets. Is there scope for community groups to take over empty shop units, the local library or even run a community pub or café.
Developers and Designers
Build a mix of uses! Include workspace, shop units and space for schools, health and community facilities in new developments. For large schemes, build a new local high street rather than going for the easy option of a supermarket. Mix it all up and make sure everything is united by a walkable network of streets.
Require a mix of uses in planning policy and ensure local policies don’t restrict the development of local business space. Support local high streets and work with businesses and communities to develop improvement strategies. Consider the idea of Business Improvement Districts to bring companies together and fund improvements.
6C) Eddington, Cambridge
In response to the extreme effects of growth in the city, the University of Cambridge are in the process of transforming 150 hectares of what was flat, inaccessible and somewhat featureless farmland into a new urban district in the north-west of the city.
Only slightly smaller than the historic centre of Cambridge, once completed the new district will include 3,000 homes (of which 50% will be affordable), 100,000sqm of research facilities, 2,000 postgraduate student beds and local facilities such as schools, shops and surgeries needed to create a healthy and vibrant community.
Eddington, the first phase of the development, has prioritised housing to meet the housing supply shortage within the development with half of the 14,000 new homes being built for qualifying University and college staff.
What sets Eddington apart from many other commercially-led developments is Cambridge City Council’s insistence that the local centre is to be delivered first.
A planting strategy of native species will benefit local birdS, insects and mammals. Linear parks cut easy cycle and walking routes through the site, accommodating native, naturalistic planting such as grassland and meadow flowers. The public realm is inspired by the local landscape and includes the use of edible fruits and herbs.
Ponds and swales line the boundary of the site, accommodating wildlife and storing rainwater to tackle flooding. Timber bridges, boardwalks, seating and play facilities are dotted along the length of the water feature and throughout the site.
The high-quality natural play equipment, grassed mounds and range of environments create stimulating and safe places for children to explore and enjoy.
The University has subsequently followed through on this commitment and is in the process of delivering a significant proportion of the affordable and social infrastructure within the initial phases. This includes a new primary school that has been designed to be expanded as the local population grows, a nursery, a health centre, a hotel, retail units including a supermarket and an energy centre and district heating network.
In addition to this, around one-third of the overall site is to be used as public open space for sports, informal recreation and ecological use.
At the Storey’s Field community centre and performance Arts Space, the community can take part in a range of communal activities including ballet, sewing clubs and woodwork.
Photography: © John Sutton