by Nicola Bacon
Nicola Bacon, the Founding Director of Social Life, has spent the past year talking to Londoners about social infrastructure: the spaces, places and supports that underpin our local social life. She shows how crucial this “social glue” has proved to the wellbeing and resilience of people across the capital.
Social infrastructure – the spaces, places and supports that underpin our local social life – is central to our quality of life. It is our social glue. When we are meeting our friends in a café, going to a class at a community centre, taking part in a tenants and residents association or a park friends’ group, going to the library for information or getting help and advice from people within our community, we are using social infrastructure to support and enrich our lives.
In the last year we have seen communities and neighbours coming together to support each other, showing creativity and determination. Our social infrastructure has been critical to our quality of life in these difficult months.
“We are hoping to maintain these new links that have formed, to continue to get people to think beyond their own bubble, and to remember the power of the community. We need to remember that when things went really badly wrong, and there wasn’t the council, there wasn’t external providers – there was help locally, and it was your neighbours.” Stakeholder, Homerton
“We have witnessed kindness, compassion, care, supporting local businesses, this needs to continue, we’ve got to do something different and this is the moment.” Stakeholder, Surbiton
Speaking to London’s communities
Starting at the end of 2019, Social Life, with Hawkins\Brown, spent six months speaking to different organisations that support London’s communities, from agencies running youth services, cafes, to libraries, Facebook groups, park user groups, barbers, schools and GPs. We had been commissioned by the Mayor of London to carry out a Good Growth by Design Research Inquiry into the relationship between social infrastructure and social integration.
Most of our conversations took place before last March, but in May and June we checked in with the people we had been in touch with. We witnessed the many ways that London’s social infrastructure was supporting communities and neighbourhoods at the height of the pandemic, and how the crisis generated extraordinary examples of resilience and innovation.
Our work highlighted the importance of social infrastructure ecosystems – how communities are supported not only by formal infrastructure like libraries, parks and community centres, but also by ‘soft’ and ‘informal’ supports, from WhatsApp and Facebook groups, to cafes, barbers and community networks. When we look at social infrastructure too narrowly – as often happens – we miss out on this depth and complexity.
“Social integration is not about spaces. It is a peopled process.”
Workshop participant in Homerton
Our local ecosystems, which bring together all these different supports, are specific to place and neighbourhood. In the pandemic we saw how the strength of a local ecosystem underpins resilience and helps communities get through difficult times.
Supporting social integration
The commission from the Mayor of London was to look at how social integration supports social integration. The GLA’s definition of social integration brings together three concepts: our relationships, our ability to participate and equality. All of these are central to our quality of life.
Social infrastructure supports relationships by bringing people together, by giving them opportunities to socialise, to meet new people, and to meet people who share experiences and interests. People are most likely to meet people from different backgrounds at formal social infrastructures – health care centres, places of worship, sports facilities and playgrounds. Informal social infrastructure – cafes, playgroups, book clubs – can be important to bringing together peoplefrom similar social backgrounds to support each other and socialise.
Social infrastructure – from local WhatsApp groups to charity management committees – enables people to become involved and active in their community. And social infrastructure helps to tackle inequalities by providing support, help and advice.
All these strengths came into play during the pandemic. Local communities were put under stress on multiple fronts: directly from the virus, from the social impacts of staying at home, shielding, and home education. All of this challenged our quality of life.
Social, economic and health impacts
The social and health impacts of the pandemic have been harshest in the areas that were most deprived and on communities that were already marginalised and disadvantaged. It particularly affected people living in overcrowded or poor quality housing, people working in jobs that stopped abruptly, or demanded that they continue to work in public facing roles. Our relationships and our ability to participate were hampered by the need to stay at home. The pandemic’s short and long term impact on inequalities is stark.
In response to all these threats to quality of life we saw enormous efforts to support communities and a creativity and flexibility in local responses.
“The partnership working and what we’ve been doing with food has shown how we can work so collaboratively and there’s a desire for that to continue.” Catford stakeholder
“We have moved further in collaboration between health providers, the council, local community groups and food security more in the past six months than the past six years.” Southwark stakeholder
Strengths and strains
We saw how local efforts came together most successfully where relationships were strongest. Relationships offered a way in to support communities: to contact families who are scared to leave their home or people on the shielding list who were told to stay inside. They provided routes to galvanise volunteers and for people to find new ways of doing things and to support each other. They offer ways to contact communities that agencies often struggle to speak to, to give out public health information, updates on restrictions or information about support available locally.
“The power of relationships is huge. If we hadn’t had those relationships in place we wouldn’t have been able to do half the amount of work.” Feltham stakeholder
But we also heard how the pandemic has put huge strain on social infrastructure ecosystems facing urgent needs, poverty and hunger. Many articulated their fears and apprehensions for a difficult future after emergency funding ends, and furloughed volunteers return to work.
“Pubs are places that people come because they want to connect with someone…How do we continue to offer that listening service to people from a distance?” Surbiton stakeholder
As we look forward, with the sharp end of the pandemic hopefully receding, we will need our social infrastructure to help us come together and meet face to face, to support each other, and to help people facing social and economic hardship. It will continue to be vital in underpinning our quality of life. We need to value what is working well now, we cannot afford to lose the assets that have been supporting neighbourhoods over this last year. We will continue to rely on them as the aftershock of the pandemic continues to shape our lives.
Nicola Bacon is the Founding Director of Social Life.
Social Life is an independent research organisation. Our work is about people & places. We work with local authorities, developers and community groups to find practical ways to build stronger communities. We specialise in research & community projects about how people are affected by changes in the built environment. For more information visit www.social-life.co
Links to reports
The Mayor of London’s Good Growth by Design research inquiry Connective Social Infrastructure can be downloaded here: https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/connective_social_infrastructure_0_0.pdf
Social Life’s report Social infrastructure in times of crisis which expands on the research enquiry can be downloaded here: http://www.social-life.co/publication/social_infrastructure_in_times_of_crisis/