‘Social infrastructure’ in two minutes

by Lilian Barratt

27 Jan 2023

A photograph of crowds of people walking on Glasgow's Buchanan Street

The word ‘infrastructure’ is commonly associated with the essential facilities and services that underpin everyday life – roads and railways power physical connectivity, while broadband enables us to interact digitally. ‘Social’ infrastructure represents the crucial organisations, places and spaces that enable communities to create social connections – to form and sustain relationships that help them to thrive.

Space for community: strengthening our social infrastructure

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Just as there are disparities in physical infrastructure across different parts of the UK, the availability, affordability, and accessibility of social infrastructure also varies. It would be easy to assume that social infrastructure must be publicly provided, and indeed publicly funded libraries, community centres and parks are often key examples of social infrastructure within communities. However, for many people, a local pub or shopping centre may represent a more integral pillar of daily social interaction that contributes towards feelings of belonging.

Why does social infrastructure matter?

We are in an era defined by a rolling series of upheavals including Brexit, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis. Widening geographic inequalities were laid bare by the pandemic, before which the UK was already the most regionally unequal, large, high-income OECD country. The Academy’s seminal COVID Decade programme, which explored the long-term social impacts of the pandemic, found that communities that entered the pandemic with established social infrastructure were best placed to respond – they were more resilient and benefited from strong community support and relationships.

Spaces where people can come together with others who share things in common, as well as those with whom they have differences, play an important role in local economic and social success. The Academy’s social infrastructure programme explores what ingredients and conditions are required for social infrastructure to succeed – for people to feel safe, empowered, included, and that they belong in a place. It aims to understand how private, government and civil society actors can work together to create lasting social infrastructure that supports the wellbeing, resilience and prosperity of communities, and helps respond to current and future crises.

How can we strengthen social infrastructure?

The Academy’s research, in partnership with Power to Change and delivered by the Bennett Institute and the Institute for Community Studies, explores international policy approaches that aim to strengthen social infrastructure, through interviews with policymakers and experts in Europe, Australia, East Asia, and North America. Alongside this, researchers in four areas of England – Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol and Barking – have listened to local communities about what is important to them when it comes to social infrastructure.

The findings of the research emphasise that social infrastructure should be treated as infrastructure, through considering the access requirements and ongoing maintenance costs associated. Participants in the research felt that accessibility and inclusion are key to strong social infrastructure – parks and green spaces are generally free to access, while areas such as high streets and town centres with strong transport links are important places to connect. As well as physical and financial considerations, psychological barriers were also considered important in terms of whether a space feels safe or welcoming for people.

The research shows that involving and listening to communities is paramount when it comes to designing and developing social infrastructure. It would be easy to assume that because a town has a community centre and a library, it is well served by social infrastructure. But the mere existence of social infrastructure tells us nothing about whether local residents perceive it to be accessible, beneficial or inclusive.

The research also stressed the importance of understanding the different purposes that people use social infrastructure for, and of ‘accidental’ social infrastructure – those places which are intended to serve a different purpose, but which nevertheless act as social infrastructure. Supermarkets, for example, can serve as vital spaces for people to connect with each other to stave off loneliness. Simply building new facilities is not enough. Instead, we need decisionmakers – from private developers to local and national policymakers – to build a deeper understanding of how communities think and feel, to ultimately strengthen our social infrastructure.

Lilian Barratt is Senior Policy Advisor at the British Academy. Find out more about the Social and Cultural Infrastructures programme.

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