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Three key learnings on revitalising communities and the role of social infrastructure

Jack Loughnane, senior researcher at Local Trust, shares learnings from our recent seminar on revitalising communities and the role of social infrastructure, ahead of the next event in our Pride in Place seminar series in March.

In November we held the second event in our series of research seminars, ‘(Re)making Social Infrastructure for Thriving Communities’.  

It explored the importance of social infrastructure in the development and sustainability of communities and highlighted important learnings, including the role of local identity in re-establishing social communities and the importance of community-led initiatives. 

This focus on social infrastructure was inspired by research commissioned by Local Trust and conducted by Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI) investigating ‘left behind’ communities. Ultimately, the research found that deprived areas which lack social infrastructure have worse economic outcomes compared to other deprived areas. 

Understanding ’left-behindness: The case of Sacriston

Our first speaker, John Tomaney, professor of urban and regional planning at UCL, began by presenting a study on Sacriston, a village in north-east England, exploring the concept of ‘left-behindness’.  

The study delved into the lived experiences of local people, emphasising that while this was a community historically rich in social infrastructure, the recent history of the area was marked by its decline.  

This history started with the story of the cooperative building. Previously a vital location where village life thrived, with a hall that could hold up to 700 people, it had once been the central hub of the community.  

The slow then rapid decline of social infrastructure in the village became symbolised by this building, which ended up standing empty for many years. It became clear that efforts were being made to revitalise infrastructure in the area when community members came together to acquire and repurpose the building for a new set of social activities.  

John identified “pride in place” as an important factor in the redevelopment of social infrastructure, but one that has until now been poorly defined and needs further thought. 

Bridging the asset gap: Mapping social infrastructure in St Helens 

Our second speaker, Sue Jarvis, co-director of the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place at the University of Liverpool, presented two linked projects undertaken in St Helens, focusing on understanding and mapping social infrastructure.  

The research aimed to identify gaps in social infrastructure and to explore intangible elements, such as trust and engagement, in addition to physical assets. Sue emphasised the importance of community-led initiatives and the need for a nuanced approach that considers the emotional connections people have with their surroundings.  

The research also highlighted that neighbourhood accessibility can vary depending on the demographics of the residents. A 20-minute walk is very different for elderly people or people with mobility issues, for example, and local infrastructure needs to take this into account.  

Harnessing the insight of community members when planning social infrastructure can address both the emotional and practical issues that have in the past been overlooked. 

Rethinking social infrastructure: A thought experiment 

Our final speaker, Rob Macmillan, principal research fellow at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, took a speculative approach, aiming to challenge notions of social infrastructure.  

He introduced the concept of ‘Amasocial’, an all-encompassing destination offering various services, akin to a fulfilment centre. The audience’s responses to this dystopian vision highlighted the complexities and concerns associated with redefining social infrastructure.   

Rob then highlighted that this thought experiment was designed to show, in the extremis, that the way in which social infrastructure is provided and who controls it does matter. 

Three key takeaways on the role of social infrastructure 

Each of the speakers’ presentations, as well as the questions from seminar attendees and the discussions that followed, identified several important points of consideration for future work on social infrastructure.  

1 Local identity is a key component in re-establishing social communities 

The extent to which people experience a sense of belonging to the place where they live was offered as an important component of re-establishing social infrastructure in communities that perceive they have been ‘left behind’.  

Up until now, this has been a neglected, or at least poorly approached, component of the debate. The importance of local identity and having pride in the place where one lives, and how these concepts affect community revitalisation, needs more scrutiny. 

 2 Facilitating community-led initiatives is essential 

Facilitating initiatives which put community members to the forefront of decision-making was identified as being key to effective social infrastructure development.  

This allows for a nuanced approach that considers the emotional connections people have with their surroundings, as well as practical implications. The research and stories shared during the seminar highlighted the need to address mobility issues within communities and the 20-minute neighbourhood concept was offered as a solution.  

Crucially, for this approach to be successful, a one-size fits all strategy will not work – qualitative input from residents is required for its successful implementation. 

3 More discussion is needed around ownership, power, and the control of social infrastructure 

Rob Macmillan proposed that we need to reflect on the current discourse around social infrastructure, noting a lack of discussions on ownership of social infrastructure. Conversations around this topic stressed the importance of being aware and cautious of the privatisation of social infrastructure, which could remove power from the community members who will be most impacted. 

Moving forward

The November seminar provided valuable insights into the multifaceted nature of social infrastructure and its role in community development. The presentations highlighted the need for a comprehensive understanding of communities, considering cultural, social, and economic dimensions.  

Moving forward, discussions around redefining social infrastructure should include considerations of ownership, control and power dynamics, with an emphasis on community-led initiatives that empower individuals and foster a sense of belonging. 

The next seminar in our series, ‘Pride in Place’: Why is identifying with the place you live important? will take place online on 6 March 2024. This is a free event.  

To attend, please register online or email to secure your place. 

About the author
Jack Loughnane

Jack Loughnane is a senior researcher at Local Trust.