Social infrastructure – the spaces, places and facilities that provide practical and social support to communities – was at the epicentre of local neighbourhood responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the weeks after March 2020, as communities were hit by the impact of the virus on their physical and mental health, and many people suddenly lost income and opportunities, there was a transformation of support in local neighbourhoods. Mutual aid groups, food solidarity networks, and new ways of reaching people online were set up, sometimes literally overnight. New venues, from parks to doorsteps, became vital for socialising, for support and for services.
Social Life, as part of a Mayor of London Good Growth by Design Inquiry into the relationship between social infrastructure and social integration, spent time last May and June talking to agencies and activists in London’s neighbourhoods, from food solidarity networks to teachers, cafes and libraries. 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 research highlights the creativity of local responses, the critical importance of community based agencies in responding quickly, the extraordinary efforts that individuals made to support their communities. It showed how local efforts came together most successfully where relationships were strongest and highlights the need to continue to support build on the places, spaces and networks that are supporting communities now as we think about the aftermath of the pandemic in the next year and beyond.
Our work pre-pandemic 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. The local café that provides a venue for people to meet, the barber that provides advice and support to young people, the local shop that gives credit, advice and information are all critical in holding neighbourhoods together. 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.
Local responses to the pandemic were able to flex most rapidly and creatively where were strong relationships in place – between agencies and residents; among residents; and between residents, agencies and councils. These relationships allowed agencies and activists to respond creatively and test new approaches, building on familiarity, trust and their local insight and expertise.
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.
We found rapid innovation especially around food, which was identified across all the neighbourhoods we worked in as an urgent need. We spoke with a barber in Catford who set up a food bank; saw powerful partnership emerged between sports organisations using Burgess Park in Southwark and Pembroke House – a settlement with a history stretching back to the 19th century – to create a food distribution network. We saw how old networks in Homerton were strengthened and bought in new partners, like the Felix Project. We met people from different faith groups who were working together to share facilities to provide meals, saw pavements used as the venue for befriending and advice, and library staff reaching out to people on the doorstep.
Often it was the smaller community based organisations that were fastest to react and who found it easiest to shift their work to a new model. Larger organisations, including councils, tended to follow their lead, putting their weighty resources behind local efforts.
We also heard how the pandemic has put huge strain on social infrastructure ecosystems. Agencies and businesses faced new urgent social needs, poverty and hunger, and anxieties about their own futures as opportunities for revenue generation were slashed. The social and health impacts of the pandemic has been harshest in the areas that were most deprived and on communities that are already marginalised and disadvantaged. Many articulated their fears and apprehensions for a difficult future after emergency funding ends, and furloughed volunteers return to work.
As we look forward, with the sharp end of the pandemic hopefully receding, our social infrastructure will continue to play a critical role. It’s easy to take it for granted and it’s always tempting to want to build new shiny services and places, but the lessons of our work last May and June isn’t that we need new facilities. It’s that we need to value what is working well now, and build on that. 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.
Photo Credit – Jamie Hailstone