Places, Spaces and Sociality: how the built environment creates a sense of community

Since March 2020, the way we live, work and connect with each other has dramatically changed. Covid-19 has shaped the way we use places, spaces, and it has shaped the social relationships that happen within and between them. We’ve heard stories of isolation and loneliness, and we have heard stories of neighbours supporting each other. But what influence does the built environment have on these interactions?

One day before the second UK lockdown came to an end, we explored the role of architecture, urban design, policy, and management in fostering a sense of community.

 

The built environment helps a sense of community to thrive 

Sociality is the tendency that humans have towards forming social groups and living in communities. Our cities and neighbourhoods are made up of places (that’s the wide range of buildings such as homes and libraries which have been designed with specific uses in mind) and spaces (that’s the elements of the built environment where usage and associations are not so set, or where the meaning may change over time ).

These spaces and places are where the relationships we share with our families and friends, our neighbours, and passers-by develop. And, as Mekor Newman, Director of NewmanFrancis said, the built environment plays an important role in “creating thriving and resilient communities.”

The pandemic has proven the benefits of a strong community

The built environment plays an important role in creating a thriving community – and the pandemic has put this to the test. Image courtesy of Mike Woolliscroft.

Covid-19 has put communities to the test: where communities were already strong, we’ve seen an increased appetite for connection and a huge volunteer response. For example, the community that Mekor volunteers in has increased its online membership by 600 additional members in the last nine months alone. And the rise of mutual aid groups demonstrates the wider potential of community power.

Mike Woolliscroft, Chief Executive – Partnerships South, Countryside Properties agreed: “The pandemic has demonstrated the huge benefits of a strong community in fact it has demonstrated that we are reliant upon the strength of community.”

Covid-19 has brought existing challenges and inequalities into sharp focus

In stark contrast to these positive examples, we’ve also heard stories of isolation and of closed community buildings. We’ve seen that too many Londoners live in poor-quality homes, with insecure tenures and too little space. And Fiona Fletcher Smith, Group Director Development and Sales, L&Q, added that we’ve also seen huge inequalities, with “a two-tier system of housing, where if you had access to a garden or a balcony or safe open space you were lucky.”

But, Fiona argued, these are not new problems caused by the pandemic. Rather, these are problems that have always existed. She said: “we were all trying to deal with these issues anyway, we just now need to pick up the pace.”

Dhruv Sookhoo, Visiting Lecturer, University of Newcastle and Head of Research and Practice Innovation, Metropolitan Workshop agreed that the key priority highlighted by the pandemic is the importance of basic provision, for everyone. He emphasised that it is impossible for communities to thrive if individuals within these communities are preoccupied making incredibly difficult personal choices, such as: “do I use the kitchen table to teach my child, or do I use the kitchen table to generate an income?”

Solving the issues highlighted by the pandemic

Despite the challenges the pandemic has highlighted, our panel was optimistic that solutions exist. As suggested by Dhruv and Fiona, these solutions are not necessarily huge innovations; instead, they are a critical reminder we need to focus on delivering the basics well for all Londoners.

1. Deliver homes and neighbourhoods which provide communities with chances to be social

Clockwise from left: Sarah Hayes, Anna Odedun, Mekor Newman, Dhruv Sookhoo, Tricia Patel, Mike Woolliscroft, Fiona Fletcher Smith

All speakers agreed that well-designed places bring people out of their homes and provide an opportunity to connect with the surrounding community. For Tricia Patel, Partner Pollard Thomas Edwards, a well-designed place means affording individuals with “chances to be social.”

Inside the home, this means a place that is connected to the outside world in the right way. For example, a kitchen window (not a bedroom window!) which allows you to see out onto the street and wave at neighbours. Outside the home, this is about creating opportunities to bump into the same people on a regular basis. Resident feedback gathered by PTE during lockdown pointed to gardens and playgrounds as the starting point for many new friendships and networks.

For Dhruv it is not a case of drawing up new legislation or policy, it is about implementing what already exists: had all of the design standards for London been met then the wellbeing of both individuals and their communities would have been boosted during lockdown. And, while there are still too many disappointing developments, there are several measures which aim to raise standards across the industry. For example, the national design guide from 2019, which provides guidance to local authorities and designers on the fundamentals of good urban planning and design. The UK government’s planning white paper (October 2020) seeks to modernise and simplify planning policy and the planning process.

One aspect that may need revision in light of Covid-19 is the issue of space standards. Londoners are more likely to work from home than workers in other areas of the UK, and it is predicted that this could be a permanent shift for many. This puts additional pressure on the home environment, and Fiona welcomed any policy support which would ensure that flexible, additional space was accessible to all Londoners.

2. Invest in emerging spaces too

Covid-19 has shown us the potential for more playful, sociable streets that promote a sense of community. Image courtesy of Tricia Patel.

However, it’s not just about the formally designed places which matter; the emerging spaces within our communities are important too. One example of an emerging space that has the potential to support community interactions are the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), many of which have sprung up since the government gave councils £250m of new active travel funding in May. LTNs are initiatives which aim to encourage walking and cycling, and to date over 70 have been implemented across London.

Despite their controversy, Sarah Hayes, Senior Transport Planner, Arup agreed that LTNs have the power to make more playful, sociable streets that promote a sense of community. The Streetspace for London guides, and the associated schemes by Transport for London, are another example of how we can adapt and use our streets differently – not only for transport but for living in a different way too. Sarah said: “It has been a difficult period for a lot of people, but it has also been positive in some ways. It has created smaller cities and boosted local communities by putting walking and cycling at the heart of our neighbourhoods.”

3. Narrow the digital divide

Now that we were all more physically distant from one another, online social networks have become an important tool for helping communities stay connected. And many of the community volunteer networks activated during the first lockdown were powered by WhatsApp and Facebook. Whilst these platforms are free to use, Mekor reminded us that not everyone has equal access. In fact, only 51% of UK households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 have internet access, compared with 99% of households with incomes of over £40,000.

Many of the community volunteer networks activated during the first lockdown were powered by WhatsApp and Facebook – but the digital divide has excluded some people from this. Image courtesy Mike Woolliscroft

To help overcome this we heard how Countryside funded free digital tablets, supporting a more digitally inclusive community. This has helped children access educational resources and made it easier for isolated residents to stay in touch with loved ones. It’s also meant residents can access the local community centre’s online activities, such as dance classes and mental health support.

L&Q took a different approach and made 35,000 phone calls per day to their most vulnerable residents. As well as checking that residents were ok, these calls were also a way to connect residents with the many local volunteer groups that they may not have been able to access otherwise.

4. Put existing and new communities at the heart of everything we do

For landlords and developers, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of working with community ecosystems. Practically, this means working with, supporting, and funding the existing network of groups and businesses to ensure they both survive, and thrive.

One approach to putting the community at the heart of everything we do is co-production. This is a process where communities work together with landlords, local authorities and developers to reach a collective outcome. Fiona agreed that communities should be more involved, saying: “let’s build places that people actually want to live in, rather than places that we as the professionals think they should live in.” She explained that L&Q is looking to expand the way that they involve current – and future – residents in the design of their homes.

Co-production was a significant feature of FoL’s 2019 Foundations for Community-Led Housing project which explored how communities can take an active role in delivering their own homes and neighbourhoods and how local authorities, developers, architects and funders can support this. Read more here.

We must place community at the heart of everything we do. Prototype for Campbell Park North, Milton Keynes displayed, A New Kind of Suburbia, Metropolitan Workshop, 2019. Image courtesy of Dhruv Sookhoo.

A word of caution…

Given the current pressure to increase housing delivery, as well as the anticipated economic knock-on effects of the pandemic, there is a risk that the built environment community forgets the importance of investing in community. Mike cautioned: “We must be careful that these factors do not dilute the focus on the best practice that enables communities to connect and thrive.”

 

Places, Spaces and Sociality was held as part of our People, Place and Community project. You can catch-up on the insight we’ve gained so far here– and we’ll be publishing our final project report in early 2021. Sign up to our mailing list for the latest updates.

If you enjoyed this event, you may also be interested in our upcoming City Makers Forum: Levelling Up London which will build upon many of the themes touched upon in this webinar.