Early provision of social infrastructure is crucial
Research from the Chartered Institute of Housing and Joseph Rowntree Foundation exploring the attitudes of developers and purchasers to new housing estates identifies: "Physical and social infrastructure needs to be provided before residents move into a new development and this is especially true for schools. Extra services may be needed to facilitate mix, including community development and neighbourhood management."
This is reinforced by findings from CLG's New Towns review, which highlights the important role that social infrastructure plays in building a sense of place and supporting new residents to settle and develop local social networks. The different local circumstances and approaches of the New Towns meant that they achieved varying degrees of success in providing social infrastructure and support. The review concludes that social infrastructure and amenities in the New Towns were often inappropriate, unimaginative or poorly designed, in spite of the New Town Development Corporations recognising at an early stage that providing housing and employment alone could not create ‘living communities'. Too great an emphasis was placed on design and physical issues in the planning process at the expense of community and social needs, which resulted in facilities that were inflexible and hard to adapt. The lack of local services and poor public transport led new residents to report feeling cut off and isolated. Reliance on cars to get to work or local shops caused major problems for low income families, women with young children, the elderly and young people, especially teenagers.
It is also important that residents feel safe when then arrive in a new community where street lighting and pavements may not be finished. Increasing opportunities for interaction with neighbours and other people in the community from different backgrounds, helps to create a sense that people look out for each other. There is a link between low crime and areas where people are willing to take action to stop problems (defined as ‘collective efficacy'). The national average for perception of high levels of anti-social behaviour was 16 per cent, but in areas where respondents did not feel that neighbours looked out for one another (an indicator for collective efficacy) the rate was 33 per cent.
Research from the Home Office found that a combination of formal and informal measures to increase feelings of neighbourhood safety are needed, including CCTV, street lighting and neighbourhood policing, and informal measures like designing out crime, neighbourhood watch and making sure public spaces are well used. Although it should be noted that the use of CCTV is significantly higher in the UK that in mainland Europe, without evidence that in other parts of Europe, their sense of safety is correspondingly lower.
Work by CABE also identifies a connection between social infrastructure, services and satisfaction with the overall neighbourhood. CABE's National Housing Audit 2007 found that although residents were overwhelmingly satisfied with their homes, they were much less satisfied with the neighbourhood citing problems with lack of public open spaces, feeling street layouts were unsafe for children to walk or cycle in, and lack of a distinct character for the neighbourhood. Dissatisfaction was greater among residents who had lived in a development longer: 18 per cent of residents who had lived in the development for longer than one year were dissatisfied, in comparison to 10 per cent who had lived there for less than a year.
Sustainable communities need to attract and retain residents from a range of backgrounds, ages and tenures if they are to succeed in creating places where people want to live in the long term. The initial motivation for moving to a new community is often improved housing and employment prospects. However, as research from CABE and the New Towns review has shown, early problems with social infrastructure and resulting problems with isolation and dissatisfied residents can quickly gain a new community a poor reputation.
Research indicates that identity is established at early stages of a community or neighbourhood's development and history, and once established is very resistant to change. Community identity is often defined according to housing type, style or tenure, social class and status, on historic male employment or inward migration patterns. Even though places evolve and change over time, early perceptions of a community can be extremely powerful and exert significant influence on how current and future residents feel about moving to a neighbourhood. Early problems can rapidly earn a new community a bad reputation, which local media are often quick to reinforce.
Bradley Stoke, a new community on the outskirts of Bristol built in the 1980s, was renamed "Sadly Broke" by local media to describe the number of home owners in negative equity. Twenty years on the Sadly Broke nickname is still in use.
Area-based websites can provide prospective residents with useful information about neighbourhoods whilst housing is in such short supply. They can also provide a useful platform for residents to interact.