Lack of social infrastructure affects community wellbeing
There is a strong connection between the quality of social infrastructure in new communities and the wellbeing of new residents.
As lessons from the New Towns review identify, new residents need local social networks and shared community experiences to build a sense of belonging and identity in new places, and according to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, schools play a particularly important role in encouraging the kind of informal social contact that is needed in new communities.
Evidence from a variety of sources identifies that inadequate social infrastructure is not just an inconvenience for residents but has significant long-term consequences, and associated costs, for new communities. The New Towns review describes how "a spiral of decline" can occur when there are problems with the quality of the physical environment, poor local services and weak social networks in the community. There is little to prevent the families that can from relocating, leaving behind residents who have no choice but to stay in an area.
A number of related social problems are associated with new communities that lack good social infrastructure, including isolation, mental health problems, fear of crime, and issues with community cohesion.
The term "new town blues" was coined to describe the isolation that many people in the New Towns, in particular young mothers, felt at being separated from friends and family and having few opportunities to meet other people living locally. Doctors began identifying the phenomenon as soon as new suburbs, driven by the expansion of the railways, emerged. Moreover the solutions to these problems are not new either, a doctor writing in The Lancet in 1938 despaired that ‘we have allowed the slum which stunts the body to be replaced by the slum that stunts the mind' and recommended ‘establish[ing] on these estates social, non-religious clubs catering to all possible interests. Under one roof one would like to see a swimming bath and gymnasium, a cafeteria, a day nursery, the public library, and reading smoking and games rooms.'
In Cambourne, Cambridgeshire, a new settlement with planning consent for 3,300 dwellings (27 per cent social/affordable housing) on 1,000 acres, problems with "new town blues" have emerged early in the life of the development.
The report also argues for the involvement of existing communities in the planning of both new, and later phases of, housing settlements.
Research by CABE illustrates how consideration of social infrastructure and amenities can support wellbeing, health and sustainability agendas. Quality of social infrastructure has an influence on how residents feel about environmental issues and can have a direct effect on how residents, in particular, children's happiness, health, development and life-chances. For example, whether children are allowed or able to play safely outside, whether they walk safely to school, whether there is space for activities such as cycling. CABE's Future Health and Wellbeing report (2009) identifies how:
- planners can have long-term positive effects on public health, for example through supporting eco-friendly infrastructure and sustainable transport networks
- healthcare trusts can bring down carbon footprints and reduce costs by integrating and co-locating health and community services
- designers and health estates managers can influence peoples' wellbeing through sustainable design
- 91 per cent of people believe that public parks and open spaces improve quality of life
A number of famous studies from the 1960s and 1970s by the Californian urbanist Donald Appleyard showed that people who lived on high traffic streets had a poorer quality of life. A recent study of three Bristol streets re-affirmed this pattern, with residents on the quietest streets having more local social connections and being more likely to garden, sit outside and let their children play on the street and go to school unaccompanied.
Elsewhere, research on social capital and wellbeing suggests that everyday interactions with friends, family and neighbours play a crucial role in sustaining a sense of community but can be extremely fragile. Research shows that subtle changes in a community can have a significant impact on perceptions of community spirit and thereby, community wellbeing. Work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identifies community outreach workers as important to residents in new communities. The need for this type of social or community development was recognised early in the history of the New Towns. Many New Towns recruited teams of social liaison or community development officers, based in local houses, to meet and greet new residents, provide local information and involve residents in decision-making as new com munities grew.
"Although often marginalised in the administrative structure of the new towns, the community development staff played a key role in settling in new comers and providing a link between them and the development process as a whole, and in establishing new communities. Having community development staff in place at the outset pays off handsomely".
New Towns: The British Experience,
as quoted in Learning From The Past? Marina Scott, Neil Stott and Colin Wiles,
Keystone Development Trust (2009)
Community development, neighbourhood management, community timebanking or volunteer neighbourhood champions are the type of practical supports that can help build a sense of belonging in new communities, and arguably, prevent the feelings of isolation that contribute to the problem of "new town blues". Neighbourhood-based workers, whether they are volunteers or part of a neighbourhood management team have an important role to play in new communities by creating spaces for people to interact with neighbours through local events, street parties, sports, arts and culture events, consultation and community planning work. These approaches are proven to be effective at engaging residents and helping to support strong social networks and working to breakdown barriers and reduce tensions between different social, faith or ethnic groups. This is particularly important where new communities or settlements are creating tensions with existing residents. In many cases some support from local authorities and public agencies needs to be in place to facilitate and nurture the mutual support and networks which grow when we feel connections with other people. Jurgen Habermas, the German philosopher called this the "lifeworld".
A community development worker has been employed in the new town of Wixams, Bedfordshire, since 2000 to act as a facilitator for consultation. Lessons from this example are listed below.
This evidence suggests that some kind of community worker role is essential in a new community. This can cost as little as £10,000 a year up to £50,000 or more to support a full neighbourhood management team.
Wixams, Bedfordshire - supporting community development
A major freestanding development has been in planning for some years and is about to get underway: a ‘new town' of around 13,000 people.
Neighbourhood management has become widespread as an approach to champion local issues, improve local service delivery, engage residents in decision-making and work effectively in local, multi-agency partnerships. Originally developed as an approach to support the most deprived and disadvantaged places, neighbourhood management is now widespread and comes in many forms from light-touch support across a number of neighbourhoods to neighbourhood or estate managers working for housing associations.