Home is about more than the buildings we live in. Home is also about the neighbourhoods in which we live and the public spaces, buildings, and amenities that make up those neighbourhoods. Older people typically spend more time in their immediate neighbourhoods than other age groups therefore making them especially important for supporting wellbeing in later life. Social infrastructure, the physical spaces where we have social interactions, is a critical part of our neighbourhoods yet remain something that is often overlooked.
My recently published book, ‘Creating Spaces for an ageing Society, the Role of Critical Social Infrastructure’ (opens new window), discusses the role of social infrastructure for older people. It considers the different types of social interactions older people might have in these spaces; from fleeting nods of acknowledgement to in depth conversations, and the types of social relationships that can develop from these interactions. In doing so, I argue that non-verbal interactions, casual acquaintanceships and recognising a familiar face are just as valuable to older people as more substantial interactions and stronger friendships. Often it is these fleeting interactions with those we might know only by sight that can give us a sense of connection to our neighbourhoods and can protect us from feeling isolated.
The Coronavirus pandemic, however, has brought our relationship with social infrastructure into sharp focus. Due to social distancing measures, we were all suddenly cut off from the public spaces we took for granted. Many spaces of leisure and hospitality were closed all together, and our access to parks, shops and public transport was heavily curtailed. As the lockdowns continued, we came to miss these spaces, and the passing interactions we had within them, in ways we had perhaps not expected.
Social infrastructure also played a crucial role in our capacity to response to the pandemic. It was the presence of good social infrastructure and the neighbourhood networks that develop from these spaces that enabled so many local communities to swing into action at the start of the pandemic. Community organisations were able meet the needs of the most vulnerable in their communities. Consequently, those living in less well-resourced neighbourhoods faced further social isolation.
After other types of crises, such as floods or earthquakes, for example, the infrastructure of roads or power plants may need to be rebuilt. Recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic demands the same sort of attention and rebuilding for our social infrastructure. We need to pay much greater attention to the spaces and buildings that are important to local communities and to understand how they contribute to the social life of a place. We also need to ensure there is a diversity of spaces in our neighbourhoods where social interaction, no matter how fleeting, can occur. Well maintained and accessible green spaces are needed just as much as public libraries, Post Offices, shops and cafes. The social infrastructure in our neighbourhoods needs proper planning, investment and support and deserves parity with ‘hard’ infrastructure projects. This is vital if we are to re-think what home might mean as we age and how we can create home environments that include age-friendly neighbourhoods.
We are delighted that Dr Sophie Yarker will be speaking at the Housing LIN HAPPI Hour session on Social Prescribing: It’s a better prescription on Tuesday, 8 February 2022.
And, if you found this blog of interest, for more information about the importance of place and space, and to read a range of other resources on designing age-friendly homes and communities, visit the Housing LIN’s dedicated ‘Design Hub’ pages.
Lastly, if you would like to find out more about how the Housing LIN can provide you with bespoke support, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.