Townscapes: The Value of Social Infrastructure

Based on the Bennett Institute’s Townscapes Project, this report argues that social infrastructure - spaces and community facilities that can bring people together to build meaningful relationships - is integral for tackling inequalities and in rebalancing the prospects of the UK’s towns. It draws on a wide body of evidence to outline the economic, social, and civic value of social infrastructure in town centres, in addition to providing several key policy recommendations.

Date added 3 June 2021
Last updated 3 June 2021

Based on the Bennett Institute’s Townscapes Project - which focuses on providing a fine-grained analysis of how different towns across the UK are performing (in unequal ways) - this report centres on the value of social infrastructure in our towns. The authors explain that by social infrastructure, they are referring to "those physical spaces in which regular interactions are facilitated between and within the diverse sections of a community, and where meaningful relationships, new forms of trust and feelings of reciprocity are inculcated among local people” (p. 11). It includes places like libraries, parks, youth centres, pubs, cafés, and restaurants. The report draws on a wide body of evidence - including best practice cases - to outline the economic, social, and civic value of such social infrastructure in town centres, with some of the key findings summarised below.

Economic value

  • Helps to reinvigorate high streets through the inclusion of places like libraries, cafes, cinemas, pubs and heritage assets to create diversity and attract footfall.
  • The sectors related to social infrastructure are key drivers of employment (e.g. hospitality)
  • Can boost local skills, since cultural places like libraries, museums, and art galleries are integral to promoting lifelong learning.

Social value

  • Communities with better social infrastructure can build further community resilience in the face of crises.
  • Social spaces can help to promote better physical and mental health in the community, for instance by reducing loneliness.
  • Can help to bring together more diverse community groups and bridge any divides.

Civic value

  • Well-maintained social infrastructure can help to generate a sense of pride in place.
  • There can be more positive community perceptions of place when it has well-cared for social infrastructure, which can become more negative when it is lost.
  • Can help to create a sense of community cohesion and belonging.

Several key policy recommendations are also provided in the report, for improving the social infrastructure across the UK’s town centres, as detailed below:

Key recommendations

1. Improve availability of data on social infrastructure - data is currently fragmented and a central repository of information could help.

2. Boost funding for social infrastructure - funding should be ring-fenced for improving the social infrastructure in our towns.

3. Develop a strategy for social infrastructure support - post-Covid19 recovery plans should include support for community facilities and spaces, with best practice examples shared.

4. Restore town centres through protecting social spaces - government should consider how to breathe new life into community spaces and facilities.