Lucy: This is the Ambition for Ageing podcast, episode 4. Why are places and spaces important for communities to survive and thrive.
Sophie: If you are just around people who are different from you, that goes someway to breaking down prejudices and preconceived ideas. It’s not enough on its own for sure. We need policies, strategy, and kind of a bigger societal shift, but it is certainly better than having parallel, or parallel communities where you never see anybody look different from you, who thinks different from you, or has a different life experience than you.
Kirsty: Hello, and welcome to episode four of the Ambition for Ageing podcast, I’m Kirsty. This is the second of two episodes, looking deeper at empowering communities to change the places they live. Last week, we spoke to community development workers about building community capacity, looking particularly about working with individuals. This week we’ll feature conversations about what needs to exist in a neighbourhood for communities to survive and thrive, and, unusually for this podcast, these were both recorded in February 2021. So, we’ll also touch on the impact of Covid 19 on our communities.
One thing that is clear from the Ageing Better Work nationally is the importance of social infrastructure, the spaces and opportunities within a community that allow for social interaction to occur anyway you can think of, where you would see other people, speak to other people, be in some form of contact with other people. Any sort of public space, but also semi-public spaces. These kinds of spaces include traditional voluntary sector offers, like community buildings, social groups, but move beyond that into places like parks, shops, cafes, and events like community festivals.
All this space allows people to gain social capital, which is the connections and relationships between people, that allow them to trust and support each other. There’s been a lot of work published about social capital, and its many forms, and we’ll link to some of the studies in the show notes. Here in Greater Manchester, Doctor Sophie Yarker, a research associate with the University of Manchester, worked with us to explore the role of social infrastructure, and the benefits it brings to building age friendly communities.
Sophie has a background in human geography and sociology, with research interest in community belonging in civil society. Prior to working with us Sophie was a research associate at Aberystwyth University, and a teaching fellow at Newcastle University, where she gained her PhD in human geography. Here’s our conversation.
Sophie: I think it’s probably worth saying a little bit about what we mean by social interactions. It can be somewhere that you go with friends that you already know. So, if you go to, if you go to a local market for example with your friends, to meet them there for shopping etc, and also to socialise, that’s an example, but also any kind of like fleeting interactions. So, you know, if you go to the local library quite regularly, you’ll probably get used to seeing the same faces there, more or less every time you go, but you won’t know their names, you might say hello to them, you might not, you might just kind of recognise them, be familiar with them.
So, interaction can be anything from like strong kind of bond connection with people you already know, or develop a friendship with, but it can also be more fleeting, and kind of… also non-verbal communication as well, even just kind of seeing people, and being familiar with them, it doesn’t necessarily have to be talking. So, there’s a whole kind of spectrum of different types of social interactions that happen in social infrastructure spaces.
Kirsty: We talk a lot about social capital is important to building social connections. How can kind of those spaces, those social spaces or that social infrastructure, you know, help us to build those social connections?
Sophie: There’s quite an interesting idea that when we talk about the social capital that we need as people, and particularly older people need, we can think about it like a vitamin model. So, it’s not enough to just have one type of vitamin, you need multi-vitamins so to speak, to make… to kind of have a functioning healthy life, and it’s the same with social capital. It’s not just enough to have really good strong close friendships, you also might need kind of friendships outside your normal circle, or connections outside your circle to kind of… to gain access of different types of information etc.
So, older people particularly need different types of social capital, different types of social relationships to support them, and ageing in place, and different types of social infrastructure will do the job of kind of creating those connections in different ways. So, kind of an obvious example of a piece of social infrastructure that’s very good for creating bonds between people who have something in common is a religious organisation for example. So, if you are regularly going to church services in a Catholic church, you have that kind of bond in common that your kind of worshipping, a practicing religion in the same way.
So that’s a bonding capital. But then think about parks and green spaces, obviously they are used by a diversity of people. They’ll be people in the park who have got nothing to do with you at all, from completely different backgrounds, social, economic, cultural backgrounds, but you are still coming into contact with those people and may have different types of interactions with them. So when we’re thinking about how social infrastructure supports social capital, it’s important to think about the diversity of social capital that we need, and therefore the diversity of different spaces to support those connections and bonds being built up.
Kirsty: Yeah, and it’s those spaces where there’s that opportunity to meet people different from yourselves, the different ethnic, religious background, gender sexuality, generations etc. And we know that spending time, even that fleeting time that you mentioned with people, who we perceived as different to ourselves, highlights the similarities between people, and could potentially even help us overcome preconceived notions, prejudices, that kind of thing as well?
Sophie: Yeah, there’s a lot of work in sociology and human geography around… particularly around inter-cultural connections. So, we’re talking about culturally diverse communities.
So, lots of work in that area around what we call everyday multi-culturalism, or everyday conviviality, and there’s also a theory of meaningful contact, and all these things basically mean, that if you are just around people who are different from you, that goes someway to breaking down prejudices and preconceived ideas. It’s not enough on its own for sure, we need policies, strategies, and kind of a bigger societal shift, but it is certainly better than having parallel societies, or parallel communities when you never see anybody look different from you, who thinks different from you, or has a different life experience than you.
So, we need to be around this difference, and have encounters with difference, on a day-to-day bases for it to build up some understanding of difference, and some understanding of how people live their lives in different ways.
Sophie: Another important thing we found with ambitious ageing was the importance of word of mouth for promoting events, activities, etc, for older people to become involved in, and word of mouth only really works if you have spaces where people can talk to each other and share information. So again, I think that highlights the importance of infrastructure as a space where information can be passed on, and particularly where it can be passed on through different networks, and different circles, because if you are only talking to people in your own social group, or your own cultural background, or your own, you know, people with the same background of experience, etc, to you, information will just be circulated within that group.
The importance of having an everyday space that everybody uses to some extent, is that that information can then be transferred into different networks, and kind of you can spread the word about things happening in the community more widely.
Sophie: I think one of the interesting things that we’ve found from Ambition for Ageing was the role of everyday, or neutral spaces. I think certainly from a programme that’s come from the community and voluntary sector, there’s obviously huge emphasis on the role of community and voluntary organisations in supporting age-friendly communities, and that is still hugely important, but for some sections of the older population, they aren’t comfortable with community organisations, or community centres. They’re not familiar with them, they maybe wouldn’t think to visit them, they maybe have certain preconceived ideas of them.
So therefore, looking at what spaces those groups are using, and it tends to be the more neutral everyday spaces. So, spaces like coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, the kind of unassuming third spaces the older folk talks about, spaces that don’t necessarily have a social remit as their main function, but the do kind of foster those social interactions anyway. They can be really important in kind of reaching the heart of each if you like, or kind of engaging with section… more marginalized sections of the older population, who might not be coming to community and voluntary spaces as their first port of call.
So, there was some research in Camden as well, that’s been really good at looking at this, and using some outreach work to kind of go to these everyday mundane, ordinary spaces to engage with men particularly, who they found weren’t engaging with the programme when it was coming from a community and voluntary angle.
Kirsty: Yeah, and it’s almost that the community and voluntary sector have provided kind of a brokering relationships rather than necessarily delivering kind of building those connections maybe outside of the sphere where they would traditionally do so.
Sophie: Yeah, and I think they are increasingly looking at different spaces that they can use as well. So different spaces that they can host functions in, and activities, and organise events etc. So yeah, I think it does demonstrate the change in roles of community and voluntary sector in this, and kind of moving into different spaces that they maybe haven’t worked in so much before, and it also having highlights then the role of other types of social infrastructure, particularly within the commercial sphere to have more connections with community and voluntary sector, and to work in partnership with it more, I think.
Kirsty: It’s the feeling of belonging to a place where it’s that whole place, not necessarily the areas where you’d get kind of traditional community and voluntary service, but your café, your library, your local park, you know, festivals, things like that, that really build towards that feeling of belonging for a person, and we know how important that sense of belonging is to people, that connection to where they live. When you feel you belong to a place, you have more impetus to go out, and to contribute to the place.
Sophie: Yeah, you certainly have… a belonging goes hand in hand with wanting to show a sense of commitment, and a show of care for where you live. So being in more involved with it, and that doesn’t necessarily have to do formal volunteering, that can be through kind of, kind of helping out with neighbours, and kind of doing more informal kind of care around the community etc. So, I think the importance of belonging is huge, especially for older people who maybe on more kind of tied, or rooted in their local communities, and to spend more time there.
If their community changes around them, through regeneration, or gentrification they can feel kind of less attached to where they live, if they feel like its not for them anymore. So, through them still being involved in social spaces, and still being involved in social infrastructure spaces, that gives them a kind of anchor to place, I think, which then can then kind of go on to other connections, and other spaces as well.
Kirsty: Yeah, we saw during the pandemic that there were huge numbers of mutual aid groups springing up, and where there were neighbours who were ready and willing to pitch in and help out, but it doesn’t always have to be a crisis to create these kinds of connections. It feels that there are more organic ways of developing those kinds of links as well.
Sophie: I think what’s interesting with the kind of community hubs that sprang up, and also the kind of more informal network is, those networks have not come from nowhere, those networks have been able to respond, because those ties were already there, and if those social ties were already there, it suggests that there were some social infrastructure underpinning in the first place, and I think what would be really interesting to do, would be to look at where community hubs have responded to the crisis, and where different informal networks kind of mutual aid groups, things like that.
Where those networks have formed, and how successful, for want of a better word, they’ve been, and to look at places where they maybe haven’t evolved so much, and to look at maybe what the underlying infrastructure causes are behind that. I think it’s really similar to Eric Klinenberg’s study of the Chicago heatwave in 1995, when he looked at different death rates to do with the heatwave, and he found that the presence of social infrastructure was a key determinate he felt in how those death rates differed.
He said that in communities where there were really good social infrastructure, and there were lots of shops, and amenities, cafes, etc, for people to see each other, and kind of have some sense of community, the death rate was much lower in those communities, and he thinks it was because people were much more likely to form these kind of mutual aid networks, and helping each other out, check on neighbours, etc. So, it would be really interesting to see if there was like a similar picture with the response to the Covid crisis.
I would imagine there would be, but it would be interesting to test it out, I think.
Kirsty: Whenever the topic of social infrastructure, and its role in feelings of belonging comes up, it makes me think about my uncle, who I’ve spoken with about this, and probably listened to this podcast to. Hi, Uncle Jack. He’s daily routine includes a number of social connections to where he lives, with very little pressure to develop formal connections. In normal times he gets the bus to his favourite café, where the staff know his name, they have his cup of coffee ready for him as he sits down. In his local shop he tends to go to the same cashier each time.
He’ll also take time out of his day to have a sit down in his local community garden, and just watch the world go by. He’s not the kind of person who enjoys the pressure of social groups. So, these relationships however fleeting, allow him to feel a connection to where he lives in his community. Recently, as well as the impact of Covid on things like travel, he’s local shopping centre closed down, so he lost his local shops. Like many people in his position, this loss is acute, losing places like shopping centres is not only about the loss of business and shops, also about the connections and relationships that are built and maintained in these spaces.
Do you remember a conversation with Sophie, she mentioned the role of voluntary and community sector, in helping to broke relationships within these social spaces? It was this topic that I spoke to my next guest who is, Susanne Martikke leads on research at Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation. GMCVO, or Ambition for Ageing Space. She has more than ten years of experience in third sector research and is currently a case scholar in sociology at the University of Manchester.
Susanne also hosts the Greater Manchester third sector research network for academics interested in the third sector, and third sector practitioners interested in research can come together and learn from each other. Susanne has currently researching community-based organisations in two deprived urban neighbourhoods. She’s looking at whether these organisations help with the building of social capital, and what types of social capital they facilitate.
I spoke to her about this, how the third sector can use social capital theory to both demonstrate value, and better meet the needs of their local communities, and we also spoke about the dangers of social capital as well as its benefits.
Susanne: So social capital, you know, its face value, it’s quite a simple concept, so it basically refers to the value of social relationships, but of course, once you start looking more deeply, there’s actually a lot of controversy around that term, and what it should mean, and you know, the different types of social capital, and broadly speaking kind of three main approaches. So, the first one is around Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which is quite famous in policy circles, and he says social capital is basically formed when people live in a community, and a geographical community, and who they encounter, and he actually attributes very distinctive role to civic associations, so to voluntary sector organisations.
So, when people encounter each other in these sorts of organisations and activities, they basically start trusting each other, because they have engaged in these frequent face to face interactions, and because ideally, they have worked on something together on behalf of these organisations… in these organisations. So, and then there is another theorist, his name is Coleman, and he emphasized that social capital, yeah, it is about relationships, but it matters how people are related, and the way people are related, and to how many…
To how many people they are related, and how many of these people are related to each other in turn, can influence the individual decisions that people are taking. So for example, somebody might decide to lend somebody else some money, without , you know, formal contract, just give them some money and have a lot of faith in them giving the money back, because both of these people who are participating in this interaction might know… might be embedded in this whole fabric of relationships, where it really becomes a problem if you are known… if you become known as somebody who doesn’t return money that’s been borrowed to you.
So, this is an example of how trust is created, and norms are enforced in a tightly knit community, where people know each other. So, and then the last theorist is called Bourdieu, and he focused a lot on the individual outcomes of that sort of relationship. So, while social capital is a benefit that’s occurs to people as a result of being part of a group, it is definitely as he sees it, a benefit that is an individual benefit. So, as a result individuals may consciously decide to actually invest in certain relationships, with certain people, because they think that that might bring future benefit.
Yeah, and so as a result, social capital is not only about the relationships that you have, but it’s also about the number of relationships, and the resources that you can require as a result of these relationships. So, it is actually closely intertwined with your overall social economic position.
Kirsty: So, do you think that more organisations should pay attention to the concept of social capital?
Susanne: Social capital is ultimately about the value of social relationships. So… and that could be either for individuals, or for communities. A lot of… I mean most voluntary organisations that we kind of encounter in our everyday work for chance, we all in the business in creating relationships through their work, and so I think, if we think about relationships as something that has value, not only for the individuals involved, but also has a broader community value for the public good essentially, and if organisations can talk about social capital in this way, then that will help them prove the value that their work has, but there is also a second reason why I think that they should be more aware of this.
It’s because social capital as a concept can actually shed a lot of light on how relationships work, and that different relationships should have different advantages, and disadvantages. So, just as an example, understanding the differences between wanting social capital, which is relationships to people who are quite similar to yourself, and bridging social capital, which is roughly speaking relationships to people who are quite different from yourself, so understanding that difference can help organisations understand why they’re for example not reaching the individuals that would most benefit from their services.
For example, a lot of organisations that I’ve come across, often rely on word of mouth, as one of their methods for advertising, or publicising a service. Really what it does is that essentially those people are most likely going to spread it to people who are like them, in order to reach those that are really socially isolated. So, they may have a few links to friends and family, but beyond that they may really just be in their home, and not have many connections.
So, in those situations you have to actually come up with a ray of mobilising, you know, bridging capital in some sort of sense, and that could be by using either a service that’s in touch with people like that, and then advertising your service through the networks that this organisation has, you know, who is in touch with some socially isolated people. You know GPs have been mentioned for example, and some projects have used door knocking as well, talk to people on the doorstep, and try that in order to widen your networks, and yeah, so those sorts of things.
Kirsty: I think it highlights the importance of social infrastructure in shared spaces, and those shared spaces that are maybe less structured, so parks, and cafes, and those kinds of places that are of benefit.
Susanne: By definition being inside your home means you are basically only surrounded by people who are either part of the family already, or who have become so close that they are welcome in your home. So that can be very comforting, comforting space where you have control over what happens, and who comes in, and of course, very much needed, you know, that’s a very important aspect of, you know, life, that you have a space where you are in control, and nobody else can come in unless they are invited, but at the same time it can also be limiting, and I mean it’s I think this is something that we’ve seen through Covid. how it has essentially curtailed people to their own private spaces.
Generally speaking, I think leaving your home means you encounter people who you… well, first of all you have no control over who you encounter, and also, they may not necessarily be part of your inner circle. So, by definition you broaden your horizon by that. Yeah, you can observe people, and that’s why I think that spaces like parks, and you know, spaces that kind of invite people to linger a bit, and to just observe other people, because it’s one thing entering into a relationship with somebody, where you know, you might then actually, you know, maybe even move towards friendship, but it’s another thing to have these sorts of casual relationships where, you know, you might see somebody on the street, and you might see them the same time every day, and you may exchange a few words, but you may not actually ever develop that any further, and become friends.
They give you something that, you know, relationships to friends and family don’t give you. I mean one for this matter is actually unpredictability, you don’t know what’s going to happen, right. I mean you know with friends and family you have certain patterns, you know, you have routines, you kind of know what to expect. So, it’s unpredictable, but it also opens up opportunities, you know, because you might learn something new if you encounter different people, you know, they might know things that you don’t know. So, there’s all a whole lot of, you know, aspects to be gained from that.
Kirsty: So, do you think it’s a question of ensuring that shared spaces are in place, or is something more needed?
Susanne: Shared spaces, the existence of shared spaces is definitely already a step forward, but I don’t think that’s enough, just from my own study. I just found that it’s very much about how those spaces are managed, and how accessible they are. So, I think, yeah, based on what I’ve found, I would argue that places themselves send out certain clues to potentially users about who they are for, and what they are for. So, you cannot simply assume that there is, you know, okay, we have the space, there’s no barriers, you know, you just… you’re welcome to just drop in.
That alone won’t actually guarantee that people will use it and envisage way. So yeah, you might have the community centre, and it has the aspiration to be a shared space, where people genuinely can just, you know, work in no matter who they are, but just be virtue of what goes on there, the types of people that can be seen around there, the timing of things sometimes, and also the layout of the space itself, it just sends certain clues to people, and they will interact with these clues to say, either, yeah, this place is definitely one that I would got to, or they would say, well, no that’s definitely not a place for me.
People generally like to associate with people who are like them, no. So that is actually a very powerful principle, and that is something that has actually been proven in many different studies, that people with primarily associate with those who they perceive as similar, and so in other words, it’s not enough to provide spaces that are technically accessible, and open to all, but it is actually important to make a deliberate, you know, have deliberate interventions that bring people together, who perceive each other as different.
Kirsty: And do you think that that contributes to any risks that people may need to be aware of when they are managing shared spaces?
Susanne: Yes, I think the biggest risk about managing a shared space is mistaking informality for inclusiveness. So, I’ve seen this in my study, that people generally think that if a space is informal, it is also inclusive, and that’s simply not the case, and that is for the same reasons that I was mentioning about word of mouth, using word of mouth as a way of publicizing your service. Yeah, the main risk is obviously that the space is not accessible, or inclusive, or that worse, even it is colonized by a number, you know, a certain type of people.
If you rely on informality for people to access the space, then they will automatically sort of revert to their, to that principle I mentioned, which is, you know, they like to be around people who are like them, and they judge places accordingly. So, if they don’t see people who are like them in that space, then they will shy away from it, and if they see people in that space, they will kind of feel more welcome, and so I think, as somebody… as an organisation that kind of curates this space, you have to be extremely aware of the implications for engagement.
So, you have to be aware of the space, and what… and those sort of subliminal of messages it sends out, you know, who would feel welcome there automatically, and who would maybe need a more… a little more help to access the space.
Kirsty: It was interesting to hear Susanne talk about how the act of simply leaving your house forces a broadening of horizons. We know that just walking in a park can reduce isolation. Perhaps this maybe the mechanism for why. I’d like to focus on Susanne’s point on how informality does not guarantee inclusivity. I think back to moments in my own life, where I’ve entered a space, and immediately felt like an outsider, and I’m sure most people can relate to that in one way or another, but spaces designed to be open to everybody, can become exclusive through domination by cliques and more simply, like the layout of the space.
Your first impressions of the people already using the space, activities run, timings, are useful points to consider. If we consider the risk of social capital as an oppressive force, allowing power to those who hold the relationships, and by virtue of these relationships, physical space. You can easily see how marginalization can occur in communities without intervention. Marginalization and equalities is the topic of our podcast next week, where we’ll be talking about what we know about inequality drives social isolation. I’ll be joined by Professor James Nazroo from the University of Manchester to talk about the impact of inequality on people as they age, and some of the stark health outcomes related to this. I will also be chatting to Julie Bentley, one of our local leads for Ambition for Ageing, about how we can work with communities who face marginalization to help breakdown these barriers.
Lucy: Ambition for Ageing is a Greater Manchester-wide cross-sector partnership aimed at creating more age-friendly places and empowering people to live fulfilling lives as they age. Ambition for Ageing is part of Ageing Better, a program set up by the National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Ageing Better aims to develop creative ways for older people to be actively involved in their local communities, helping to combat social isolation and loneliness. Ambition for Ageing is led by Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation, the voluntary community and social enterprise sector support and development organisation covering the Greater Manchester city region. The theme tune for this podcast is Air by Iliya Troyanov, and any indents this season are taken from his track Tide. Both are used under a creative commons license from his album Fugue. Thank you for listening to this podcast. For more information about Ambition for Ageing and the work we do, visit ambitionforageing.org.uk.