The impact of the pandemic on social cohesion
As urban designers look to resurrect public spaces from the pandemic, the role of our neighbourhoods, institutions and workplaces to promote ‘super diverse’ spaces has become vital
As we tentatively attempt to regain ‘normality’ out of the depths of the global pandemic designers and planners are working together to contribute to a more inclusive experience of connection, wellbeing, and belonging.
In a bid to understand how the pandemic has impacted our social cohesion in public spaces, ERA-Co has highlighted research which champions the role of public spaces in facilitating social cohesion and what urban designers and planners can do to bring people back together after years apart.
The social impact
It takes 3-6 months to form a new habit and when you are forced into a particular pattern of behaviour, such as not seeing or touching another person for a long period of time, this may have long term social implications as the pattern becomes an engrained core behaviour.
A report published in 2010 examined the link between the quality and quantity of social relationships and mortality risks. The increased awareness of mental health has been promising during the pandemic, not just patients and health professionals surviving intensely traumatic experiences, but also the public, dealing with the general malaise of everyday similitude and isolation.
During lockdown, loneliness was the obvious symptom, but now that restrictions are easing, there are other side effects. Studies undertaken during previous epidemics and lockdowns show that ‘the experience of quarantine is associated with higher prevalence of stress-related mental disturbances, such as anxiety, depression, and especially avoidance behaviours’ (Kato et al, 2020).
There has been a surge of memes and genuine articles on social anxiety which may mean we are less likely to reach out to others and it may compound the rising trend of cliques and siloes in society as we cling to those already close to us. For the aspects of society that rely on loose connections between people, in particular social cohesion and innovation, this could be devastating
What can urban designers do?
Planners and designers of the built environment can try and ensure that housing and jobs, common public transport links and town centres are equally accessible both spatially and affordably, and that place based programs focus on strong unique identities that offer universally loved activities.
Even in diverse communities, people of different group identities may not always, out of choice or other factors such as affordability, ‘hang out’ in the same social spaces (Blokland, 2010) but contact in common public spaces, be they schools (policy dependent), parks, food markets (pricing dependent), is considered to promote social cohesion (Echols & Graham 2013).
The ideals of equal access and welcoming identities also apply to treatment at the public space and building scale. The configuration of space and materiality can send unconscious messages to occupants about the openness, or otherwise, of a place.
‘The responsibility of our neighbourhoods, institutions and workplaces to promote inclusivity and embrace diversity have increased…’
Locating public spaces centrally can indicate they are valued and encourage natural flow through the site. Clear visibility into these spaces and layers of openness and enclosure once inside means people can choose their level of public exposure. As a designer or developer, be aware of the types of user groups that are present and who is not there, consider how representative the user groups are of the local community and adjust offerings accordingly.
Research shows that spontaneous interactions are more likely to happen in the spaces and moments between different activities (Simoes Aelbrecht, 2016). Markets are a practical example. As a rule, slightly congested, intensely used spaces that overlap novel activities the most conducive to social cohesion (Aelbrecht & Stevens, 2019).
This presents a difficult problem on the back of the current public health crisis, in the meantime, the responsibility of our neighbourhoods, institutions and workplaces to promote inclusivity and embrace diversity increase, supporting a return to an even more vital and ‘super diverse’ street.
Our public spaces are too important to be a casualty of the crisis, and many governments have made important decisions, particularly around green space provision and improving both the quality of quantity in our cities. As we reintroduce ourselves to being in public, the true importance of public space for enabling social connections can be remembered.
Read the full research by ERA-Co here.