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Social infrastructure – schools, surgeries and community centres

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How can we support and sustain the schools, surgeries, community and cultural centres that make up our social glue? The second RIBAJ/AluK debate on city life brought up plenty of ideas

In association with
Will Sandy, creative director at The Edible Bus Stop, with Chloe Obi, head of BIM for Bouygues UK, at the second panel debate.
Will Sandy, creative director at The Edible Bus Stop, with Chloe Obi, head of BIM for Bouygues UK, at the second panel debate.

In the run-up to the general election last June all the political parties’ flyers prominently featured their commitment to health and education. Politicians and public recognise that schools, doctors’ surgeries, leisure centres, museums and community centres are key services for our health and wellbeing, and form the social glue of our communities.

How that social infrastructure is provided in the city context is, however, open to question. Funding may dominate the political agenda right now but other forces such as planning, climate change, governance, technology, big data, risk management, and security and safety also pose myriad questions for the shape and sustainability of new and existing facilities. It focused on how the public and private sector, funders, architects and the construction industry can develop strategies to support and sustain social infrastructure in cities. 

Colin Ross set out the experience of Cornerstone, a company that works with the public sector to help release land and assets for schools and affordable homes. ‘In areas like London, it can be difficult to find sites in areas where the infrastructure is required,’ he said. ‘Proposals can become political and controversial.’ Cities that have suffered industrial decline pose their own challenges in encouraging people to move into renewal areas and using infrastructure to make a market. Where projects are providing both housing and education, there can also be problems in cross-funding.

Architects could help overcome the barriers, said Ross. ‘Creative input is needed from day one in establishing the problem and its solution.’ But Andrew Neill of Investec Bank cautioned that projects brought forward by public sector sponsors are governed by their own approaches, funding streams, types of asset and service. ‘It can be difficult to do something unless there’s a scoring system to show value for money.’

Not all social infrastructure is welcomed. If you are trying to locate a bail hostel, for example, then you can come up against pressures from local communities and their politicians

– Michael Dunning, architect, EA Swainston Architects

Peter Head noted that a key learning point from the debate was that it is very hard in the early stage to connect design and human health and wellbeing outcomes. ‘We’re missing tools and methods,’ he said. Building information modelling (BIM) is one tool that is already useful in the early stages of a project. ‘We have quick and dirty models available early to show to the community, to the teachers and pupils of a school, for example,’ explained Chloe Obi of Bouygues UK. ‘We can use BIM or virtual reality in communities to drive conversations with key stakeholders.’ 

Such research and development might help answer one of the enduring questions of regeneration and placemaking investment: is it better to invest in a statement project, or a series of smaller, lower profile interventions? From David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary in Margate to Eric Kuhne’s Titanic Museum in Belfast, there are examples of major projects intended as catalysts for and symbols of change. But the government’s 2016 culture white paper promoted a lower profile approach, called the Great Place Scheme, which in its pilot phase has channelled £20 million of National Lottery and Arts Council England funding into 16 locations across England. This funding is helping to deliver more locally focused cultural initiatives through placemaking.

Edible Bus Stop’s Will Sandy contrasted London’s controversial (and now defunct) Garden Bridge project with his team’s work transforming hostile patches of urban streetscape into green, active community spaces. ‘Love it or loathe it, the Garden Bridge has got us all talking about green infrastructure,’ he said. ‘But we calculated that the money that could be spent on the bridge could instead be used by the London boroughs to each create 33 new green spaces. There are 17,800 bus stops in London, and if half of those were greened it would improve people’s lives on a daily basis.’

Public funding for such projects may be in short supply, but private capital could be more readily available, although Cornerstone’s Ross sounded a note of caution. ‘Putting in infrastructure at the start of a project can take 15, 20 or more years to repay, and that long-term patient capital is harder to find.’

Head said the UK is failing to seize opportunities, notably in tapping into the financial community’s recognition of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals, in areas from poverty to education. ‘Why is the government not establishing the mechanisms to allow capital to flow through to provide the facilities that Britain needs?’ he asked. ‘We’ve got to engage government and allow private sector funding to flow.’

‘If cities are to function as centres of high productivity, social infrastructure is essential, whether that’s in our jobs, our leisure, or getting the kids to school,’ said Ross.

Four ways to sustainable social infrastructure

  • Better planning from government in matching need for services to projects
  • More integrated approaches to funding to break down funding stream separation
  • Mechanisms to connect capital to projects
  • More tools, methods, data and evidence, specifically about the performance of facilities that would enable the business case for investment to be made.

Where we go from here

Changing living, working and development patterns can leave schools, museums and pubs in the wrong location and out of step with a city’s growth. ‘It’s quite difficult politically and organisationally to allow social infrastructure to develop as it should – and it’s starved of resources,’ said Colin Ross of Cornerstone. ‘In an existing city there isn’t the capability to look at where people are going.’

The answer is determining and rationalising what assets are needed and where, but that requires leadership and enhanced capacity, and relies on gathering a wealth of data. ‘Some boroughs are already thinking about it but they often lack the tools to take it to implementation,’ said Ross. The way forward, the workshop concluded, lies in a high level technocratic and non-political planning overview to create a framework for infrastructure in established cities. This would align with a city’s anticipated growth path and be informed by the abundance of smart data that cities are starting to exploit. Combine this with a place-centred approach to delivery and management of facilities, and cities could be producing far more responsive and creative social infrastructure.

As with other parts of city infrastructure, the panel thought sweating assets to optimise benefits, both social and financial, is essential to ensure amenities stay sustainable, accessible and relevant. Evolution needs to be designed into new and existing buildings, from the local health facility to the flagship cultural project. That may mean rethinking the way a service is provided, such as siting a library in a shopping centre.

This calls for expertise beyond design, and the final workshop ended with a call for a greater grasp of urban and development economics to be given to tomorrow’s architects and planners, so they can play a greater role in shaping projects that can serve their communities. ‘Architects need to be able to work with clients to develop an idea,’ said workshop chair Peter Head. An understanding of urban economics could provide a clearer view of how individual projects can link to opportunities to support city growth. Knowledge of development economics could give architects and planners greater insight into the factors that are key to making projects happen. Such expertise could give architects greater influence.

Action plan

1 Sweat the assets to optimise social and financial results

2 Leave adaptation and evolution into the solution

3 Develop understanding of urban economics and development economics for architects.

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