Community first: Communicating social capital in a post-pandemic built environment

Author: Russell Eggar PR Manager, BDP

Russell Eggar, PR Manager, BDP, discusses the importance of social capital in our new environment. 

For those of us who work in the built environment, the term ‘placemaking’ will be very familiar. It’s what I describe as the act of creating places that enable communities to interact, develop and nurture physical and social growth.

In this realm, housebuilders, in particular, usually talk about social sustainability, quality of life and strength of existing communities. They test the communities they help to create using rudimentary questions about security, amenities and infrastructure but rarely commit to rigorous research into what makes communities really work, understanding what makes individuals feel connected to the people and places around them.

That’s a slight injustice – there are some good examples of real social engagement. A few years ago I watched Tom Bloxham, CEO of Urban Splash, talk about building social capital. When he and some colleagues asked an existing resident of one inner-London regeneration area what he specifically wanted to see in the new development, he was unable to articulate exactly what he wanted. They pushed him into explaining he had a love for cider. So they set about incorporating an orchard into the public space, allowing him to effectively start his own business selling locally grown and pressed cider to local people. A great story and a great example of a how direct engagement and understanding an audience can help build local support for new places.

It's still true that understanding, developing and nurturing local communities has always been difficult for construction businesses and housebuilders. Communities have, in the past, been reticent partners, unable to actively influence planning decisions and when they do, it's not exactly positive. And who could blame them? Poor architecture, an antiquated local planning system, cash for favours and expenses scandals. Decisions made at policy level often at the expense of the local residents, rarely with and almost never FOR them. It’s endemic.

From a construction perspective, there has been a focus on increasing skills and employment and there are often related S106 obligations to meet. Important but onerous tasks almost always passed down the supply chain; they rarely have the impact they need to build and keep communities happy.

Because that’s what the industry needs to do: move from a placemaking approach towards a model of ‘placekeeping’, where businesses enable communities to take ownership and govern their places: creating their own amenities, meeting spaces, community groups and activities; activating social enterprises and then continue to protect and share their local objectives.
The obvious self-governance and control debates aside, I believe the COVID-19 pandemic led us to a fork in the road. The subsequent lockdown (ironically) mobilised communities. Mutual aid and volunteer groups helped those self-isolating and shielding, communities rallied around common causes. Neighbouring boundary lines were metaphorically and physically broken down. People are closer to their neighbours than ever before and communities and charities are benefiting. People are more engaged and they want to be involved, they want to influence and work towards a common objective and this means communities are have become a force for good.

And from a purely commercial perspective, further scrutiny from investors and developers on environmental and social governance criteria means community integration will become even more important in winning future contracts and planning permissions.

From those of us in the built environment communications and marketing game, this means we have to change the way we operate. The social element of our work, whether related to S106 requirements or not, is now vital. We have to encourage the supply chain to embrace social value and deliver strong community-facing campaigns that showcase our businesses as key organisations in the creation and control of new communities.

Fundamentally, I think there is opportunity now to create a different way of doing business. Where building social capital becomes the first point of a marketing and communications campaigns. Understanding the communities in which we work, enabling them to communicate with each other better and operate seamlessly is the goal and creating places formed around common social goals and integration of diverse cultures should be the norm.

It’s an adaptive concept. The basis for change is already present and there’s a strong desire from within the industry to play its part.

I, for one, am excited to be a part of the construction marketing and communications teams building better communities.