The changing role of social infrastructure in the response to covid-19

The changing role of social infrastructure in the response to covid-19

Sophie Yarker

Critical infrastructure only becomes visible in its absence. We are only aware of power supplies when there is a shortage, and only typically notice roads when they are poorly maintained.  Our social infrastructure and the shared spaces where we have social interactions may not have entirely ‘disappeared’ in recent months but, due to the  covid-19 pandemic, we are no longer able to use them in the ways we used to.  Commercial establishments deemed non-essential have temporarily closed and social distancing has been enforced in the spaces that remain open.

Efforts to slow the spread of Coivid-19 have impacted the quality of our social infrastructure, such as the ability to linger and to have conversations and social exchanges.  Visiting a local supermarket now requires being  two meters apart from other shoppers and to navigate set pathways,  with the numbers of people permitted in many spaces  reduced.  At times, such measures have brought with them an atmosphere of trepidation and anxiety.

This raises significant questions for how we might use the shared spaces of social infrastructure to maintain social connections in the short term and how this might change in the future.

 Taking an infrastructural approach to studying society, as Latham and Layton argue, allows us to ‘consider the kinds and qualities of facilities that allow social life to happen, the kind of sociality that is afforded by them, and how this can be recognised as a public life’. Therefore, a focus on the social infrastructure of our cities and communities will be essential if we are to begin to understand the social implications of covid-19 on our everyday lives and the role that space will play in shaping emergent patterns and practices of social interaction.

An infrastructural analysis of social distancing allows us to recognise the spaces of social interaction that we have lost and what this means for our everyday lives. However, it also allows us to recognise the evolving nature of our shared spaces. Even during this period of social upheaval,  new spaces of social infrastructure and connection are developing. Small pockets of solidarity have emerged on street corners and pavements, in the queues for supermarkets and shops, and in online spaces -the latter, already, a vital part of some people’s social lives.  Social distancing has meant seeing, moving through, and inhabiting space anew,  with those of us lucky enough to be able to access parks and green spaces using them in ways that perhaps we did not before.

Balconies, driveways, and doorsteps have become semi-private spaces from which to create a new sense of community. Some social infrastructures are also adapting in vital ways. Boots pharmacies, for example, have been designated as a safe place for those experiencing domestic abuse; a sobering reminder that, for many, these third places can often be a safer environment than the ‘first’ place of home. We are perhaps learning to appreciate different types of social interaction too. A sign at a local walking spot in south Manchester urges people to smile and say hello to people as they pass to help others feel less lonely, perhaps the clearest reminder of the importance of weak ties and informal, fleeting interactions.

Social and cultural geographers have long pointed to the importance of the ‘low-level’ sociability that occurs in public places and quotidian acts of friendliness that become meaningful when repeated over time. These interactions represent an important facet of mutual acknowledgement and potentially shared feelings, such as happiness, fear, frustration and hope, that can hold potential for more profound social relations. Such conviviality can produce what Amin calls social surplus; a common sense of trust, tolerance and collective life that emerges in pragmatic and practical social interactions in a shared space.

This social surplus, or ‘ethics of togetherness’ and discussed by Sennett and Jacobs provides the essential foundation of informal networks of care and reciprocity – the very networks underpinning the emergence of neighbourhood-based mutual aid networks in response to covid-19.  However, the geographical pattern of mutual aid networks appears uneven, and it is perhaps no surprise to geographers interested in spatial inequalities that we see a stronger presence of these networks in neighbourhoods that are already well-resourced, and that have the diversity of social infrastructure.

After the immediate threat from coronavirus begins to ease for the majority of the population and the lockdown begins to be lifted, most of the critical infrastructure of society will remain. Unlike the reconstruction needed after so many other types of disaster, roads will not need to be rebuilt, and  the provision of utilities will remain uninterrupted.  Instead it is our social infrastructure that will require rebuilding. Commercial enterprises will need financial support to reopen and libraries and spaces such as post offices and other public services will need guidance in finding ways to operate whilst still implementing social distancing rules. But as well as being able to deliver its primary functions, we also need to find ways of allowing our infrastructure to fulfil its social remit too.

In the past few weeks, we have all felt the effects of drastically reduced face-to-face interaction. Many of us have adapted to this – in the short term at least – and have been able to find new ways to maintain social connections. However, this has not been possible for everyone and is not a long-term solution for anyone. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg described face-to-face social interactions as the building blocks of society. Therefore, as society slowly starts to reopen and we begin to find a ‘new normal’, we must maintain the social function of our social infrastructure – one geared to healing new wounds, and for capitalising on the valued connections forged during lockdown. This means promoting and being always mindful of opportunities for even the most fleeting and non-verbal of social interactions. Social scientists skilled in understanding how space informs and shapes social relationships, must be part of these conversations to ensure existing spatial inequalities in social infrastructure and communities are not deepened in the recovery from covid-19.


Sophie Yarker is Human Geographer at the University of Manchester with research interests in how we can build more inclusive urban neighbourhoods particularly in the context of urban regeneration and population change. @skyarker