Image by @statelibrarynsw via Twitter.

People’s lives have changed dramatically in Australia due to COVID-19. This event has tested not only our community resilience but also the infrastructure systems in place to protect human life and wellbeing.

Health and wellness is now at the forefront of people’s lives and the social infrastructure that supports this has never been more important. Global experts say governments are likely to focus more on making cities, regions and communities places that people feel safe, secure, healthy and connected.

What is social infrastructure and why has it become more important? Many define social infrastructure narrowly as physical facilities, but the built form is only part of the picture.

Infrastructure Australia defines social infrastructure as:

 “the facilities, spaces, services and networks that support the quality of life and wellbeing of our communities. It helps us to be happy, safe and healthy, to learn, and to enjoy life. The network of social infrastructure contributes to social identity, inclusion and cohesion and is used by all Australians at some point in their lives, often on a daily basis.”

Successful social infrastructure relies on the availability of facilities and spaces for the services, programs and activities that are held there.

However, social infrastructure governance (that is, planning, funding and delivery) needs support.

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There are issues of time lags in delivery, poor service coordination, increasing government budget pressures, spatial inequalities, lack of innovative service models and increasing community dissatisfaction.

This results in poor social outcomes for many communities, particularly for the most vulnerable who are likely to be impacted most by catastrophic events.

Lessons learnt from lockdown

As Australia slowly emerges from the lockdown, now is the time to shape a new vision for social infrastructure. We know that social infrastructure is essential, and that the majority have been able to pivot and provide vital services to people in creative ways.

Like all disaster recovery and renewal, it will take time.

But as we move ahead, it will be important to:

  • Ensure there is equitable social infrastructure throughout our communities, and that no one is left behind. As this pandemic has highlighted, even though the virus has hit cities worse, the potential for transmission to regional and rural areas where social infrastructure is limited has been a major concern. Equally, transmission through vulnerable groups including the elderly, the homeless and those with chronic disease (including indigenous communities) who rely on social infrastructure has put enormous pressure on existing systems.
  • Recognise and elevate the pivotal role of safe, secure and affordable housing as essential social infrastructure in our communities and to government. For the majority of Australians, to be able to self-isolate while still accessing the services provided by social infrastructure has been critical to our success. Work, education and mental and physical health appointments have all been possible in people’s homes, provided they have the right technology. Importantly, for people without safe, secure and affordable housing, governments and organisations have worked quickly and cooperatively to provide temporary accommodation for the homeless, support rental tenants and advocate for additional social housing.
  • Engage with social infrastructure providers to understand the lived experience of their services, clients and communities during this pandemic. What has worked and what new service models might be delivered in the future? Governments must be there as a leadership partner through a codesign process, sharing best practice examples across networks and providing funding support for new pilots and collaborations.
  • Continue to be agile and adaptive as normal as we know it may not return and changing environments will be a constant. New social infrastructure models will be needed and the government and non-government sectors must look to innovate, identify new trends and plan for a more resilient networked system. The newly formed Resilience NSW may be the leadership partner to facilitate a more systems-driven approach for social infrastructure governance.

What adaptations can we keep?

There’s much talk about keeping the positive changes to our way of life experienced during the pandemic. Working from home, better work/life balance and greater use of technology are up for discussion.

For social infrastructure, new-found strengths that may continue are:

  • A place-based/local network model for social infrastructure can deliver the services, support and connection that people want and need. The scale and type of social infrastructure is likely to change in response to what people have learnt and relied on during the pandemic, with facilities, services and programs that support living local – local services, community support, small groups and individualised services – likely to stick around. It enables providers to work together through greater social connection to each other and their communities. For example, health services provided at the local level have been particularly important to tackling the spread of COVID-19. Connection and support provided by neighbours and voluntary organisations to people living alone and/or needing support locally have been particularly effective during this pandemic.
  • Inclusive digital connectivity will increase in importance for clients and social infrastructure providers both for facilities and services/programs. All social infrastructure will need to have high quality digital technology capacity and connection – not only in cities but also regional and rural locations – as well as inclusive access and digital literacy for vulnerable groups. This must be a priority for government and service providers to ensure that digital technology is part of all business plans and commissioned services. This pandemic has highlighted the important role that digital technology can and will play in supporting health and wellness.
  • Prioritised social infrastructure funding, as continued underfunding in good times will mean that it’s not available when it’s needed most. Social infrastructure has proven that it facilitates and supports community resilience and social cohesion. It enables people to connect, contribute and be included in the wider community. This has been highlighted during the pandemic, where social infrastructure such as health services, education facilities, volunteer organisations, cultural organisations, local community groups and community centres, together with social welfare organisations, have been critical in the response needed in local communities. Perhaps surprisingly, they have demonstrated that this infrastructure can pivot and proactively respond to the changing issues and needs. As evidenced by research, social connectedness increases as people are brought together through purposeful activities – acts of kindness, problem solving, singing/laughing/storytelling and through special interest groups.
  • Social infrastructure providers as essential workers should be celebrated and supported. They have been able to apply creative and strategic thinking in dealing with major challenges and this capacity will ensure innovation, resilience and improved social outcomes as we move forward. The response by public libraries is just one example of the innovative thinking and response by staff of social infrastructure seen by some as being particularly conservative and traditional. Used by thousands of people during the pandemic, including school children, parents, older people and users who traditionally may not have accessed their local library, these providers responded to their local community’s needs for developing new skills and techniques.
  • Multifunctional shared and flexible built social infrastructure has been a trend for some time, particularly for new buildings. But this will be accelerated with retrofitting of existing infrastructure to accommodate a range of essential activities. Spaces used for organised sport will also need accommodate individual activities such as walking, running, cycling; hospital wards/theatres/medical spaces will need to easily convert to temporary clinics or intensive care units; theatres and cinemas may need to work as smaller performance spaces; public streets will need to be shared for active transport such as walking and cycling; and community centres can become food banks and emergency evacuation/support centres.

As others have said before, never let a good crisis go to waste. Social infrastructure has proven its value yet again  It is essential to our social wellbeing, economic prosperity and placemaking.

We need to use these learnings wisely and ensure governments prioritise social infrastructure spending in the post COVID 19 renewal.

Heather Nesbitt is a practising urban and regional planner; former social commissioner Greater Sydney Commission; non-executive board director Wentworth Health Care; regional councillor NSW/ACT Parks and Leisure Australia; and emergency services volunteer with Australian Red Cross.

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  1. Certainly agree Margaret that social infrastructure spending should also be prioritized by the private sector. And with governments looking to fund infrastructure that generates jobs, my focus in this article is to highlight that social infrastructure should be higher on this agenda. SI will deliver economic, social and environmental value that people and communities have shown is needed, wanted and essential to health, wellbeing and resilience.

  2. Well said Heather Nesbitt.
    I still wonder why the place-making industries are so slow to take the initiative unless they are mandated to do things by town planners & government agencies. Art in public spaces has gradually been downgraded as governments have quietly excised the landscaping and arts elements out of projects in deference to the mostly politically motivated various ‘wars on waste’. Little social housing is provided in new housing estates – because it’s not mandated. So where is the private sector leadership? I know of one or two organisations who challenge the status quo such as the TEN Women Group in the property sector, but why does it always have to be the government who must prioritise social infrastructure spending – if it’s so essential, surely other thought leaders in the private sector would embrace it more?