New Social Spaces

Winter 2024 #44
written by
Dan Gregory
illustration by
Photography courtesy of the author
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Building on research for Local Trust (Skittled Out) – on the decline of ‘social infrastructure’ in our communities, such as pubs and social clubs, Dan Gregory turns to the unprecedented rise in new social spaces – from board game cafés and bouldering centres to mosques and makerspaces. But where are these spaces located, who steps through their doors, and, importantly, who owns them? To regain control of our declining social capital, Dan suggests, we should be fighting to transfer ownership of these important spaces into the hands of the communities who use them.

Social enterprise in the noughties. Social investment in the teens. Social infrastructure in the twenties?

Over the last few years, a remarkable consensus has emerged among the ‘wonkerati’ about the crucial role played by social infrastructure in holding together our fragile communities – from Danny Kruger MP to Aditya Chakrabortty, from the Bennett Institute and Onward, to Local Trust and the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper.

While ironically the emergence of this term has given some of us yet another divisive definitional debate, we do know that social infrastructure is at least something like “the spaces, facilities and networks that are crucial to the development and maintenance of social connections within a community”.

But it seems we face a ‘crisis of social infrastructure’. My research Skittled Out for Local Trust documented this decline, fanning the flames. Yet this work was focused largely on established, traditional, often Victorian-era or post-war institutions, such as pubs or social clubs.

Meanwhile – and whisper it quietly – other new social spaces have been emerging and are mysteriously undocumented. What are these new places where people meet and interact? Where are they? Who owns them? Do they fulfil a similar function to the models we mourn?

Skating, scootering, & BMX parks

The UK's first commercial skatepark opened on the South Bank in London in 1997. There are now over 1600 in the UK, used for skateboarding as well as for BMX, adapted wheelchairs, scooters, roller skates, and blades. They may be indoors or outdoors, in parks, or on industrial estates. Many outdoor skateparks are owned by local councils, while indoor skateparks typically operate as social enterprises or private businesses. While skateparks often have a poor reputation, some evidence suggests that skateparks actually reduce antisocial behaviour.

Climbing walls & bouldering

The first climbing wall in the UK was created in the 1960s, with the first indoor bouldering centre following in the late 1980s and the first dedicated commercial centre in Sheffield in 1991. The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) reports that there are now over 450 climbing walls in the country. These sites can be found in former Victorian water pumping stations, mines, churches, and warehouses. They typically cost to use and are most commonly used by fit and active young or middle-aged people. Centres are a mix of privately owned businesses, franchises, charities, and social enterprises.

Gyms, health and fitness clubs, & exercise studios

The first commercial gym in the UK is generally believed to have opened in the 1880s in London. As late as the 1980s there were still fewer than 200 gyms in the UK, but there are now more than 7,000 health and fitness clubs in the UK with over ten million members. Meanwhile, there are 4,476 pilates and yoga studios businesses in the UK.

More than half of UK gym members are female with those on higher incomes more likely to visit. Most gyms are private commercial operations, while some are non-profits. Gyms used to be most often in leisure centres or connected to tennis clubs or private schools. Then, new facilities appeared out of town and, most recently, in town and city centres.

Mosques & gurdwaras

Britain’s first purpose-built mosque – or masjid – was commissioned in 1889 and the second mosque not until 36 years later. There were around 30 mosques in the UK in 1971 but there are now an estimated 1,500 mosques in Britain. Meanwhile, the first Sikh gurdwara was established in 1911 in Putney, London and there are now thought to be over 200 or 300 gurdwaras across the UK.

Mosques and gurdwaras are used by all ages and both genders, often in urban areas. Mosques may be owned by the individual, family, or organisation who built the mosque but may also be transferred into a trust or charity.

Martial arts dojos

There are reportedly over 6,225 martial arts schools, clubs – or dojos – in the UK. These include Karate, Taekwondo, Judo, and Mixed Martial Arts. Around 200,000 people practise martial arts in the UK. They tend to be located in units in industrial estates or other former light industrial units. They rely on membership fees and are largely private businesses, as well as non-profits, and are mostly attended by boys and young men.

Soft play centres, trampoline parks, & family indoor entertainment

Soft play centres have grown in popularity and the Association for Indoor Play now represents approximately 1,100 operators. Most recently over a dozen ‘Ninja parks’ have emerged. The first indoor trampoline parks opened in the UK in 2014 and there are now around 200 across the country. Most are privately operated with a few non-profits, and some owned by the public sector. Initially, independent, single-site operators were located “at out-of-the-way industrial units with limited parking... That model is now changing, with large operators opening sites at retail parks”.

Laser tag, bowling alleys, escape rooms, & karting

There are over 300 ten-pin bowling centres in the UK. While there was an initial boom in the 1960s, almost two thirds closed in the 70s before a renaissance in the 80s and 90s. Venues are often out-of-town, and largely privately owned. As researcher Emma Jackson describes, lanes are “used by a diverse population in terms of age, class and ethnicity”. The first commercial laser tag arena was opened in the US in 1985.

Growing from half a dozen in 2013, there are now around 1,500 escape rooms in the UK, run by over 250 companies. Many are near high streets, typically pay-per-play and largely private for-profit. There are also more than 160 karting tracks in the UK, often located out of town. These also tend to be used by boys and young men.

MUGAs & outdoor gyms

Multi-Use Games Areas are fenced-off outdoor synthetic pitches used for various sports such as football and basketball. Built over the past few decades, many are in urban areas, in parks, or on housing estates. Make Space for Girls reported in 2021 that there “must be many thousands of them all over the country – although, again, no one’s got the data” and that there has only ever been “one research paper written about MUGAs”. They seem to be used less frequently by girls than boys. MUGAs are often owned by public authorities.

Men’s Sheds, hackspaces, & makerspaces

The first Men's Shed in the UK was set up around 2011. These are community spaces where people can come together to share skills, typically woodworking, a social support network for men who may be dealing with isolation or mental health issues. Men's Sheds are typically run by volunteers and funded through grants and donations. Today there are over 600 in the UK.

A hackspace or makerspace is a community workshop equipped with tools such as 3D printers. In 2015, there were reportedly 97 makerspaces in the UK and 72 active hackspaces today. Members pay a fee and are typically but not exclusively used by men.

Nail salons

Hairdressers are well documented as important social spaces in the US and UK, especially for many black people in urban areas. Yet nail salons less so. Millie Kendall, CEO of the British Beauty Council, says two decades ago she only knew of two nail salons in London. Yet by 2021, there were more than 4,000 nail salons in the UK. They are often found on high streets in cities and towns and the vast majority of the workforce and customers are female.

Board game, animal, & death cafés

Board game cafés provide a space where people can play games with friends and strangers. There are dozens in the UK, often in urban areas. Animal cafes often feature cats or dogs or more exotic animals. Death cafés aim to provide a space for people to discuss end-of-life-related topics in a safe, respectful, and comfortable setting. They are commonly held in another space, such as a library or community centre. The first in the UK was opened in 2011. Board game cafés may charge per hour, while animal cafés may charge an entrance fee.

Microbreweries & tap rooms

In the 1990s and 2000s, the microbrewery movement gained momentum, with more small breweries opening focused on producing high-quality, hand-crafted beers. Many of these also began to open tap rooms, where customers could sample beers on site. Today there are more than 3,000 active breweries in the UK, often situated on industrial estates. Many are owned privately but some are community-owned, sometimes with a strong local identity, and are most often frequented by middle-aged, middle-class men but not exclusively.

So what?

Our stock of social capital has been declining in the UK. Trust in government, in institutions, and in other people where we live has fallen. A majority of people in the UK believe that nothing in Britain works anymore. In this context, the argument made in Skittled Out persists, “if we are to maintain and replenish our stock of social capital, then we must consider the structures that support its formation”.

Yet we have an almost entirely undocumented rise of these new social spaces – thousands of gyms in place of pubs, hundreds of skateparks and climbing walls instead of youth centres, hundreds of mosques serving communities where churches are no longer viable, soft play centres instead of children’s centres, and ten-pin bowling alleys in the place of skittle alleys.

These new spaces may be just as flawed as the old working men’s clubs and bingo halls. You often need money to get in. You need a car to get there. They may be full of people just like you. They may be quite gendered spaces. In many places, they don’t exist at all.

In this context, are we right to be so focused on the death of the high street? These new spaces are often outside our towns and cities. Perhaps the high street has moved while we weren’t looking – to industrial estates in peri-urban settings.

And shouldn’t we be concerned about the ownership and control of these new spaces, which are mostly under the control of private interests? Or culturally, have we come to accept that our social spaces are not really ours?

Maybe fighting to save the high street through the power of social enterprise and community business is the wrong fight. Maybe we should be fighting instead for ownership of these new places in the new high street?

Sometime in 2024, the UK may see a new Labour government. Perhaps a Starmer administration is likely to be just as uninterested in the idea of ownership as Blair’s. But maybe not. Who knows, Labour might be thinking already about how the institutions left to us by the noughties and the teens – the likes of UnLtd and Nesta and Big Society Capital – could be reformed to help transfer power and control of the places we use? Our new social spaces. ∞

Dan Gregory is Director at Social Enterprise UK and Independent Advisor for Common Capital

Winter 2024 #44
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