People sat on picnic benches outside a historic house.
Heritage can play an increasingly important role in our society as we face rising levels of loneliness and social isolation in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. © Hannah Smith c/o Unsplash.
Heritage can play an increasingly important role in our society as we face rising levels of loneliness and social isolation in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. © Hannah Smith c/o Unsplash.

The Role of Heritage in Bringing People Together

Part of the Heritage Counts series. 4 minute read.

Heritage plays an important role in building social capital, often called the ‘glue that binds communities together’ (Haldane, 2018).

In this article, we look at how tangible and intangible heritage can bring people together and contribute to the different dimensions of social capital.

What is social capital?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) defines social capital as “the extent and nature of our connections with others and the collective attitudes and behaviours between people that support a well-functioning, close-knit society”. It is considered to have several key components:

  1. Personal relationships
  2. Social network support
  3. Civic engagement
  4. Trust and cooperative norms

Social capital harmonised standard – Government Analysis Function (

The relationship between the historic environment and social capital was demonstrated in a recent study by Mak et al (2023), which found that people living in places with greater historic built environment experience higher levels of personal relationships, social network support, and civic engagement (1).

Historic sites are venues for spending time with others

Official statistics show that historic sites are popular places to spend time with others. Their role as venues for social gatherings became particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. By serving as focal points for people to gather with those they are close to, historic sites support the development of strong social bonds, which are considered a vital component of social capital.

  • According to the Participation Survey, 63% of adults visited a heritage site at least once in the last year, the top reason being to spend time with family and friends (67% selected this option) in 2021/22 (DCMS, 2022)
  • Research with visitors to seven heritage attractions during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the importance of historic places in bringing people back together after the first lockdown. More than a quarter (27%) of visitors surveyed (n=781) explicitly chose heritage sites as a place to reunite. These places offered visitors a fitting setting for an emotionally significant moment and a chance to feel part of a community, among other benefits (Sofaer et al, 2021)

Historic buildings and public places support everyday interactions

Historically, public places have played a ‘vital role in the social life of communities’ as spaces where people gather and come together, co-exist and encounter different groups (Warpole and Knox, 2007).

Many communal, everyday public spaces, such as marketplaces, pubs, town halls, and places of worship are historic in origin and continue to serve as important forms of social infrastructure (2). These places facilitate a diverse range of types of social interaction, from co-presence (sharing space with and encountering others) to deeper forms of civic engagement (Layton and Latham, 2021 and 2022).

Historic public sites (squares, streets, historic city centres and parks) are often “natural” spaces of leisure, meetings and encounters, conducive to them with their aesthetics and ambiance.

(Murzyn-Kupisz and Dzialek, 2013, p.44).

Historic cities, town centres and high streets enable social interactions due to their layout and design features:

  • A study by Leyden (2003) found that residents living in more traditional pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use neighbourhoods were more likely to know their neighbours, participate politically, trust others, and be involved socially compared to those living in more modern, car-dependent areas
  • Street types that enable social interactions at street level are associated with an increase in people’s social networks (Izenberg, 2016). This includes narrow older streets, which enable people to bump into their neighbours and create feelings of ‘nearness’ (Banwell and Kingham, 2022)
  • Walkable environments can encourage ‘incidental sociability and acts of neighbouring’. (Glover et al, 2022; Rosso et al, 2011; BBBC, 2020; Bauman and Bull, 2008)
  • The informal, impromptu encounters that happen in everyday public places have been evidenced to contribute to ‘weak’ social ties that are important for wellbeing (Sandstrom and Dunn, 2014; Banwell and Kingham, 2022)

Heritage can provide opportunities to encounter new people

Heritage can provide these opportunities as people come together to volunteer their time, participate in community events, and take part in civic engagement.

A study examining people’s involvement in local history groups found that participants in community-based heritage conservation projects built new social connections and friendships and improved their interpersonal skills (Power and Smyth, 2016). 

Festivals centred around culture and heritage can improve social networks, social cohesion, social capital, by giving people a reason to socialise, unite around shared ethnic, linguistic, historical and cultural bonds (Whitford and Ruhanen, 2013) and experience other cultures/traditions (Black, 2016; Jepson and Clarke, 2015)

Heritage institutions function as community hubs which can deepen existing relationships and present opportunities to encounter new people, for example, older and younger generations and longstanding and new residents (Murzyn‐Kupisz and Działek, 2013).

Heritage can build social capital by ‘mobilising community participation’ (Beel and Wallace, 2021). The act of coming together to save a historic community asset can strengthen linkages within family/friendship groups (bonding capital); as well as between different members of the community (bridging capital) (Sforzi and Bianchi, 2020). ‘Bridging’ capital, which comes about from interactions with people from different groups, is important to the goals of reducing prejudice, increasing trust and nurturing a greater sense of unity in a community (Casey, 2016).


  1. Based on analysis of the Understanding Society survey combined with data from the National Heritage List (NHLE) and Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD)
  2. A rapid evidence review published by DCMS (2022) defines social infrastructure as “the physical infrastructure (including places, spaces and facilities) within the community that supports the formation and development of social networks and relationships”


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