COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the topical interest of S.T.E.P.S. project and its main intervention concept on the need to contrast loneliness, by addressing not only immediate needs of Verona’s 3rd district residents, but also its transversal consequences on urban society. Following the situation’s diagnosis and connected behaviours, the municipality in partnership with civil society actors and academia developed early this year the first STEPSpoint laboratory prototype. The aim was to create a physical space where residents can take advantage of free-access informal social services provided by the project and contribute in creating a ‘new community space’, where they can rediscover social relations and bonding, solidarity, dialogue and co-designing practices.
The prototype’s designing phase was forerun by a mapping exercise of available urban spaces in the neighbourhoods of the 3rd district. It allowed for the identification of easily-accessible locations commutable into STEPSpoints with little regenerative interventions. With a population of almost 60,000 residents, the purpose was to test several social laboratories, with a diversified portfolio of activities targeting loneliness from different perspectives. The testing of this social and territorial model was extended to all age-groups, like parents with toddlers, teenagers, unemployed and retired persons, seeking to enhance local social welfare and improve the quality of life.
The first STEPSpoint was launched in mid-June within an already-existing intergenerational centre called ‘Casetta Maritati’ (Maritati House), building up on its historical profile and geographical location, and on neighbourhood’s memory dimension, considered a contribution to fostering social bonds and ownership within the local community, along with curbing in the long run loneliness. Its concept relies on the networked approach, where face-to-face contacts bridge mutual trust, leading to detection by or naming to the operators cases of greater risk to suffer (hidden) loneliness and isolation due to the lack of family closeness or social networks.
Benefiting from the surrounding garden, STEPSpoint Maritati turned into an open air space for socialisation, physical and cultural activities, parent supporting and job orientation, besides the information help-desk. From a relational perspective, the offer aimed at (re-)activating relationships based on residents’ service demands. The provided informal services were perceived by the project partners as ‘concrete venues’ where people of all ages find opportunities to get out of their apartments and reactivate relations with their neighbours. In this regard, the pandemic affected our general perception on the importance of family members, friends and condominium relations in our lives, and how social context favours or diminishes these relationships. Recognising and taking care of such relational networks, starting from the proximity of one’s neighbourhood, can contribute to combating loneliness and enhancing urban well-being, and this is what STEPSpoints aim at in Verona.
During the first STEPSpoint’s testing phase, particular enthusiasm was observed among seniors attending/benefiting from the offered activities and services. Representing a quarter of district’s population, for the elderly it was a chance to return to some services suspended due to the health emergency, coupled with new opportunities. For instance, they cope on daily basis with difficulties in keeping up with the digital world, demanding guidance or even individual capacity-building sessions to the STEPSpoint operators. As the concept of healthy ageing implies, the retired community should not grow older alone, but opening up to new encounters and friendships, and the STEPSpoints can contribute to its materialisation. Nonetheless, STEPSpoint’s counselling activities attracted also younger generations, aware of their experiencing of loneliness and isolation over the past year. As the pandemic hit hard the employment sector, job orientation demand has rosen up, especially among girls and women.
In early autumn, the project activated three more STEPSpoints in different neighbourhoods of the district. Diversified in some of the respective service provisions, these social laboratories are developing through the coupling of small-groups consultation exercises and listening of inhabitants’ needs, so as to build shared activity paths with a strong intergenerational dimension. In particular, one of them is entirely dedicated to circular economy, acting as an umbrella for two complementary practices, namely the Community Bank and Repair Cafè, contributing so to the process of creating new ways of experiencing the territory and respecting the environment. Meanwhile the other two STEPSpoints embed a strong counselling and leisure intergenerational profile, leading to the conceptualization and sharing of new ideas on urban issues. Through the promotion of active participation of all citizens, these social laboratories are expected to contribute in curbing urban and hidden loneliness, besides fostering integration and social inclusion processes.