Sunday, 25 March 2007

Urban conflict: living with difference I wouldn't expect to be particularly attracted to the pronouncements of The European Forum for Urban Safety, but this article by Mathilde Auvillain on 'Preventing urban conflict' in the Urbact newsletter caught my eye. Forum director Michel Marcus seems to be predicting that issues of urban violence will be high on the policy agenda in the coming years. While I can't help worrying about the place of agencies that are set up to understand negative social issues somehow contributing to them and themselves becoming more-or-less permanent, I do agree that issues of 'living with difference' are not going to diminish in significance. And if we are to learn from the explosions of unrest such as those in northern England a few years ago, in France in 2005 and in Copenhagen more recently, it makes sense to develop a Europe-wide understanding of the issues and to explore possible solutions. As Auvillain pus it: when the art and pleasure of living together in public and private spaces is conspicuous by its absence, it creates the perfect breeding ground for such conflicts. And within this kind of context, conflicts that would have previously been seen as trivial, such as disagreements between neighbours or conflicts between different age-groups, cultural groups or groups with different interests, are exacerbated. Well we could argue about whether this is really a new phenomenon or whether, as my sketchy knowledge of history suggests, there's been a lot of it about over the years. (The illustration above is by Phiz for Dickens's A tale of two cities). But that's not the point - just because it's happened before doesn't mean we shouldn't try and eliminate it. My angle would be that it's fundamentally about inequalities and disempowerment: the more unequal a society and unheard the voices of those who experience exclusion, and the more unfair those who are disempowered perceive their situation to be, the more likely they are to express their discontent in violence. And what would a 'solution' look like? According to Auvillain, the Forum suggests setting up "mediation centres" or "mediation services" in the districts affected, 'whose role would be to deal with any mediation requests and to seek the most appropriate solution, by facilitating links and coordinating different interventions.' This sounds like a good way of bolting the stable door, but doesn't really sound like a set of preventative options (which has to include housing, education, employment, community development and so on). In England, we've had very clear and positive strategies since the Cantle review in 2001, which I think have made a difference, but it's not an issue we can afford to take our eye off for a moment.

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