Thursday, 29 November 2007

Families in cities I'll come straight out and express a sense of mild jealousy here. Anne Power and colleagues at LSE ran a well-funded programme of work to generate seven years of interview data with parents in cities. That's a lot of material reflecting what it's like bringing up children in contemporary urban neighbourhoods. One result is City survivors, just published by Policy Press and launched last week. I'll also readily admit to not being a fan of Anne's previous Jigsaw cities, which I found a real slog to read, with all the evidence of being hurriedly slopped together and crying out for an editor's attention. City survivors however looks much more significant, if only because the connection between the expressed experience of local people and the policy assertions is clear. The edited material is interwoven with analysis and generalised reflections on the policy context. The book is packed, and punches are not pulled: a key message for regeneration is that 'neglect ends in disorder.' At the launch Anne said that regeneration needs to be brokered and 'any withdrawal of effort immediately results in a deterioration of conditions.' How do we explain, for example, how this sort of thing comes about: 'They've pulled all the swings down. The kids have nowhere to play. We tried to fight the council to stop them taking our play area away but they sold it to private buyers.' (I don't know. Previously, eg, A crisis of community presence). Here are some of the points I got from Anne's wide-ranging presentation: Community involvement really makes a difference: 'families are much happier if they're involved. Those who are involved, loosely or seriously, feel different to those who aren't.' (So why is there still so little investment in community development?) Keeping extended families together on estates or in the neighbourhood can make a huge difference to parents' ability to cope: this means housing allocation policies that prioritise relatives. People do notice when agencies attempt outreach. Establishing friendly rapport with neighbours is a significant factor in helping families survive. The usual constraints are apparent - precarious, unstable community relations with too many strangers. And I noted Lynsey Hanley's striking observation in her comments, referring to the experience of neighbourhoods where there is constant building, constant traffic, and no sense of place: 'You have to be massively adaptable in order to get beyond just existing, in marginalised places.' The overall message is that families are abandoning cities in large numbers, because they are such unsympathetic environments for young children, and this is bad news all round. The a rgument is made that families can regenerate cities if conditions are right: Neighbourhood conditions have a direct impact on family survival. Families can counter wider problems by creating support networks. Cities can help families by creating more locally based structures to deliver sensitive local services. One further thought, provoked by various comments made by academics at the launch: why is the idea of talking to local people about their experiences seen as such an...

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