Friday, 13 November 2009

Ageing in urban neighbourhoods Ageing in urban neighbourhoods: place attachment and social exclusion by Allison E. Smith ISBN 9781847422705, published by Policy Press, September 2009, (£19.49 online) Reviewed by Kevin Harris I was really looking forward to this book because it takes on a theme that is going to assume great significance in the next decade. In an ageing society it becomes harder to guarantee quality of life if we do not understand the factors that affect older people's experience of their local environment. Most older people have a stronger sense of attachment to place than other age groups, contributing to the aspiration that where possible, the option of 'ageing in place' is the ideal. So we need to better understand the key factors that contribute to or diminish quality of life, especially in low-income urban neighbourhoods, and Allison Smith tries to get this underway by injecting some new research and thinking into the field of environmental gerontology. She takes 'environment' to mean 'the physical and social space of the neighbourhood', but without detaching discussion entirely from the private internal space of the home, since the two spaces overlap in important ways; and she draws on some 52 face-to-face interviews with people aged 60 and older living in low-income areas of Manchester and Vancouver. Unfortunately the text is occasionally careless ('urban cities'?), consistently cautious, and very repetitive. The amount of padding (eg sub-section summaries) in the book is perverse given the under-developed potential of the primary material. From the testament of each of the 52 older people we are permitted approximately two hundred words in summary, with eight of them selected for more analysis (though very little quotation) as case studies in the middle of the book. When the residents' voices are allowed to come through, they can be hugely refreshing: the case of Elizabeth Laing (p128-131) is a good example. But in general the voices are, sadly, stifled, which is an ironic echo of the everyday reality for those involved. Presumably the exercise was an academic one which required more attention to tinkering with theories - in this case, a framework of 'environmental comfort', 'environmental management', and 'environmental distress'. Let's hope that greater value from the time the participants gave to the research might emerge in something stylistically more adventurous in due course. To her credit, Smith steps readily enough into the awkward territory of gerontological psychology, and I suspect not even the psychologists feel comfortable there. And she drops an unexpected little grenade in suggesting 'the need to consider a minimum standard for neighbourhoods'. This idea is put forward 'to spark discussion and debate', although the prospect of it leading quickly to the publication of league tables is not considered. I was surprised at how few references there were to gardening, which presumably reflects the participants' circumstances of disadvantage (I've never before thought of gardening as a possible indicator of exclusion). I would also have welcomed some exploration of the ways in which the participants used terms like 'friend', 'acquaintance' or 'neighbour'....

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