Saturday, 17 December 2011

Lifetime neighbourhoods Four years ago I posted a note about an excellent CLG discussion paper on lifetime neighbourhoods prepared by the International Longevity Centre. CLG have now published a new report by Mark Bevan and Karen Croucher from the Centre for Housing Policy in York. It’s an important document which brings together a wide range of material to give this theme some welcome momentum. The main components of lifetime neighbourhoods are given as supporting residents to develop lifetime neighbourhoods – especially resident empowerment access services and amenities built and natural environments social networks/well-being housing. There are several valuable strengths in this report. I would highlight the appropriate breadth of research and practice material, the significant number of practice examples, and the emphasis on resident empowerment. It’s also very readable. Against that, there are two weaknesses that struck me very quickly. The main one is that there is no recognition of the damaging over-emphasis on cars in our local environments, of the way design has too often privileged the driver, and the knock on effect on local social quality of life. A few years ago the designer Wayne Hemingway told me a story about trying to get residents in a new tower building to accept an underground car park in the design. They wouldn’t, because they wanted to be able to see their cars from their windows – hence using up vastly more land to accommodate them, than was necessary. People treat cars as extensions of their homes, and as a way of marking territory, probing out into the world. It’s hard to see how we can develop lifetime neighbourhoods without confronting this peculiar obsession, but it doesn't help to overlook it. As a society we seem to be in denial. The other unexpected weakness is a lack of insight into the potential of digital media to strengthen social networks. We can anticipate a future in which residents will expect to be connected and to enjoy and exploit the benefits of their networks, online and face-to-face. And as the Online Neighbourhood Networks study suggested, there are benefits to service providers.
What is social participation? ‘Social participation comprises three dimensions: neighbouring, trust, and interest in politics.’ This comes from a chapter of early findings from the ESRC’s Understanding society programme (the new household longitudinal study, described as ‘the world’s largest household panel survey’). The sentence is regarded as sufficiently important to be given a large-font margin box all of its own, so they must have meant it. It’s certainly different. Those who construct these large national surveys have to make a few questions go a long way, which ain’t easy; but it’s quite hard to see how you could get to this 3D reduction from the mix of concepts covered for example in this mindmap which I knocked up a few years ago. And we need the survey makers to get their structures right because they will set in train a whole lot of subsequent research, policy and practice for years to come. We can compare and contrast the Understanding Society framework with, for instance, the framework offered in the recent Pathways through participation report. Distinguishing social, public and individual participation, the PtP summary report suggests that social participation includes 'being involved in formal voluntary organisations, informal or grassroots community groups, and formal and informal mutual aid and self help.' The PtP project put a lot of intellectual effort into the topic, and the tag cloud on their site boasts an enticing array of terms; but I don’t see the words ‘neighbouring’ or ‘trust’. There are just two items for ‘politics’. So here we have two national level initiatives offering quite different frameworks for a concept that affects all of us and has increasing salience in policy. The Pathways approach is more thorough and altogether more convincing, but unfortunately the Understanding Society approach is likely to have influence for some time as the next waves of data build up and get used. In their effort to explain their framework, the Understanding Society authors trip themselves up quite quickly: ‘Neighbouring captures informal social participation, while general trust and interest in politics capture participation in formal organisations.’ Well no, they don’t, not by a long way. I’m not an academic so I don’t know what the protocol is, but I suspect that if this was an undergraduate essay you’d send them off to start again.

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