Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Poverty and place


It's a fact that most of the world's absolute poverty is rural.

The largest segment of the world's poor are the 800 million poor women, children and men who live in rural environments. These are the subsistence farmers and herders, the fishers and migrant workers, the artisans and indigenous peoples whose daily struggles seldom capture world attention.

And we also know that migration from those poor rural areas to urban communities not only raises the income of the migrant but also contributes to economic growth. We are shown the dreadful squalour of shanty towns, favelas and slums and we assume that this is a worse life than that these people left behind in those rural areas. We are wrong.

So, in one respect this is correct:

We are often reminded today that, for the first time in history, there are more people living in urban areas than not. We therefore need to understand the power of urban placemaking in improving jobs, enhancing wellbeing, and bringing culture and education to a changing and diverse population of city-dwellers.

However, the author then seems unable to recognise that the creation of urban places by those migrants - however chaotic, disorganised and poorly serviced - is an act of progress. Or that the imposition of regularity on these places is as likely to destroy the creativity of that community as it is to reduce poverty:

An effective placemaking strategy requires the adoption and enforcement of regulatory frameworks at national level. As yet, however, there is no integrated approach of the kind that is needed, let alone a strong sense of policy leadership for placemaking in poor urban neighbourhoods.

Many people will know of - even recall - a past attempt at an integrated approach to urban place-making. We cleared slums, demolished back-to-back housing and built new places, often on the edge of the city near to open country and fresh air. And those new places failed. Every single one of them failed.

Not only was community broken by the change but the sense of ownership was broken. People lost their independence - even before the industries that sustained that independence passed into history - and became mere ciphers. Before long the idea of place and community was replaced by terms like "deprived neighbourhoods", "economically excluded" and "marginalised groups". Rather than see people as individuals we began to draw neat lines on maps and, in doing so, stigmatise everyone within those lines.

A while ago in Bradford, we looked at the impact of extra investment - in the widest sense of the word, 'regeneration' - on two types of communities: the predominantly Asian inner city and the largely white population of the peripheral estates. For very similar levels of spend it was clear that in the overcrowded, problematic inner city there were signs of change - better education results, higher skill levels, more new businesses and slowly rising earnings. Out on the estates there was no change, no improvement, a depressing catalogue of individual and communal failure.

The big difference? Those estates were a conscious attempt at place-making by the expert - people who knew better intervened, making sure there were open spaces, ight, big-roomed homes and with the key elements of physical community - shops, pubs and meeting places - in the middle of the new neighbourhood.

Down in the tightly packed terraces of inner-city Bradford, with families crammed into inadequate homes, with not much open space and with all the additional disadvantages of an immigrant population, things are different. There's still plenty of poverty and hardship but there's also a sense of community, of enterprise and of opportunity.

I don't really accept the 'place begets poverty' argument other than to observe that the use of changes to the physical environment - especially radical changes - run the risk of creating a short-term improvement at the expense of bedding in long-term poverty. Moreover, I believe we should worry at the desire - whether nationally or at the level of neighbourhood - to prefer stability over churn.

The danger is that poor places create inequalities that become ingrained in the psyche of a neighbourhood and of the people who live there. For many, the only solution is to plan their escape and to take what social and economic capital they have with them.

We should think about there being two types of poor community - places where there is poverty with enterprise and places where there is poverty with dependence. In the former, intervening to prevent outward movement would kill community dynamism whereas, for the latter, stability presents a chance to reduce dependence and promote enterprise.

The persistance of poverty in our country should be at the top of every political agenda - indeed, raising economic welfare should be the principle goal of every government - but we need to understand why that poverty persists. Above all we need to recognise that the route out isn't state-directed, ordered or controlled but lies through enterprise, personal initiative and in fostering an idea of opportunity and achievement, through the chaos of exchange and the excitement of the best urban places.


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