‘If you destroy a neighbourhood, you need a strategy to support those who rely on it most’
Matt Egan argues that wholesale demolition can have surprisingly low impact on health, but may damage some communities if planners lack sensitivity to their particular needs.
In Glasgow’s poorest estates, life expectancy is alarmingly low – worse even than for comparable parts of similar cities such as Manchester and Liverpool. A person can expect to live until just 60 – on average males don’t even complete their fifties. When housing practitioners meet people living in these neighbourhoods, they’ve learned to expect them to be 10 years younger than they actually look. Likewise, estate residents often say to us – field research workers – that we appear so much younger than we really are.
Improving where people live is said to be good for health. But major regeneration programmes can take 20 years – a decade for demolition and another for reconstruction. So, in Glasgow, transforming a neighbourhood can last a third of a lifetime and, for some people, their entire youth. What does such lengthy disruption do to their already precarious health?
In 2006 and then again in 2008, we surveyed 400 people remaining in three Glasgow neighbourhoods that were being demolished around them. They were living in high-rise blocks of flats, many of them already boarded up, prepared for demolition or actually demolished, with amenities and schools shutting down, and everything gradually being run down. This research was part of a larger, ten year study of regeneration in Glasgow called ‘GoWell’.
Based on the literature, we would have expected that the combination of deteriorating environment and being left behind by friends, family and neighbours would have had a negative impact on health. It didn’t. We found no change in self-reported mental or physical health (assessed using a common-used, validated measure) attributable to living in an area undergoing demolition.
Why? We are considering plenty of possibilities. Perhaps conditions were so bad already on the estate – and health was already so poor – that the additional disruption didn’t make a measurable additional difference? Secondly, there is some evidence that the housing associations mitigated the potential harm by implementing the regeneration plan sensitively. There was a concerted effort to consult and inform the community in the planning stages. And the housing association did spend money on improving some homes waiting to be emptied, even though they would be demolished eventually. A further intriguing possibility is that, these days, we may overstate the risk to some communities that comes from wholesale demolition and relocation.
Sociologists and historians have been critical of earlier mass demolitions and relocations from, for example, Glasgow’s old Gorbals. Longstanding, close-knit communities were broken up and this was seen as harmful. However, these days, perhaps the caricature of the close-knit community does not always apply to disadvantaged neighbourhoods. In the neighbourhoods that we have been studying, three quarters of residents actually support the demolitions, which – when you think about it – is astoundingly high. Indeed, people from other estates actually tried to enlist the support of GoWell researchers to have their own estate included in the demolition programme.
There seemed to be low levels of attachment to these estates among its Scottish residents, most of whom were born in Glasgow but not necessarily from the neighbourhoods being demolished. Often people saw their community as a contributor to their social isolation – they tended to have friends and family who lived across the city who were afraid to visit the estate or whom they were embarrassed to invite. All of this might explain why the demolition of neighbourhoods that impeded residents’ social relationships might not adversely affect their health.
There is, however, an important exception to this finding. It concerns migrant communities. All three of these estates have been an important destination for Glasgow’s portion of the asylum seekers’ programme. Since 2000, there has been a considerable influx of first generation migrants from all over the world. These communities – unlike those of their white Scottish counterparts – do tend to be close-knit around semi-formal structures such as churches and English language classes or perhaps simply friendship networks. These structures tend to be localised within neighbourhoods, so migrants’ social capital is very much connected with the geographical areas that are being demolished.
These migrant communities started out with better mental health than their fellow white Scottish residents and the gap widened over the two year study. This may reflect the gradual strengthening of the asylum-seeking communities over time. We became concerned, however, that the factor which may have given this group an advantage during their time living in the demolition area could prove to be a disadvantage once they are relocated. Our qualitative studies of residents after they move is raising precisely this issue – the asylum-seeking communities are experiencing greater problems than their white Scottish counterparts when they are relocated away from neighbourhoods that they were strongly attached to.
These preliminary findings reinforce learning from elsewhere that social, as distinct from physical, regeneration, is not only important but remains difficult to achieve. Strategies for social regeneration may need to vary for different groups within the same neighbourhood. We are not aware of any regeneration programmes that seek to particularly identify and provide tailored support for community sub-groups that are at most risk from demolition or relocation. There is engagement with individual residents to ascertain where they might go, but nothing beyond that. The message for practitioners, researchers and policy makers is this: if you are going to destroy a neighbourhood, you have to come up with a strategy for identifying and supporting those groups who depend most on that neighbourhood.
Matt Egan is a Senior Lecturer at LSHTM. He previously worked as a senior investigator scientist at MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Services Unit, University of Glasgow. This blog is based on findings presented on 25th February 2014 at LSHTM under the title: ‘Can neighbourhood demolition really be a low impact public health intervention? Complex findings from a UK natural experiment evaluation (GoWell)’
*The ‘GoWell’ research and learning programme aims to investigate the impact of investment in housing , regeneration and neighbourhood renewal on the health and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities over a ten-year period. It is a collaborative partnership between the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, and the University of Glasgow (Urban Studies and MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit), sponsored by Glasgow Housing Association, the Scottish Government, NHS Health Scotland and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. For more information visit www.gowellonline.com