Posts tagged ‘Collective Efficacy’

April 20, 2012

Gentrification signifiers: A story of one neighbourhood

When two grandmothers stopped on my street recently to tell me their adult children had bought a nearby house, I didn’t tell them why the young family who lived there was moving out. They had moved in with high hopes to this same freshly-painted and pot-lighted house, ignoring the “as is” in the stipulations. The house had undergone a quick flip from a man who bought it after a house fire burned out the tenants who lived there. The house attached to them had also suffered fire damage, but those tenants, renting rooms, stayed on in a more deteriorated house.

And then last summer, it got bad. A man with a violent criminal history moved in — and took over. We neighbours sat on our porches and watched the drug deals and solicitation. It had happened before on the street. The normal knock-and-run behaviour of drug buyers played out along the sidewalks where kids pedaled past on their bikes, part of the ballet that Jane Jacobs described. But this time, it was scarier.

Physical fights became the norm, and the local men became protective, taking to long smokes at the ends of their porches. The police raided the house almost weekly through those hot months. By-law officers arrived and spent three days carting refuse away. The landlord, a former neighbour, was rumoured to be incapacitated, unable to intervene or maintain control. Then, too late, a woman died there of an overdose. The house was padlocked and put up for sale.

I couldn’t tell all this to the cheery women I met. But I recognized their story — their children had got “such a good deal!” But I did recognize this stage of gentrification – the grown children had moved eastward, having rented in Kensington Market – and had  been not able to afford a home closer to the downtown core.

When neighbourhoods shift from working class neighbourhoods to higher income ones, several signs and stages are notable.

Neighbourhood Market

Neighbourhood Market (Photo credit: omegaforest)

First arrivals were people like me, my partner and our new baby. We had some family connections to the community, but while comfortable here in the neighbourhood, we were no longer working class. Higher education had boosted our personal prospects. So, our arrival acted as a signal, that the neighbourhood was “safe.”

Others like us soon came, and the occupations of my neighbours switched from taxi drivers, factory workers, and train conductors, to book editors, teachers, and non-profit workers. Single women thronged to the neighbourhood’s small houses, and young families used the low housing prices as a launching pad until they could afford a larger place. Homes which had housed multiple children (and sometimes a couple of families) were converted to single households. Population density dropped, and racial diversity paled. As housing prices rose, residents told each other this neighbourhood was “arriving.” (One elderly neighbour, disbelieving the rising house prices, chortled to me, “Diane, we’re quarter millionaires,” as housing prices rose over $200,000 for a 12.5 feet wide lots.)

Next, come the speculators. Housing flips are common in the neighbourhood now. Another couple, lured by granite counter tops and a street-front entrance, all at the price of a condo, has moved in across from us, but lawsuits have ensued as the rotted timber covered by the new drywall had been discovered. Our neighbourhood had become a bit of a destination point.

As a critical mass of newcomers builds, another sign emerges: residents’ associations. Their focus is often on remnant parts of the neighbourhood: ‘common’ concerns such as traffic flow, garbage, run-down properties (like the ones up above), and most often the desire to “clean up” the neighbourhood. Every couple of years, these small citizen efforts have emerged. GECO (eerily echoing Michael “Greed is Good” Douglas’ character in Wall Street) is the most recent incarnation, springing out of some of the sentiments expressed in the comments section of BlogTO’s recent article, What ails Little India?.

One of GECO’s members explained to me she thought it was important to have “more diversity” in the neighbourhood commercial strip, that there are “too many sari shops.” Toronto Life described this more diplomatically as “new businesses…revitalizing a dreary stretch of empty storefronts, noodle houses, laundro­mats and hair salons.” Others explain they hope for a Starbucks or “nice” set of restaurants like nearby (upper-income) neighbourhoods have. After all, they say to me, they have paid a lot of money for their homes and they want the neighbourhood to look good. A neighbourhood blog cooed “A few more cool shops on gerrard (sic) and even the Queen Street hipsters will allow us Northerners to be part of Leslieville.” Academics have described this as commercial gentrification. In fact, some have described how Toronto’s “ethnic neighbourhoods” can act as a branding mechanism, in the same way artists do, attracting others and driving up housing prices. It’s a familiar process to those who know Little Italy or Greektown, where many of the original ethnic stores are closing and residents have moved on.

But tolerance for social difference is limited. Another long-time resident, one of the original working-class residents who’d watched these changes with more good humour than I, reported one of new neighbours were discomfited to learn a gay (!) couple lived next door. So he explained to the new couple that good people lived up and down our street.

But the revanchist sentiment has grown.

The final stage of gentrification is when the higher income folk arrive, when the place has been sanctioned as “clean” and “safe.” Cleanliness is defined by such amenities as granite rocks and Japanese maples in the front garden and new windows adorning the home. Safety is not the definition of old, of neighbours knowing when a new neighbourhood child has gotten a tooth or who can be depended upon to hold a spare key for nearby neighbours. Safety is more about beaming spotlights and alarm codes. This final stage concentrates wealth to the point that some researchers call it super-gentrification.

More and more of the neighbourhoods in the old City of Toronto are undergoing this transition. Affordable housing stock is disappearing. The latest move by Toronto Community Housing to sell off single family units means the touted ideal of mixed-income neighbourhoods will be further away. New developments aggravate the problem, filled with homes all in the same high price range, inclusive zoning not yet a practice.

As income inequality is carved into our housing structures, our neighbourhoods suffer. Those who work in neighbourhood shops, filling our coffee orders, or the education assistants in our children’s grade school, won’t live in our neighbourhood, won’t be our neighbours. Our children won’t know difference. This is not Toronto, our motto “Diversity, our strength.”

Driven by individual choice, we are losing a common good.

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May 2, 2011

The habit of voting: start early, vote often

rick mercer makes a pursed point

Image by clang boom steam via Flickr

Rick Mercer has been suggesting youth take a date to the federal election today. His earlier rant, at the beginning of the campaign, sparked vote mobs on campuses across the country. His words carry the weight of research.

Being eighteen-years-old is about the worst time to introduce youth to voting, according to a University doctoral student I met recently at a farewell reception for the now-defunct Centre for Urban Health Initiatives. Likely to be at a more tumultuous time of their lives, living in a new community, eighteen-year-olds are less likely to vote than the former age-of-majority, twenty-one-year olds. And when we don’t vote, she explained to us gathered around, it becomes a habit.

So the call to drop the voting age to sixteen makes a lot of sense. Youth, normally still living in familiar surroundings, would make their first foray into voting on more stable ground.

In fact, our grad student’s own research focuses levels of voting among immigrants. She is finding that those without the culture and habit of voting are less likely to exercise their franchise when they come to Canada. 

“If  I were king of the world,” she said, “I would make voting at least once a pre-requisite for citizenship.” Her doctoral work, not yet complete, gives weight to calls to allow city residents, despite their citizenship status, to vote in municipal elections.

December 17, 2009

Collective efficacy: Our trust in one another affects neighbourhood crime levels

The research crowd at the recent Toronto Neighbourhood Research Network meeting positively oohed when McMaster professor Jim Dunn described the new data capture method in a recent grant application.

“Not only will we be able to videotape the social interactions in a neighbourhood, but we’ll be able to project the data into a video-surround ‘cave’ —with sound.”

The technology would (re-)create a Canadian version of some foundational neighbourhood research, Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy. In 1997, Robert Sampson, Stephen Raudenbush & Felton Earls drove a van slowly through the streets of Chicago, recording the social interactions they saw: adults interacting with youth and with each other. These were categorized and analyzed against the crime levels in different neighbourhoods.

Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls were trying to explain why crime levels varies among neighbourhoods which were similar in many other respects. The “broken windows” theory, popular in previous decades, hypothesized that petty crime, unchecked, leads to bigger crime. The broken windows theory had led to harsher policing responses to minor criminal activities and misdemeanors.

Their research generated the idea of collective efficacy, most easily described, as the trust neighbours have in each other to affect change. Where neighbours know each other, even by sight, and intervene when help is needed, crime levels were lower.

According to a recent presentation at CERIS, by Sara Thompson, a professor at Ryerson’s department of Criminal Justice & Criminology, strengthening the social connections within neighbourhoods is one of the most promising interventions to stop violent crime and homicides. The field of criminology has evolved from an earlier analysis that to the “kinds of places” where criminal activity occurs.

For instance, much of the debate in the 1990s, Thompson explained, focused on “kinds of people” involved in criminal activity, so that the  “purported link between violence and immigrants” resulted in calls for stricter immigration policies.

The more recent emphasis in Toronto on strengthening neighbourhoods has arisen out of the identification of “the central role of disadvantaged neighbourhoods as fertile fields for the roots of violence…” (Roots of Youth Violence, Vol 1.). This led to the pouring of resources into the Priority Neighbourhood Areas in Toronto’s “underserviced” areas.

The idea of collective efficacy moves the focus from people, to places, to finally (as novelist Barbara Kingsolver says) “the spaces between,” underscoring the importance of neighbouring and neighbourliness.

(My thanks to Sean Meagher who first introduced me to the research of Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls.)

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August 25, 2009

Life in a town of 900

A few days ago, I travelled through the town of Skagway, Alaska on my way for a day of horseback riding and canoeing in the Yukon. Our bus driver, Mark, settled in the sea-side, shipping town fourteen years ago and proudly showed us around before we got on the highway. He explained, in very concrete terms, the sociology of life in a very small community.

A wintertime population of about 900, none of them there all at once, he explained, absorbs to up to 10,000 people every summer day when the cruise ships arrive.  The town’s summer population is swelled also buy the in-migration of commercial operators, happy to sell amethyst, gold and jade to the summer crowds. Others come looking for seasonal work. The summer time resident population swells to 2 – 3,000.  Many of them are housed in trailers at the edge of town – which Mark said residents called their “ghetto”, probably, I thought because of the poor quality of the housing, distant from any services.

Because of the small size of the town, Mark explained the importance of a strong sense of community in a hostile and changing environment. “It means,” he said,”that we don’t all necessarily like each, but we have to look out for each other.” For example,  fundraising benefits are regularly held for those facing medical or other life crises to help defray the unexpected and exorbitant costs.

Mark also amazed us when he explained why the border guards were so friendly. The social networks in a small town are dense, he explained, because everyone does a lot of different things. They have to if they want things to go.

“I’ll be back here at the border in a few hours to work. I keep their mechanical systems running. But that’s just what I get paid for,” he said, launching into another spiel. “I also do a weekly show on the local radio station and I am on the volunteer fire department.

“Because there’s is work to be done and if we don’t do it, who’s going to?”

April 19, 2009

The riches that social networks provide

One of my neighbours complained to me recently how the neighbourhood had changed. With the reconstruction of Regent Park, a wave of newcomers had been (dis)placed into the TCHC housing behind his house (also social housing).

“They have no respect for the neighbourhood,” he said, “and they’re causing all kinds of trouble.”

Now on the face of it, Don’s complaint could be seen as a predictable reaction to the arrival of newcomers, however I sympathized with him. This wasn’t a case of NIMBY-ism, because his complaint was really more about bad planning than about “bad” people.

In a hard-hitting article published in The Atlantic last summer, Hanna Rosin explored what happened to residents of large urban housing projects who had been moved to housing in “better neighbourhoods.”

Rosin followed residents of the projects and spoke to academics who were examining the impact of these displacements. She described some foreboding findings:

  • Social problems which had been concentrated in high poverty areas were dispersed into the neighbourhoods where residents found new housing and were more difficult to police. In effect, the bad spread further.
  • Social networks were decimated. Moved to new neighbourhoods, residents lost any long-standing or supportive relations upon which they might have come to rely and were slow to build new ones. In short, the good was lost.

Without supports, either formal or informal, to ease the transition, outcomes were bound to be poor.

Strong social networks build when we live near someone for years, or send our children to the same local school, or meet on a summer stroll past a front porch. Social networks are even more important in a low-income neighbourhood because we share resources among us.

For instance, my neighbour Marlene announced no one needed to buy a bundt pan because she had bought one recently. And, I know, that if I need a ladder, Ming and Doug both have one, or if they need a jigsaw, they can borrow mine. If I lived in another, less well-networked neighbourhood, we each would have faced the choice of buying our own or doing without.

Our new, displaced neighbours were settled here in a strange neighbourhood without these resources, and no provision was made to fill the gap.

I should borrow that bundt pan to make a welcome cake and introduce them to the neighbourhood.

March 16, 2009

A New Community Crisis Response Model: Changing the impulse for fight-or-flight towards tend-n-befriend

Everyone knows about the impulse, when cornered, to fight or flight. However a UCLA psychoneuroimmunological research team has developed a theory which says that some of us, mainly women, react to stress with a response they call “tend and befriend.” That is our first impulse is to protect the vulnerable and then to gather with others in protective and supportive clusters until the danger has passed. The research team, headed by Dr. Shelley Taylor, has tied this to levels of oxytocin and other hormones which effect our response.

When we feel threatened, rather than retreating into our homes, and locking the doors (or moving straight out of the neighbourhood), instead, we can gather together and build community amongst ourselves.  These more pro-social actions, linking ourselves to each other, are a positive and, according to Taylor and her colleagues, natural response to threat.

The power of this idea lies in how it can be applied to community development and the provision of an alternate model for community organizers in their response to crime, fear and disorder in a neighbourhood. Their work should turn to strengthening of the social ties between neighbourhood residents.

Taylor’s theory underscores Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earl’s ideas on collective efficacy: the ability and belief  of a community to bring about positive change. But more about their ideas another day.

March 10, 2009

Five reasons why mixed neighbourhoods are important

Mixed neighbourhoods matter. Without them:

  1. Neighbourhoods become increasingly segregated in multiple ways: income, education, race.
  2. Some neighbourhoods and residents then live in concentrated disadvantage.
  3. Neighbourhoods with less resources have lower levels of resiliency and are less able to weather negative changes.
  4. Negative effects are felt more strongly by less mobile residents, those that are more vulnerable: seniors, children / parents, low-income, and  recent immigrants.
  5. Social problems which cluster together multiply, creating “hot spots” of social disorder, which then, in turn, spill into other neighbourhoods.

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December 16, 2008

The Underestimated Role of Community Based Agencies

Community-based agencies have gotten short shrift in recent Ontario government reports. Community agencies are almost invisible in  the Roots of Violence and Poverty Reduction Strategy reports.  Yet, they should be central to any policy solution.

Provincial (and national) governments need to make the same adjustment that has been made on international stage over the past decades. Development aid used to be flowed between governments; but from the 1970s onwards, non-government organizations were recognized as being a more capable, effective and responsive means to respond to human need. When given the resources, NGOs are more nimble and able to provide what is needed on the ground. This truism has not been recognized at the local level.

If, as one academic defined it, social disorganization is “the inability of a neighborhood to solve its problems together,” community agencies act as a counterforce to social disorder. In sum, community-based agencies sit at the centre of what creates “good” neighbourhoods and therefore healthier populations. That is they provide

o Common physical space (third place),

o Community services, to meet need, and

o Social networking, and therefore civic engagement, opportunities.

The first element is about the value of community-based organizations in the provision of community space, the evolution of the idea of “third place,” spaces outside private homes and workplaces, where community connections can develop. Community agencies provide this – with no or little fees.  All the Social Determinants of Health debates discuss the importance of social belonging and community connections, fostered through interactions with those around us.

Community agencies are defined, most commonly, through the second element, that is community programs. It also is the source of almost all funding.

However, I want to flag another research vein which has emerged around the third element they contribute.

Some recent research from Harvard Professor Robert Sampson (who co-developed the idea of collective efficacy) is finding:

“that dense social ties, group memberships, and neighborly exchange do not predict a greater propensity for collective action at the community level in the city of Chicago. The density of community nonprofit organizations matters instead [emphasis added], suggesting that declines in many forms of traditional social capital may not be as consequential for civic capacity as commonly thought.”

Community-based organizations are qualitatively different, he argues, in part, because they are tied to the public good more than to private interests (such as those found in resident associations, faith groups or bowling leagues).

See Sampson’s groundbreaking study for more details. Because of the breadth of the analysis and the innovative theory development, this is, if I can be “un-academic” for a minute, such a good study

In 2005, the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce grappled with the idea of a “neighbourhood effect” when it identified priority neighbourhoods which had low levels of community infrastructures. This gap analysis made sense at that point, as a counterbalance, because so much of the focus had been on social need. However, Sampson’s research underscores a different understanding of how neighbourhoods work: neighbourhoods with low levels of community infrastructure are the poorer precisely because they lack social service structures. If a lack of community structures results in more isolation and deprivation, any remedy has to involve creating and supporting these same structures.

Support for community-based agencies must be explicit in any policy solution. So, why isn’t it explicit?

Community agencies are being left out because they are seen as a means rather than an end.

That’s a serious underestimation.

November 24, 2008

"Broken Window theory" boosted in Science magazine findings

Disorder brings disorder, says the “Broken Windows” theory. Developed in the 1970’s by James Wilson and George Kelling, the theory maintains that once visible forms of social disorder have invaded a community, more disorder is sure to follow. And with more disorder, communities fall into disrepair, disinvesment, and decline.

An example of the theory, you may remember, is the anti-litter ad campaign the TTC ran a few years ago, urging people not to be the first to throw their trash on the ground as surely then “everyone” would follow. That campaign was premised on the idea of the “Broken Windows theory.” .

The theory had many weaknesses on broad social and political levels. Broken Windows doesn’t account for the larger social structures which create disorder, poverty and inequity. Nor does it account, as Sampson, Raudenbush & Earls do with their idea of collective efficacy, for the micro-level neighbourhood interactions which can mitigate against community disorder.

However, the Broken Windows theory gained political force because it offers a simplicity of solution. It also offers a cachet which appeals to middle-class electorate’s sensibilities. Promulgated by many big-city American mayors through the 1980s and 90s, Malcolm Gladwell re-popularized the theory in his book, The Tipping Point. It became a topic of debate between Gladwell and the authors of Freakonomics. See Gladwell’s blog for a sample.

So, into this environment, a recent study in Science shows that the theory does have some demonstrated effect. One of the best summaries of the article (pictures included) is posted as follows:

Not Exactly Rocket Science : The spread of disorder – can graffiti promote littering and theft?

Posted using ShareThis

It seems, after all, there is something to the old chestnut, “Monkey see, Monkey do, Monkey get in trouble, too.”

September 21, 2008

The importance of front porches

I live in a neighbourhood where houses are either 12.5 feet wide, or the bigger ones are 16 feet wide.  It means we sit on top of each other. Literally. Taking your recycling out or having a drink on the porch means invariably being drawn into a conversation with someone else who has had a similar idea.

Because of this level of street activity, some folks spend entire seasons on their front porch. And those are the people whom we all get to know, the people that pull us out of our self-absorbed musings to remind us that the first of the month has arrived and so cars must be moved for parking authorities or that recyclables, rather than garbage, will be collected the next day. They become the glue to our community, exchanging tidbits about our lives to others so that by the time we meet, we already know something of each other.

The porch sitters serve the same function that small children or dogs do. They give us a reason to talk to each other, to build bridges between us, to visit for a moment or two.

These casual interactions are shaped by the architecture of the places where we live and how we move through our communities. It speaks to a number of design issues: the scale of our homes, the use of “third place” (not home, not work), the development of weak social bonds, the trust we have in each other (collective efficacy). The social networks which exist in our neighbourhoods are entwined with the structures of our neighbourhoods.

This blog will explore all these dynamics and how we can build places where we belong, one and all.

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