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Urban regeneration can cause isolation - lessons for the 'age friendly city' movement

A recent study shows that urban regeneration in our poorest neighbourhoods can actually backfire and lead to a sense of isolation in older people.

From tackling isolation, to improving bus services and access to green spaces: cities around the world are changing and adapting to the needs of their ageing populations. The idea behind the 'age friendly city' movement is simple - towns and cities should be designed so that they allow older people to actively participate in their community, stay connected to the people that matter most to them, and remain living in their homes for as long as possible (known as ageing in place).

Dr Camilla Lewis, a social anthropologist from Manchester University spent 12 months living and carrying out research in East Manchester, one of the most deprived wards of the city, in order to understand how regeneration in the area had affected the day to day lives of older residents. The study focused on women in their 50s-80s who had lived in the area for their entire lives.

Dr Camilla Lewis will discuss the results of this research, and a new Economic and Social Research Council funded project on 'Ageing in Place' at an event as part of the 2018 ESRC Festival of Social Science where older people will be asked to reimagine the future for older people in Manchester.

Professor Jennifer Rubin, ESRC Executive Chair, said: "The Festival of Social Science is one of the largest co-ordinated endeavours undertaken by a science community and demonstrates ESRC's commitment to public engagement. We know social scientists and economists value the opportunity to talk with the public to make an impact with their work. These events should inspire young people to pursue a career in social sciences and raise awareness about the impact made to wider society."

Dr Lewis interviewed and observed residents in places in East Manchester that were important to them, such as at a coffee morning held at a community centre, a market cafe and inside people's homes.

She found that despite being located close to the city centre and benefiting from millions of pounds of investment in their area, including new houses, new facilities and transport infrastructure, older people tended to feel separated from the wealth and new identity of the rest of the city. The demolition and rebuilding of new houses had also resulted in a deep sense of uncertainty and isolation. 

"Despite the ambitious plans of local government, the rebuilding of houses actually caused a huge upheaval to social ties, with families and neighbours being rehoused away from one another," says Dr Lewis.

"Many people felt that compared to the past there was no community, that no one looked out for anyone anymore, or felt pride in their neighbourhood. They lamented the loss of industry in the area – describing, in nostalgic terms, how East Manchester used to support proud communities of workers who had a strong sense of local identity."

The study showed that in order to make sense of the changes taking place around them, the women took solace in the past and shared their memories of their former ways of life. They relied on strong networks of support and looked out for one another. Social settings like market cafes were seen as vital to these networks, however it was felt that lots of the settings which were once important places for communities, such as markets, church groups and pubs were fast disappearing, meaning that people no longer had the opportunity to get to know their neighbourhoods.

"My findings show that regeneration processes are only advantageous to certain groups, and for older people are often felt to be unsettling due to disruptions to their former ways of life and local identities," says Dr Lewis.

The research highlights the need to understand the needs and expectations of older people when developing age friendly cities, rather than assuming that one approach will satisfy all.

"It's important to understand the history and identity of neighbourhoods within cities – which differ hugely, from one community to another – as local identity is so important for older people's sense of belonging."

"Ageing in place remains an ideal for many older people, but those living in lower-income areas face huge challenges to stay living in their communities in later life. To ensure that everyone can benefit from age friendly cities, we need to make sure that these needs are adequately met by funding local resources and ensuring adequate forms of social housing are available."

Notes for editors

  1. For further information about this ESRC-funded research see the research summary - The experience of 'ageing in place' over time: a longitudinal perspective 
  2. The Festival event Reimagining the future for older people in Manchester takes place in Manchester on 6 November 2018
  3. Polls show that most people want to stay in their own homes and communities for as long as possible when they get older, rather than having to go into care. Evidence also shows that 'ageing in place' care – where the elderly are supported to stay in their own homes – is cheaper than residential care, and improves health outcomes. However, despite evidence that older people are happier at home, most services are geared towards care homes and hospital care. At this workshop older people living in Greater Manchester will share their ideas about what is important to them about the places in which they live. The aim of the event is to discuss ways of supporting elderly people to stay living at home for as long as possible, and explore ways that communities can be adapted to suit the needs of the ageing population.
  4. The 16th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 3-10 November 2018 with over 300 free events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the festival provides an opportunity for the public to meet some of the country’s leading social scientists to discover, discuss and debate how research affects their lives. With a range of creative and engaging events going on across the UK, there’s something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. The full programme is available online. Catch up and join in on Twitter using #esrcfestival.


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