Urban districts become better and safer places to live if the residents can show a united front.
In other words, if they trust both each other and the local authorities, and are willing and able to make a stand against public nuisance and crime. But winning the residents’ trust can be an uphill struggle in many deprived urban areas. This is one of the findings from research carried out by two PhD students from the University of Groningen in four deprived areas of Arnhem. The two, Reijer Verwer and Annemarijn Walberg, compiled what is known as a ‘realistic evaluation’ of government interventions, or to quote the jargon, liveability and security interventions. The report does not answer the question of whether an intervention works, but does explain why it might work and for whom.
For many years, the government has been focusing special attention on deprived areas in the Netherlands, many of them affected by relatively high unemployment, poverty, public nuisance and crime. Investment in these areas has increased substantially, particularly since the introduction of what are known as ‘Vogelaarwijken’ [problem neighbourhoods targeted for special attention, named after the Minister at the time, Ella Vogelaar]. However, it is virtually impossible to measure the effects of any one specific measure, explains Walberg: ‘You sometimes read about a deprived area improving, but as so many different factors are involved, it’s difficult to say exactly what is behind this.’ In order to evaluate interventions ‘realistically’, the PhD students devised a hypothesis about the effects of interventions, which they based on a prominent criminological theory. The ‘collective control theory’ cites trust as an essential condition to people in vulnerable neighbourhoods forming a united front. Walberg: ‘We wanted to refine the hypothesis by conducting empirical research.’
Verwer and Walberg spent four years working with parties, including five housing corporations, to compile a survey of four areas of Arnhem with high rates of crime, varying from loitering to drug dealing. They concentrated specifically on measures designed to tackle public nuisance and crime, observing dozens of interventions: police intervention, neighbourhood watch schemes, interventions by the municipal authorities, the housing corporations, social services and various other bodies. Verwer focused on the mutual trust between the professionals, while Walberg concentrated on the residents. Both parties, in combination with mutual trust, are essential when it comes to making a neighbourhood less vulnerable to gangs, for example, and other forms of crime. Verwer noted that mutual trust starts with the professionals: ‘To form a strategy that will really make a difference, it’s vital that they share information about problem families in the area. But professionals only do this if they know each other well, which is why it can take so long for them to devise a new strategy. We noticed that this was often hugely disappointing for the residents in a neighbourhood.’
Walberg concentrated on the residents, and even spent a few weeks living in the Geitenkamp neighbourhood. She ascertained that residents too found it difficult to trust one another. Residents in the ‘worst’ neighbourhoods had to cope with antisocial behaviour on a daily basis, such as drug abuse or noise from neighbours on the streets until the small hours. They regularly witnessed some form of violence. Walberg: ‘But they are under no illusion that other people, be they residents or the local authorities, will take an effective stand against this public nuisance. Past experience has shown them that organizations either take no action, arrive too late or are “too soft” in their dealings with perpetrators, and action taken by local residents makes no impression on them whatsoever. As a result, they become passive. As long they are not personally affected, residents prefer to look the other way rather than take action themselves. That’s understandable; why would you stick your neck out and risk reprisals if you can’t count on support from your neighbours?’
The PhD students conclude that winning the trust of residents in deprived urban areas is an uphill struggle. They do not expect interventions such as ‘getting involved’, having a private word with the family, more surveillance and other measures will produce short-term results. However, this does not mean that professionals should stop trying. Verwer: ‘It is essential that they trust each other, as this is what enables them to act quickly. This isn’t having the desired effect at the moment, but if an intervention does have the desired effect, the residents must be able to see it. In some cases, the only people who knew about a raid, for example, or that a problem family had been forced to accept help, were the immediate neighbours. So the organizations concerned received no credit for their work. Residents will only start to trust professionals if they have repeated and lasting positive experiences with them. Then, and only then, will they be ready to start investing in the security and liveability of their own neighbourhood.’
A double PhD ceremony is a rare event, but these two PhD students were more than satisfied with their joint research. They were both working on the same problem and were soon ‘linked’ by their supervisor, the criminologist Prof. Willem de Haan. Each of them benefited from having a sparring partner and the added advantage of being able to consult with each other at every turn, says Walberg. ‘Although we weren’t always working on the same aspect of the study, we spoke to each other practically every day via Skype. Being able to carry out the evaluation from two separate perspectives and then compare them proves the added value of this double PhD.’ Verwer and Walberg will be awarded PhDs by the Faculty of Law of the University of Groningen on 19 November. The research was carried out at the Institute of Integration and Social Efficacy (ISW) of the University of Groningen, and was commissioned by five Arnhem housing corporations.
Reijer Verwer (Alkmaar, 1978) and Annemarijn Walberg (Hoorn, 1981) both studied sociology at the University of Amsterdam. Walberg is currently working as a researcher for Significant, an advice and research consultancy. Verwer is job-hunting.
Reijer Verwer, firstname.lastname@example.org; Annemarijn Walberg, email@example.com
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