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How your neighbourhood determines your opportunities

11 October 2022

‘This crisis is not too bad’, thought Sander van Lanen back in 2009, while working as an intern at Boomerang. He didn’t realize how bad it was until 2011, when he spoke to protesters on Syntagma Square in Athens. ‘That was the moment when I became interested in the effects of a crisis on various places and various people.’ By now, Van Lanen recognizes the problems of disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but also their strengths.

Text: Marrit Wouda, Communication UG / Photos: Henk Veenstra

His interest in this subject brought him to Ireland, where he conducted research in Cork and Dublin for his PhD thesis. Now, at the University of Groningen, his research focuses on inequality in opportunities, disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and how poverty is passed on within families.

Michi-Noeki

One of the projects that Van Lanen is focusing on is the Michi-Noeki project in the Oosterparkwijk neighbourhood in Groningen. To improve the social framework in this neighbourhood, the Municipality of Groningen has decided to set up four so-called Michi-Noekis. These are small buildings, inspired by the Japanese Michi no eki, a resting place at the side of the road. In the Michi-Noeki, you will find a place to sit down and have a cup of coffee and a conversation, ‘because there is always someone there’, adds Van Lanen. The four small buildings will be set up in strategic locations in the neighbourhood. The aim of this project is to reduce loneliness and encourage participation.

In the Michi-Noeki, you will find a place to sit down and have a cup of coffee and a conversation, ‘because there is always someone there’, adds Van Lanen.
In the Michi-Noeki, you will find a place to sit down and have a cup of coffee and a conversation, ‘because there is always someone there’, adds Van Lanen.

What is a disadvantaged neighbourhood?

But is Oosterparkwijk really a disadvantaged neighbourhood? And what does ‘disadvantaged’ even mean? Policymakers categorize a neighbourhood as disadvantaged when it is has a low score for specific indicators, such as income, labour force participation, and health. Sometimes other indicators are also taken into account, such as the cost of housing, the number of teen mothers, and, in the past, the number of immigrants. ‘But’, says Van Lanen, ‘you should not be too quick to draw conclusions based on this information.’ After all, is a neighbourhood disadvantaged because it has a lot of residents with low incomes, or do these people live in this neighbourhood because they cannot find a place to live anywhere else? ‘We can conclude that there are problems, but we should not conclude that it is the people who are the problem.’ And there are definitely problems in Oosterparkwijk. According to the Municipality of Groningen, relatively few residents have paid jobs, the residents participate less in the administration of their neighbourhood, there is a lot of loneliness, and many residents have health problems.

A lower income because of your neighbourhood

Van Lanen has discovered by now that your opportunities in life are influenced by the place where you live. Research shows that if you live in a neighbourhood with a lower average income, your income will be lower too, even if your parents’ income was above average. In addition, so-called disadvantaged neighbourhoods often carry a stigma. People from other neighbourhoods don’t want to live there and look down on people from this neighbourhood. Young people, in particular, internalize this stigma and think less of themselves. Van Lanen: ‘In Dublin, I spoke to a girl who had quit her studies. Her friends, who were from the same neighbourhood, told her: “Girl, you’re from Ballymun, do you really think you can become a lawyer?” This shows that both an internalized stigma and the lack of certain opportunities in a neighbourhood have far-reaching consequences.’

‘We can conclude that there are problems, but we should not conclude that it is the people who are the problem.’
‘We can conclude that there are problems, but we should not conclude that it is the people who are the problem.’

Distrust

‘One thing that is really beautiful is that you can find very strong networks in neighbourhoods like these’, says Van Lanen. ‘Some people have been living there for generations and their whole life is in this neighbourhood. The advantage of this is that people can fall back on each other.’ But there is also a negative side to this: as an outsider, it is hard to become part of this network. ‘People stick together in their own bubble, which leads to us-vs-them thinking. That those outsiders are not “our kind of people”’, says Van Lanen.

There is not only distrust towards outsiders; many residents also distrust authorities. ‘Many of them depend on social services and benefits, but they have often had bad experiences with these’, adds Van Lanen. They see the authorities as bureaucratic, inflexible, and strict, and this leads to low participation in local decision-making.

From coffee corners to local problems

Will a Michi-Noeki help? Nobody believes that a small building offering cheap coffee will solve all the problems in Oosterparkwijk, but Van Lanen believes it can help. He thinks that the way it is presented will be crucial. The residents of Oosterparkwijk must be convinced that this place is for them, that they are welcome there. ‘The Michi-Noeki can be a good example of social infrastructure, objects that encourage people to meet each other,’ says Van Lanen. But is this something you can plan? ‘That remains to be seen.’

‘The Michi-Noeki can be a good example of social infrastructure, objects that encourage people to meet each other.’
‘The Michi-Noeki can be a good example of social infrastructure, objects that encourage people to meet each other.’

Ivory tower

In March, Van Lanen was announced as one of the new members of the Young Academy Groningen (YAG). ‘They work a lot on public engagement and that is something I want to work on too.’ Van Lanen prefers to do this within the neighbourhoods that he does research on. ‘I think it would be great to actually meet these people, in the neighbourhoods in which they live. Why not go to a community centre in Vinkhuizen? We could organize an evening there, with knowledge that is relevant to the neighbourhood, based on what the residents want. After all, the last thing I want to be is an academic in an ivory tower!’ he grins.

‘After all, the last thing I want to be is an academic in an ivory tower!’
‘After all, the last thing I want to be is an academic in an ivory tower!’
Last modified:13 October 2022 12.38 p.m.
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