(The Nationalist, 06 April 2007)
What is it that makes some new housing estates a success, and others a failure? Sometimes there’s a very fine balance between one and the other, becoming a community that’s good to be part of, or a suburban slum that people want to leave. (Those who leave usually bring their troubles with them; there are no geographical solutions to personal problems.)
There seems to be a pattern to the downward drift. It may start with litter and graffiti, and move on to breaking trees or street lights. These are blamed on outsiders, though often caused by locals. Then the tyre-marks of so-called joy-riders (in reality, death-riders) appear. Children’s squabbles draw in parents, taking their child’s side, and a shouting match on the street ensues that may end in blows. Factor in early hours drinking parties with loud music, and more shouting and fighting. At this point the elderly begin to leave, unable to cope with the carry-on. A stabilizing force is lost. Those who cause most of the trouble, usually a few people, may be evicted by the local authority, but they then start the same process elsewhere, so nothing is gained.
People may blame local authorities, citing the lack of facilities such as sports grounds. But local authorities don’t want to provide those, for the same reasons as above: litter, graffiti, vandalism, drinking, fighting, and claims for personal injury when someone is hurt on council property. And local residents usually don’t want a playing-field next door either, and for the same reasons; they say, ‘Not in my back-yard.’
What is it that moves an estate in the other direction? A residents’ association can help: it can defuse small problems, so that they remain small. It provides a forum of communication, a channel for resolving disputes that might otherwise involve Gardaí and the courts – swotting flies with a sledge-hammer. Without it, people may resign themselves to problems remaining unresolved, they may close their doors and shut out the world, saying, ‘I don’t want to get involved; I just want to be left alone.’ But that contributes nothing to a solution; human problems are not resolved without communication. (A residents’ association is also a better way than individual effort of dealing with local authorities.)
In a culture of dependence such as we live in, people often wait passively for outsiders to solve problems for them. It rarely happens that way. I can think of one estate which was sliding downhill in what looked like an irreversible process. Then the local authority, which owned the estate, gave people the option of buying out their houses for mortgage payments not much higher than the rent. People took that opportunity, and, shortly after, the estate began to improve. There was less litter and vandalism. Gardens were cleaned up. People painted their houses, or extended them. This rising tide began to lift all boats, and people became hopeful. Tensions declined. The vicious circle had been broken.
How did it work? Home ownership made house-holders, rather than the council, responsible for their houses. People become responsible by taking responsibility on their shoulders, not by having it removed from them; that disempowers them and reinforces helplessness and dependence.
Without the involvement of local people, outside intervention, whether with new investment, administration, or technology makes little difference. The key factor in building community is the quality of local leadership.