Opinion Former Article

ESRC: Urban landscape's power to hurt or heal

Research shows that street furniture, barriers, parks, public spaces and neighbourhood architecture can stir up powerful emotions in local residents. This should be taken into account in programmes designed to reduce tensions and foster community cohesion.

Four cities - Amsterdam, Beirut, Belfast and Berlin were chosen as the location of the research as each has a different social history and underlying tensions. The project was undertaken by Dr Ralf Brand of the University of Manchester and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Dr Brand found that tensions between different social groups (ethnic, religious or political in nature) and radicalisation can have a significant impact on the urban landscape, and vice versa. This does not mean that urban environments cause, or prevent, these political positions. But some architectural and urban design features were identified that at least played a part in raising community tensions as well as those that reduced divisions.

Radicalisation of different groups in cities is usually viewed as a political issue, as well as one of community cohesion and the circumstances of the people in the community, such as the level of deprivation. "It’s essential to take these factors into account, but good urban design and architecture should not be overlooked," says Dr Brand. "A better built environment will not in itself make problems disappear, but it should be part of community action plans."

Dr Brand operated with the assumption that finding ways to bring people together has the potential to reduce problems and tensions, but he gives a warning, "Any attempt to lure people to artificially created shared spaces is ethically problematic and risky because they can alienate certain groups. It's important that both social and material changes should go hand in hand in urban communities."

A great deal of effort has been made to 'harden' access to potential targets of attack. For example, bollards are often installed to protect vulnerable facilities. Recently, urban designers have been trying to hide such measures to make them less visible. However, Dr Brand suggests that, while it is good to tone down protective barriers, they can still create a disturbing atmosphere.

He explains, "it’s not just about taking measures to prevent bad things from happening in our cities, we need to foster good things too: bring people together; break down stereotypes and tackle segregation."

During the project, Dr Brand noted that in an effort to bring local residents on to the streets, authorities in Amsterdam installed a large chessboard in a public square. People were attracted to the area and playing chess in public has helped create a positive atmosphere.

"I’m not saying giant chessboards everywhere are the solution for reducing tensions in communities, but they illustrate the type of initiative we should be thinking about."

Findings from the research are helping policymakers, planners, architects, urban designers and ordinary citizens create urban areas that contribute to the friendly encounter of different groups of people. Dr Brand believes this will help tackle stereotypes, polarisation and radicalisation in communities.

For further information contact

Dr Ralf Brand
Email: ralf.brand@manchester.ac.uk
Telephone: 0161 275 0317
ESRC Press Office:

Danielle Moore-Chick
Email: danielle.moore-chick@esrc.ac.uk
Telephone 01793 413122
Jeanine Woolley
Email: jeanine.woolley@esrc.ac.uk
Telephone 01793 413119
Notes for editors:

This release is based on findings from the research project: ''The urban environment: Mirror and mediator of radicalisation?' and was carried out by Dr Ralf Brand and co-investigator Dr Jon Coaffee, with research assistant Dr Sara Fregonese at the University of Manchester. The project was part of "New Security Challenges: 'Radicalisation' and Violence - A Critical Reassessment", co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. A book based on the project is due for release in June 2012.
The project took place between 2007 and 2009. It involved an initial study of related literature and was followed by field work in Amsterdam, Beirut, Belfast and Berlin. This included semi-structured interviews with over 100 people and the use, by volunteers, of disposable cameras to document urban environments. Findings have been disseminated widely. This has included briefings, articles and a travelling project exhibition that visited the cities involved, plus several other venues. The exhibition is still available for display for free.
The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk
The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. The research has been graded as very good 

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