Where do you live? Types of urban context

How do you imagine the city?  You may have a dominant image of what urban life is like, a busy city centre, student halls of residence and digs, a tough council estate or an ethnic inner city. The reality is that city life is about all of these and more.  When we talk about urban mission, there are a whole variety of different contexts in which you might find yourself.  There’s literally something for everyone. Today, to whet your appetite I want to mention three.

Council Estates

These are similar to what are called projects in the US and schemes in Scotland. Many were built between the two world wars and immediately afterwards.  Much of South Bradford where I grew up Is covered with a number of large estates often characterised by uniform red brick appearance in contrast to the normal West Yorkshire habit of building with stone.

Most towns and cities have a history of some form of social housing. When I lived in the Medway Towns in Kent, these tended to come in small pockets of perhaps 100 or so homes.  In the north and Midlands as well as London, estates can be huge, the size of small town.  Here in the north of Birmingham, Kingstanding is home to one of the largest estates built, its purpose was to provide housing for soldiers coming back from the war.

The estates were intended to provide good quality housing, to replace inner city slums.  They often offered a reasonable sized garden instead of a small yard (or even a back to back opening straight onto the street) and the possibility of an in door toilet.  That was not always the case though and you could find yourself in a tower block of flats.

The purpose then was to provide social housing at low cost and so many residents would traditionally be on lower incomes. The estates became home to the working classes.  However after the wars and particularly into the 1980s many suffered from high unemployment. 

Our estates have tended to get a bad reputation for crime, anti-social behaviour, vandalism etc.  We sometimes talk about sink estates. Yet the reality is that on any given estate, you might see a variety of little neighbourhoods. You might find that one area has a problem with gangs whereas another part of the estate is mainly home to older retired people. 

Whilst the name is derived from the fact that the homes were built by local authorities and then rented out by them, the housing revolution of the 1980s gave residents the right to buy their own home.  You are likely to find a mixture of ownership these days with some owner occupied, some owned by housing associations and others continuing to be rented out by traditional councils.

Inner City

We tend to associate the term “inner city” with two things. First of all, the type of housing.  Primarily you are looking at Victorian or Edwardian terrace housing.  Sometimes this would mean two up, two down and back to back houses. However, many of the houses could be substantial in size with attic and basement space providing additional accommodation.  This often made this kind of housing popular with communities where there was a greater emphasis on the extended family continuing to live together under the same roof. However, you will often find that housing has also been divided up for multi-occupancy with single people living I bedsits.

Whilst we use the term “inner city” this is a loose term and may not refer to a specific geographical situation at the heart of a city close to its centre. However, it distinguishes a type of neighbourhood from the suburbs.  We would tend to classify significant parts of Smethwick as “inner city” although those streets were several miles out from Birmingham city centre.

These are the areas where we might expect to find significant non-white British communities.  This may include recent immigrants but often we are talking about communities that are third and fourth generation now. You may be living in an Afro-Caribbean community alongside people whose grandparents and great grandparents arrived on the Windrush and other ships.  In some places you will find that a particular ethnic group dominates and has become settled. Significant parts of east Birmingham tend to be primarily South Asian (Pakistani) Muslim whereas Cape Hill in Smethwick and the Soho Road area of Handsworth have often been associated with the Sikh/Punjabi community. At the same time, we are seeing population movement and migration.  Sikh families becoming more prosperous were moving to other parts of the West Midlands over the past ten years and in Smethwick this saw a change in demographics with people from Muslim backgrounds, Africa and Eastern Europe moving into Cape Hill and Bearwood.

So, some areas will be characterised by huge levels of transience especially where homes are available for short term rent. This means that census data may quickly be out of date. The best way to get a feel for the make up of a community is by taking a walk and seeing the shop signs, the people out and about, the school gate gathering etc.  We recently found that an area we expected to be mainly white working class was in fact very ethnically diverse when we did some door to door work.

The urban normal

This is the phrase that I’ve coined to describe the reality in many parts of our cities and towns.  We’ve tended when talking about urban mission to focus on the two types of neighbourhood mentioned above and I think that there’s a danger with that. We start to think of urban mission in terms of these having a form of glamour and adventure to them. We then get a stereotyped image of the type of charismatic and maverick missionary/planter required to reach the gangs on a sink estate or the person fluent in Urdu required to reach Muslims in Sparkbrook, Birmingham or Manningham, Bradford.

However, the majority of people don’t live in the extremes but would simply consider themselves normal.  They may or may not think of themselves as working class.  We need to be reaching those people too.

Interspersed with the council estates built between and after the wars were smaller estates, sometimes on the edge and sometimes in the middle of the estates.  These were privately built and owner occupied.  I grew up on such a street in Bradford.  The houses were mainly bnuilt in the 1950s and were described as modern town houses.  These would be a mixture of semi-detached and small terraces of 3 or 4 houses, often with 2 reasonable sized bedrooms, a box room where the youngest kid ended up and a small garden. 

We now live on a similar street on the border of Kingstanding and Great Barr with large council estates either side.  People tend to be from working class backgrounds, builders, tradesmen, lorry drivers etc.  Often these areas will be more predominantly white but there will be some people from other ethnic backgrounds too.  Communities are often settled and stable.  Here, we’ve found that many of our neighbours have lived in the same house for most of their adult life.  Younger people will have been here at least ten years and many have been here for 40-50 or more years.  Similarly my parents have lived in the same house they moved to when I was two years old 46 years ago.  We’ve seen people who had already been living there many years before we arrived there grow old and die in the first house they bought. Others have been there for 20-30 years.

At the same time, population migration and increased integration means that these neighbourhoods are becoming more and more ethnically diverse. 

What about you?

How does the area where you currently live match up against these descriptions? Is it similar to one of them or different again?

Could you see yourself living in one of the neighbourhoods described above, settling in for a life time of getting to know neighbours and sharing the good news with them?

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