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A research collaboration between older people and planning students

Overview

Who: Rose Gilroy, Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University and Beacon North East Theme Leader – Ageing, Wellbeing and Vitality; Quality of Life Partnership (QoLP) and the Elders Council (EC).

What: Community-university research partnership involving postgraduate students working to a brief drawn up by EC/QoLP in which graduate planning students worked with older people in two diverse neighbourhoods to draw out qualities of  those neighbourhoods that were supportive or detrimental to older residents’ quality of life.

Why: The research stemmed from Rose’s work since 1999 in the area around the impact of an aging population, combined with growing political interest locally and nationally in what constitutes an older person friendly neighbourhood.

Where: Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North East England

When: 2008 - 2009

Working with older people in Jesmond

Project description

The Elders Council of Newcastle was established in 2001 to provide an effective voice for older people who are resident or active in the City of Newcastle upon Tyne. In 2004 the Elders Council joined with Age Concern Newcastle and Newcastle Healthy City to form the Quality of Life Partnership (QoLP) which receives financial support from Newcastle City Council, the NHS Primary Care Trust and other agencies.

In 2008-09 a further partnership between Newcastle City Council, QoLP, and Elders Council and Newcastle University was developed to undertake a significant piece of research with the aim of exploring how localities can be developed as age friendly places. Rose Gilroy used this research partnership as an opportunity to involve postgraduate students studying for their Diploma in Town Planning on a Linked Research module.

An outline brief was agreed between Rose Gilroy and EC/QoLP and then discussed with the five graduate planning students. Two communities in Newcastle were chosen as case studies for the research – Jesmond, an affluent area with a sizeable student population and Cowgate, an area of high deprivation (37th in the country as set out by the index of multiple deprivations).

Following preliminary meetings with residents group chairs in Jesmond and community development workers for Cowgate it was agreed that there would be 3 workshops in each. The first of these explored what older people liked and disliked about the neighbourhood and those sessions that followed were dictated by what elders raised initially, including discussions of the services available, what social activities they would enjoy and around relationships with student residents.

At each session community development workers attended. A range of professionals were also invited to input information at each session e.g. the local librarian came to the second Jesmond workshop and talked of the way the library could act as an information hub for the community. The community police officer talked of the services available to those suffering night time disturbance from parties. Health workers attended the second and third Cowgate workshop and talked about local fun health initiatives as well as providing information about a planned new health centre and its services.

Purpose

In recent years, the issue of older person friendly neighbourhoods has been given serious consideration by the Government. The publication of ‘Towards Lifetime Neighbourhoods’ by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in 2007 marked a change in approach towards the way local neighbourhoods are planned, acknowledging that the UK has an increasing aging population. There was however, a lack of evidence when posing the question ‘what makes an older person friendly neighbourhood?’ Government policy suggested answers should be addressed through the means of community empowerment (DCLG, 2008), whereby each solution is specific and unique to a particular neighbourhood. 

Locally, Newcastle City Council in partnership with QoLP produced the City’s strategy for an aging population in 2007, entitled ‘Everyone’s Tomorrow’. The Elders Council had undertaken their own studies exploring the requirements of an older person friendly city centre (December, 2006) and city parks and recreational areas (September, 2008) but it was agreed that working in neighbourhoods and looking at the detail of the physical and social environment was needed.

The study of ageing within local neighbourhoods not only provided an interesting knowledge and skill building piece of research for students but drew on Rose’s previous involvement and connections with QoLP. Rose’s main research interests involve exploring the impact of the ageing population particularly in relation to planning and housing. Invited by the strategic director of the Better Life in Later Life Project (forerunner of EC/QoLP) Rose had been a member of the Housing and Neighbourhood working group since 1999 and in her association had worked with older people on projects initiated by them as well as drawn up through group discussions. Rose suggested that drawing on graduate students might be a mutually effective way of undertaking more fine grain work on older people in neighbourhoods.

The mode of working of the EC/QoLP is always to use participative methods in which older people may voice their ideas and be valued as experts by experience. Participative research methods were therefore chosen as a proven successful means of including different and often sensitive groups of people as both participants and researchers.

Again in line with EC/QoLP it was important that the session led to change and that participants might see identifiable outcomes.

Identifiable outcomes

The collaborative research project had identifiable outcomes for; the communities, QoLP/Elders Council and the University:

Community

  • Older people learned they could instigate change. This was very important in the context of the disadvantaged estate where years of consultation had left people weary and cynical
  • Community Transport introduced a ‘hop to the shops’ service from Cowgate
  • Friday activity programme began in High Moor Court (Cowgate sheltered housing scheme) open to all older people on the estate
  • 2 Cowgate older people now regular attendees at Life Time Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods working Group
  • Renewed people based focus by service providers
  • The reports produced for each neighbourhood now part of City council evidence base for Neighbourhood Charters
  • Gardening project set up by SCAN in which older people and students could work together to  deal with neglected gardens thus brightening the environment, passing on gardening skills between generations and building better relationships

QoLP/Elders Council

  • QOLP/Elders Council gained additional researchers exploring older people’s perspectives.
  • Widened its base to include a hard to reach neighbourhood.
  • Gained two recruits for the housing group.
  • Demonstrated its ability to make effective connections between older people’s concerns and gate keeper actors. 

University

  • Students gained material for their module, but also developed confidence and engagement expertise
  • Older people were able to see students could be concerned and active citizens contrary to the sometimes negative experiences of Jesmond residents and, in general, the poor public image of students.

“Rose Gilroy helped us to achieve more than 20 credits as per the module description; the project tested our ability to form trusting relationships amongst professionals, community groups and local people in pursuit of a common goal.  Thrown in at the deep end, Rose inspired the group to find working, active solutions together with real people from different backgrounds to ourselves.  The successes in developing skills to get along with different people, to liaise with organisations, to organise successful events and present workable solutions will all be recognised by future employers where ever our careers may take us.  Knowing that in building these skills, the road that Rose led us has helped to make a positive impact on peoples lives, however large or small, will always remain of personal pride when thinking back to our University achievements” Matt Wyatt, Postgraduate student

What worked well?

Relationships on a people to people basis: particularly in Cowgate older people were pleased to see young people coming to spend time with them, quickly learned their names and were appreciative.

“Through the projects with students we have been encouraged to explore more projects that look at inter generational working. Their energy and enthusiasm helped us break down barriers in the Cowgate estate which we knew was difficult place for older people to live.” Barbara Douglas, QoLP

Preliminary meetings with potential gate keepers: for example, residents’ group chairs, sheltered housing wardens, community development workers.

Building trust between the groups: Rose was pivotal in the role of building trust between the communities, university and the QoLP as she was known and trusted throughout the partnership having worked with them for more that a decade.

Taking the work to the people: all workshops were held in venues within each neighbourhood thus cutting out any of the practical barriers of travel and cost.

“The participative and informal style of the sessions enabled us to both hear what older people were saying about their neighbourhood and to feed information directly to them – we find it challenging to get information flowing in this area and many people don’t come to meetings called by the council. Coming to people in their own place clearly works.” Community Development Worker

Shared values: all parties were working to make a difference.

Setting out mutual benefits so all lead partners were able to feel equal in effort and rewards.

Involving students who were keen to learn and had energy and enthusiasm to give.

Working with a trusted and established organisation: the QoLP/Elders Council are well established and a trusted voluntary organisation who have worked actively in the local communities and amongst decision makers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Tours led by older people: to show students the difficulties encountered in their neighbourhoods as part of everyday life.

Innovative and inclusive research approaches: Rose arranged for a series of workshops for older people in which the student researchers could investigate living within each neighbourhood, in places of local community activity. Through their contacts, it was possible to plan for taxis to and from the workshops for the less mobile, buffet lunches and a mixture of appropriate fun activities (for example performances by an older persons theatre group and sample arm chair exercise sessions) as well as innovative means of gathering research that would encourage thought, discussion, debate and solutions. Attendance rates were particularly high and the students were comfortable in the thought that even if the research was unable to bring about change, participants had received a fair exchange for their time and efforts in taking part.

Continued promotion of workshops by Rose and the Quality of Life Partnership attracted a whole host of other players from the City Council, responsible agents and locally funded activity groups who wished to promote what they were currently doing in each neighbourhood to attract involvement and share information. Each week the sessions involved guest speakers to present knowledge of how to get involved in activities and events already taking place within the neighbourhoods. The research work was already beginning to find solutions to some of the worries and concerns identified by the participants.

What didn't work well

Confidence. Students were at times over ambitious and found themselves ‘largely out of their depth’ in terms of the extent of the project as many were new to working with communities.

This led to students working alongside more experienced practitioners, to create a `learning by observing’ aspect. Thereby gaining confidence by working within a supportive structure that allows an incremental increase in their role.

Establishing Trust. Whilst many of the participants had views to share, in Cowgate, these were often more guarded. Many had expressed their involvement in failed attempts to bring about improvements to the place they live, presenting some difficulty in establishing trust between outside researchers and local older people.

Trust was established by bringing in voluntary sector and community partners who could provide `quick wins` greatly increased the project’s credibility. For example the issue of public transport was and is a major concern for older people at Cowgate but the ability of Community Transport to offer a `hop to the shops` service immediately was greatly appreciated.

Time constraints: with more time deeper relationships could have been developed and more creative participatory methods could have been used. However, it is difficult to define precisely what length of time would deliver optimum results.

Yet, a nine month project, for example might, in Jesmond, have allowed some practical projects to develop bringing students and residents together as neighbours more quickly. In Cowgate further input might have developed older people’s confidence in getting beyond their own four walls.

Top Tips

  1. An existing partnership provides a strong base from which to develop research collaborations. Rose has worked with the community for over a decade, as an active partner in a range of community based projects, not just research. This well established link and trusted reputation was vital for the partnership.
  2. Manage the expectations of community participants. Between workshops it was vital to provide support to keep the follow-up sessions focused. This also provided an opportunity to establish trust and optimism amongst the participants whilst at the same time not raising expectations too high if solutions were never to be delivered as a result of the research. 
  3. Keep everyone informed. It was important to present the findings from the research to the communities involved first in order to get their comments and ideas before presenting to the institutional partners.

Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research Project

This case study formed part of the Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research (CAR) group project. The aims of the CAR group project are to share learning from Beacon NE partners about co-inquiry as an approach to community-university engagement, with a particular focus on research, and to produce materials (co-inquiry literature review, a toolkit and articles in practitioner and academic journals) that will be of use to universities and community partners engaging in this approach.

The project has been funded by Beacon North East and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement and is based in the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action at Durham University.  Members of the CAR group include academics from Durham and Newcastle Universities and community partners involved in collaborative projects through Beacon North East under the themes of social justice, ageing and wellbeing and energy and environment.

The CAR group has met on five occasions to discuss in detail the findings from a literature review, case studies presented by members and the design of a toolkit. This case study involved a collaborative project under the theme of ageing and wellbeing. It was presented by Rose Gilroy to the CAR group, and collated by Andrea Armstrong.

Contacts

If you would like more information about the project then please contact:

Rose Gilroy, r.c.gilroy@ncl.ac.uk

If you would like more information about the Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research project then please contact: Andrea Armstrong, andrea.armstrong@dur.ac.uk