Residential mixing does not automatically lead to better community relations: Neighbours need to make incomers to mixed areas feel less threatened and vulnerable and more welcome and safe.
This is the conclusion of a research report, ‘Exploring New Residents’ Experiences of Contact in Mixed Areas of Belfast’, commissioned by the Community Relations Council and produced by Queen’s University. The report will be launched at a seminar tomorrow at Crumlin Road Gaol.
Dr Clifford Stevenson, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at QUB, who led the research team, said:
“Since the Belfast Agreement of 1998, there has been increased movement of people across Belfast from ‘single identity’ to ‘mixed’ areas which is a sign of progress as we become a more peaceful society. This is often assumed to improve community relations with more contact between neighbours of different religious backgrounds leading to positive feelings and attitudes between these groups. However our research suggests that new residents may actually be predisposed to experience mixing negatively, unless they have good communication with their neighbours.”
The research project, funded by the Community Relations Council, examined three increasingly mixed areas across Belfast city- Ravenhill, Fortwilliam and Cliftondene/Deerpark. Researcher Thia Dickey interviewed 27 incomers from both main religious traditions about their experiences of moving and settling into their new areas. The interviewees told her that the experience of moving from the security and support of their previous community into a new and alien environment was an anxious time for many of them.
“Feelings of uncertainty and fear left them vulnerable to perceiving any unexpected events, such as damage to their property or a disturbance in the local area, as personally targeted against them, even when they were not. Those who had made friends in their local area were able to access the local knowledge and support they needed to understand these isolated occurrences as non-threatening and manageable. However those residents who did not have connections in the local area reported feeling isolated, excluded and unable to deal with the unknown. These more isolated residents sometimes reported wishing to move out.”
The research results point to the need for neighbours in newly mixed areas to support one another through local residents’ committees and ‘Shared Neighbourhoods’ initiatives.
Dr Stevenson said: “Actively welcoming new residents into a mixed community signals acceptance as well the availability of support from neighbours. As well as building better community relations this can transform the isolating and stressful experience of moving into a new area. This will be essential in newly built mixed housing developments where all residents will be incomers. In these new developments ‘building a united community’ needs to be done by the residents themselves”.
Lorraine Campbell, Board Member of the Community Relations Council, who chairs the launch, added: “A more in-depth examination is necessary around what shared housing looks like in a post-conflict society and how we move this forward in terms of equality, reconciliation and transformation. There is a clear need to examine how all agencies can build confidence that enables consideration of all available housing and to examine the impact of communal chill factors such as spatial segregation, murals, flags or physical barriers. This will help inform programmes and interventions aimed at widening housing choice and will support existing shared neighbourhoods”.
The report is available from the CRC website at: http://www.community-relations.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/5024-CRC-Shared-Housing.pdf