Cambridge: Behind the Success Stories
Statistics can only tell us so much: they can describe trends and suggest potential relationships and correspondences we might want to explore further. They can’t tell us about people’s experiences which lie behind the data. Qualitative research provides more depth, and in recent years social researchers have turned more and more to narrative to understand the meanings and experiences behind the headline figures. Increasingly social researchers are working with artists and communities to explore ways to reach the hidden facets of peoples’ lives.
Prosperous and/or aspirational Cambridge constructs one narrative of the city: lovely green spaces, a medieval city centre, growth and development in and of the Silicon Fen and the Biomedical Campus. We have a fast connection to the capital city and maybe soon to Oxford, so we’re really well connected – if we can afford the high train fares – even if this means high accommodation prices. These are presented as the city’s success stories in the media.
But this all comes at a cost. Cambridge is one of the UK’s most economically divided cities. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has identified that three of Cambridge’s neighbourhoods are amongst the country’s lowest fifth for multiple deprivation, and a further six are in the most deprived third. These areas have the lowest life expectancy, premature death and poorest health. These areas also have less accessible green space, and the green space they do have is generally rated of lower quality than that in the richer areas of the city. Accessibility and mobility is a struggle for many people experiencing poverty as bus fares are prohibitively expensive. There are eight food banks in or just outside the city which distributed 8766 3-day emergency food parcels in 2018.
Poverty has a face and a name – people in poverty are more likely to be women, particularly single mothers and elderly women. In poor families, it is women – the main carers and domestic workers – who, in the main, have to find the food to feed their families, and stretch the household budget to provide shelter, warmth, clothes, travel costs, as well as food, not to mention all the extras. Women are the main providers of emotional support when life is hard, just as they absorb … and suffer … the violence and aggression which is exacerbated by the stress of poverty. Environmental problems, too, usually impact those with the fewest resources, just as they are produced by processes, the benefits of which are most enjoyed by the richest. And more women than men live alone – constituting some of the most vulnerable and lonely people in the city.
This presentation will explore some of the context of exclusion in the city, drawing on more conventional research. But research is never neutral: I will also stress the importance for this kind of research to go beyond the statistics, and for researchers, artists, community activists and residents to work together in common cause to reduce inequality.