‘The environment’ – a foreign term in deprived areas

New research in some of Britain’s most deprived neighbourhoods has found that the term ‘local environment’ is foreign to most participants and that people living with some of the worst environmental problems often express more concern about dirty, unswept streets than the issues noticed by outsiders, like pollution from industry or traffic.

Rainforests are a long way from here, compiled by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the largest social policy research and development charity in the UK, studied attitudes towards the environment among disadvantaged communities in Scotland’s most deprived inner city district, Possilpark in Glasgow, Bromley-by-Bow in London, a poor area with a high representation of ethnic minorities, Cefn Mawr in North Wales, a former mining village dominated by a chemical plant, and as a contrast, an area of low-income residents in the Peak District National Park. The researchers found that environmental problems that seemed obvious to an outsider appeared less worrying to residents, with those living close to busy roads regarding them as a fact of life and health-related concerns about the Welsh chemical factory being tempered by loyalty towards a plant that had once been a significant local employer.

Participants discussed environmental problems at a local rather than national or global level with major concerns often centring on relatively minor issues, such as dog-fouling and waste in public spaces.

Some residents made a connection between local pollution and wider environmental issues, but many felt uninformed and put off by the jargon of environmentalism. In addition, the communities were generally ambivalent about green organisations – seeing them as media stereotypes of ‘eco-warriors’ and viewing some activists as extreme or childish, although there was usually agreement that “somebody has to stand up” and that what environmental organisations did was worthwhile. No one interviewed belonged to any such organization, which was often explained in terms of lack of local presence and insufficient information.

Practical or money constraints stopped some residents from putting environmentally-friendly measures into practice, although women spoke more of recycling and energy-saving measures. There was widespread support for recycling household waste, although those who did not recycle -particularly older people and those less mobile – were often deterred by practicalities such as facilities being unavailable, too distant, or homes lacking storage space. Energy conservation was mainly practiced purely to save money, with some residents regarded measures as irrelevant because they were unable to afford the heating needed to rid their homes of damp and draughts although participants were familiar with several methods for saving energy and water.

Most participants had not considered environmentally-friendly consumption with many expressing confusion about claims made for ‘green’ products and older people being particularly puzzled over organic and non-genetically-modified food. Apart from not understanding the possible merits, the most commonly cited reason for avoiding ‘green’ purchases was expense.

Focus groups in the Peak District found that low-income residents often valued their beautiful surroundings, but were concerned by inadequate public transport and the rising costs of fuel for unavoidable car use. Protecting the environment by reducing car use was considered irrelevant; such messages were seen as a threat to residents of remote villages reliant on vehicles for work and domestic uses.

“People were concerned about their own surroundings, but they felt distanced from wider environmental issues and the way they are debated,” said Dr Kate Burningham, co-author of the report. “Our study suggests that cleaning up buildings, derelict sites and streets would considerably improve the quality of life in these areas. Long-term solutions to problems in the local environment require policy makers to take a joined-up approach to environmental, social and economic policies that recognises the way they all affect each other.”

Rainforests are a long way from here is available from the Joseph Rountree Foundation and costs £12.95.

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