One of our challenges in the south end has been to shift the negative perceptions and myths that exist about the neighbourhood. A few years back I joined a conversation with a class of VIU students on the topic of community development and I asked the class about their perceptions of the south end.
None of the students lived in the neighbourhood and few had actually spent any time there, yet all had a strong sense that the area was unsafe and generally a place to avoid at all costs. The south end was clearly defined as Nanaimo's "problem" neighbourhood and the fear and anxiety that was palpable in some of the students was a reminder of how perceptions can be shaped by emotion rather than a more reasoned appraisal of the facts.
It was an interesting conversation and it got me thinking about this universal urban process that leads to one area of a city becoming defined as the "problem neighbourhood."
One of the great contributors to research on the family, Dr. Murray Bowen, developed a systems theory that describes how various relationship and emotional processes in a family can develop symptoms that manifest in a vulnerable family member.
The problem tends to get defined in the individual, but the anxiety driven process involves the active participation of the whole family.
Ask a family member who has been defined as the "black sheep" how difficult it is to get family members to relate to them differently and you begin to get a sense of how just how binding these processes can be.
The great NIMBY debate can be viewed as a symptom of this basic emotional process.
When a neighbourhood perceives a threat, (real or perceived), anxiety rises and resources are mobilized, often with a goal of making the problem go away. It's natural for the human to seek distance from the intensity of emotional problems. We may have great compassion for others struggling with problems of one kind or another but we don't really want to live up close to it.
This anxious process plays out on a city level by pushing the problems, (and the intended solutions) into one distinct neighbourhood. This process serves to relieve the anxiety of the moment, (NIMBY), but tends to reinforce the broader systemic and social problems over time, (see Vancouver's Downtown Eastside).
It's interesting to consider how this reactive distancing process may be contributing to, and maintaining the problem on both an individual and neighbourhood level.
The City of Nanaimo has decided to pursue a policy of spreading supportive housing projects throughout the city.
It's an impressive example of how a city can tackle it's problems in a more progressive manner.
The policy requires strong and far-sighted leadership and signals a willingness to embrace the anxiety of dealing with these problems as a whole community. I think we are all the better for it.
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