Creating caring places: placemaking in our town centres

What do caring places look like? How can planners, developers and project organisers contribute to the discourse around creating caring places? And what responsibility do they have to communities to help develop places that put people at their heart?

They are just some of the questions being increasingly raised by organisations in Scotland, trying to identify if there is a new way to focus on place and wellbeing in Scotland’s towns. Projects such as Carnegie Trust’s Kindness, Scottish Towns partnerships’ Town Centres First, or Architecture and Design Scotland’s Creating Caring Places are all exploring the importance of the quality of a place to the wellbeing of people who live there. But what does this mean for people who actually plan these areas, and what could they consider in the future to help develop more caring places?

The 3 P’s: place, people, practice

Many of the discussions around creating places which foster wellbeing and wellness centre around 3 key concepts:

Place: Understanding place and the impact that it has on wellbeing is a significant part of this agenda. The environment in which people live day-to-day has a significant impact on individuals and can be both a positive or negative influence. It can help to facilitate positive community interaction, creating stronger community ties and helping organisations and people to feel more valued within their community.

In order for places to be caring a number of factors have been identified, and these are common across research done by a number of organisations including Architecture and Design Scotland and the Carnegie Trust. These include: a sense of support (from people); a sense of purpose (stuff to do); a sense of place (familiar surroundings); and a sense of worth (feeling wanted).

People: Loneliness or social isolation has the same impact on health and mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Traditionally, it has often been assumed that older people are most often victims of social isolation (as they are less mobile and less willing or able to participate in community activities). Recently however more research has been produced which highlights the growing isolation of younger people. Understanding the nature of isolation, which impacts across the whole community, can help us to identify effective solutions which benefit and engage multiple groups.

Practice: This particularly relates to care within communities. The process of deciding where and how we care for the old or ill is a vital part of how we function as a society. Effective care extends far beyond the physical act of caring for someone, although this is obviously a key element. It also includes creating more and better jobs within the sector, and encouraging people to enter the profession as a worthwhile career choice; shifting the focus from acute to primary care settings and away from hospital-based emergency care; and giving people greater choice about how and where they receive care through increasing and improved personalisation of services.

There is a responsibility on both spatial and community planners to identify need and to create places which facilitate wellness, choice and care at home. This could be through the building of new infrastructure or more effective transport, or it could be through the creating of a community centre which offers recreational classes to someone who would otherwise have no contact with the outside world. Putting place at the centre of discussions provides an opportunity for a community approach to wellbeing, with strategies on placemaking being linked to other approaches such as asset-based, or strengths-based, planning.

Thinking about people like we think about the environment

Even as little as 10 years ago, the prevalence of environmental impact assessments for development projects was limited. Now we take for granted that we measure the impact of a project on the environment. What if we thought about people and in particular the risk of isolation, in the same way during planning processes? What if developers, planners and project organisers considered the “isolation impact” of a project, how it would impact the people of a local area, and whether it would specifically impact one group more than another (either for good or for bad), and reported on the steps they were taking to mitigate any adverse impact?

It is a striking notion, but creating a set of criteria to measure the social impact of developments, may be hugely useful if we are trying to place an increasing emphasis on inclusion and community within our town centres.

In fact, planners are beginning to realise the critical role they play in connecting services to people, and the necessity of understanding which services are needed in an area and how to make them as accessible for the whole community as possible. And while it is down to the community to use the resources they are given by planners to create connections and networks that help to combat things like poor mental health and social isolation, the decisions that planners make about how and where to plan in services and infrastructure can be the difference between someone leading an active and engaged life, and someone living a life where the only human contact they have in a day is a carer.

Planners can and should recognise the significant role they can play in making someone’s life more livable.

Final thoughts

Creating caring places for people to live and grow old in is vital to the success of our communities. Effective and thoughtful decisions on investments such as infrastructure and community planning projects can have a significant positive impact on wellbeing and reduce loneliness not only among older people, but throughout the community.

Increasingly, policy makers in Scotland are being asked to consider the human element of planning in their work. Creating places that allow people to feel safe, valued and happy is key for planners to help bridge the gap between the creation of places, and the wellbeing of people who live in them.


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Science in the city: applying neuroscience to urban design

Cities have long been considered primarily in terms of their buildings and infrastructure.  However, in recent years, a more ‘human-centric’ view has been adopted – focusing on the people who inhabit the city, and how they perceive and respond to the city that surrounds them.

Research from a variety of disciplines agree that buildings and cities have a significant impact upon the people – from their physical and mental health, cognitive development, and wellbeing to their levels of productivity.

Neuroscience offers a new way to further explore this impact – and by doing so, help urban design professionals to create places that promote human health and wellbeing, whilst mitigating the negative impacts of the city environment as far as possible.

 

What is neuroscience?

But what exactly is neuroscience?  And how does it relate to urban design?

A recent report by FutureCatapult looks at how neuroscience can be used to improve the design of urban places, and thus increase human wellbeing and productivity.

It defines neuroscience as “a multidisciplinary branch of biology and is the scientific study of the brain and nervous system, including its interaction with the other parts of the body”.

There are various ‘scales’ or ‘levels’ of neuroscience – from cognitive psychology, right down to the study of individual cells in the brain.  Each level of neuroscience studies different aspects of how the brain functions, and thus offers different ways to explore and understand how humans perceive, respond to and are affected by their surrounding environments.  It has many applications in real life – and one such application is informing city strategy, design and policy.

 

Applying neuroscience research to urban design

Take mental health, for example.  It is a prime example of an area in which neuroscience can be used by city planners and policymakers to help improve human wellbeing.

As FutureCatapult point out in their report, cities have a greater prevalence of mental health problems than rural areas.

They note that several factors associated with cities have been found to contribute to mental health problems. These include certain toxins (produced by traffic, industrial parks), environmental stressors (noise and light pollution), climate conditions (urban heat islands) and social conditions (isolation).  Neuroscience offers a greater understanding how these factors impact on human health and wellbeing, thus creating an evidence base for the design of healthy places.

There are many other ways in which neuroscience research can inform city design.  For example, it has been found that:

  • poor air quality has serious detrimental effects on the natural developments of children’s brains
  • social isolation can accelerate cognitive decline in older people
  • an increase in noise decreases worker productivity
  • light influences brain function during specific cognitive tasks, especially those requiring sustained attention

Such findings can help inform the decisions made by city planners and policymakers, and help create cities that maximise human health, wellbeing and productivity.

Research into the brain’s ‘wayfinding’ processes – that is, how the brain processes visual information and makes sense of unfamiliar environments – is also of interest.  For example, how do people choose which paths to follow?  Are they influenced by street size, shape, colours, noise, or the number of cars? Such information could be used to inform the design of streets and places that are easier to navigate. This is of growing importance given the drive towards the design of inclusive and dementia-friendly places.

Relatedly, neuroscience offers a way to gain a deeper understanding of how non-neurotypical brains process and respond to different environments – for example, people with dementia or autism.  Understanding these different perspectives and responses is key to the creation of spaces that are truly inclusive.

 

Neuroscience in action

But how exactly does one go about examining how brain cells respond to an urban environment?

There are a variety of neuroscience tools that may be used to gather information about human’s experience of the city.

A key tool is mobile electroencephalography (EEG).  Previously, EEG involved equipment that could only be used in a laboratory.  However, technological advances have seen the development of mobile EEG ‘headsets’ that can be worn as research participants navigate different streets and environments of the city.

Mobile EEG enables researchers to measure brain function and activity, as well as the responses of the autonomic nervous system (heart rate, skin conductivity, endocrinological levels).  This can be used to understand how individuals experience urban environments.

For example, mobile EEG has been used to help understand the urban experiences of people with visual impairments.  Other mobile EEG studies have looked at whether using quiet, low traffic streets has a different effect on pedestrians than using streets busy with shops, traffic and other pedestrians.

Eye tracking machines are another tool providing research findings of interest to urban designers.  They study gaze behaviours and cognition, which are in turn related to attention, memory, language, problem solving, and decision making.  Eye tracking can help researchers to understand which features catch and hold attention, visual preferences and experiences. For example, one eye-tracking study found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that humans prefer lush greenery in urban environments.

As these neurological research and related technologies advance, their application will undoubtedly become more sophisticated and widespread.

 

Building upon evidence

The urban population around the world is expanding rapidly and finding solutions to the mental and physical health challenges that cities present is crucial.

By understanding the insights that neuroscience can provide, city planners, policy makers and others involved in urban design can access a growing evidence base upon which to build future cities that are healthy, attractive and inclusive places to live.


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Writing and recovery: creative writing as a response to mental ill health

 

“You don’t put yourself into what you write, you find yourself there.”
Alan Bennett

Mental illness, for so long regarded as secondary to physical health, is now being taken more seriously. Media stories about loneliness, anxiety and depression have highlighted increasing concerns about mental ill health, and the issue has also been rising up the political agenda.

In 2017, a survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that only a small minority of people (13%) reported living with high levels of good mental health, and nearly two-thirds of people said that they had experienced a mental health problem.

Prescribed medication is one response to mental health problems, and it’s been reported that the NHS is prescribing record numbers of antidepressants.  But while psychiatric drugs can be of real value to patients, especially those whose condition is very severe, the mental health charity Mind has suggested that alternatives, such as physical exercise, talking therapies and arts therapies, are often more beneficial.

Last month, a conference at the University of Glasgow explored ways in which creative writing is being used to respond to mental ill health, and discussed what makes writing interventions helpful for coping and recovery.

Voices of experience: coping and recovery through writing

“Making and consuming art lifts our spirits and keeps us sane”.
Grayson Perry

Several speakers at the Glasgow conference testified to the effectiveness of writing in dealing with mental ill health and in finding a way to recovery.

In 2012, James Withey experienced a set of circumstances which brought him close to taking his own life. In the darkness of his depression, James felt that he might never recover. But after spending time at Maytree, the UK’s first “sanctuary for the suicidal”, he found that writing about what he was going through offered an antidote to the lies being spun by his depression.

He started a blog, and when he posted a letter to himself, beginning “Dear You.” James found that writing the letter gave him space to express his feelings and to listen to himself.

Before long, readers of James’s blog were responding with their own “Dear You” letters. The word spread that the letters offered a different perspective on recovery, and in some instances, had prevented suicide.

Today, The Recovery Letters project is still going strong, with a website, one published book and another in the pipeline. James is realistic about the project:

The letters are not a cure for a chronic illness, but they do provide support in helping sufferers of depression accept where they are.”

Policy positions: the view from Wales

“If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness.”
Seamus Heaney

Another speaker at the conference was Frances Williams, a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University, where she is studying arts and health. In her presentation, Frances explored some of the policy frameworks and public discourse surrounding the field of therapeutic writing in Wales.

She highlighted a recent report, Creative Health, The Arts, Health and Well-being, which  makes a case for the healing power of the arts in many different healthcare and community contexts.  In this report, a creative writing tutor explained some of the ways in which writing can help people experiencing bereavement, including keeping a journal, writing unsent letters, describing personal belongings and resolving unfinished conversations:

“Writing can be a valuable means of self-help, with the page as a listening friend, available any time of the day or night, hearing whatever the writer wants to say. The results of this can be powerful, and include people being able to return to work and adjust more effectively after their loss, acquiring skills for their own self-care which will serve them through the rest of their life.”

Frances also noted that the battle of priorities between impact and value-for-money has driven advocates of arts therapy programmes to defend them in terms of cost effectiveness and social value.

A mapping project by the Arts Council of Wales has taken this to heart, producing in 2018 an audit of the principal arts and health activities currently taking place in Wales.

Writing to the rescue

“By writing, I rescue myself”
William Carlos Williams

The Glasgow University conference underlined the health-giving properties of creative activities and the potential for creative writing to support people suffering with mental ill health. There was no pretence that writing offers a quick-fix solution. As James Withey noted, “…writing is just one element in a toolkit of responses to mental ill health.”

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing fully supports this concept, and has recommended that policymakers recognise its importance:

“…the arts can make an invaluable contribution to a healthy and health-creating society. They offer a potential resource that should be embraced in health and social care systems which are under great pressure and in need of fresh thinking and cost-effective methods. Policy should work towards creative activity being part of all our lives.”


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Opportunity or necessity… what’s fuelling the growth in self-employment?

iStock_650068Small_BusinessManInMeadow

With unemployment reaching its lowest level since 1975, it may seem like the state of the labour market has improved in recent years. However, a closer look at the statistics suggests that this is not necessarily the case.

The strong performance in the labour market in part reflects the growth in self-employment, which has been a distinguishing feature of the labour market’s recovery since the last recession.

Growth in self-employment

There were almost 750,000 more self-employed in the UK workforce at the end of 2014 than at the start of the global financial crisis in 2008, representing a high proportion of the total net growth in jobs over this period. Self-employment accounts for over 15% of those in work in the UK – 4.8 million of a workforce of around 32 million. Between March 2008 and March 2017, self-employment accounted for almost a third of total employment growth.

The significance of the contribution of self-employment is highlighted in a recent article published in Regional Studies, which notes that of the 920,000 net new jobs created between quarter 1 of 2008 and quarter 2 of 2014, 693,000 were in self-employment.

There has also been a rise in the share of female self-employed and those that work part-time, in addition to growth in a broader range of industries and occupations among the self-employed.

Recent ONS figures also show that the growth in self-employment between 2001 and 2016 has been driven mainly by those who have a degree (or equivalent), leading to the share of the self-employed with a degree or equivalent increasing from 19.3% in 2001 to 32.6% in 2016 as a share of total self-employed. As a share of total employment (self-employed and employed), the figures show that relatively highly-qualified individuals are becoming more concentrated in the self-employed.

Earnings growth?

The reasons for this growth has been the subject of much debate, particularly as research suggests many fail to earn a decent living. This recent analysis by the New Economics Foundation found that 54% of all self-employed people are not earning a decent living. It also found that the percentage of the labour force in ‘good jobs’ had decreased from 63% in 2011 to 61% in 2016, suggesting that the quality of jobs is perhaps declining.

Similarly, the ONS figures suggest that the self-employment labour market remains financially insecure for its workers. They show that the distribution of self-employed income appears centred around £240 a week, much lower than that for employees, which is centred around £400 a week.

And, according to a recent report from CIPD, their real incomes have fallen more since 2008 than those of employees.

Perhaps, then, the self-employment growth has been driven by necessity rather than choice due to a lack of opportunity in the full-time labour market.

However, the evidence suggests it is not this simple.

Despite the widening gap in earnings between the self-employed and employed, the self-employed continue to have higher levels of job satisfaction than employees. The ONS figures also indicate that self-employed workers were more likely to supplement their income from elsewhere.

This would suggest that choice probably plays a large part in self-employment.

‘Push’ or ‘pull’ effect

There has been much discussion over whether the growth in self-employment is predominantly a result of choice or necessity.

It is often seen as a sign of labour market weakness, with self-employment perceived as a ‘last resort’ where a regular job can’t be found. The evidence suggests that this motivation accounts for just a small proportion of the change, however, with most of the rise in self-employment appearing to be out of choice rather than necessity.

Indeed, the recent analysis in the Regional Studies article, which examined the extent to which self-employment was associated with local ‘push’ or ‘pull’ effects, found little or no suggestion of any net ‘recession-push’ effect on self-employment. It suggests that:

  • ‘pull’ factors are more significant in driving transitions into self-employment;
  • self-employed business ownership appears not to function as a significant alternative to unemployment where paid employment demand is weak; and
  • entrepreneurial activity prospers where local wages are higher and unemployment lower.

The uncertainty surrounding Brexit could also be having an effect as declining employer confidence has contributed to a growing number of short-term contracts – potentially making self-employment appear the better choice.

Final thoughts

As the CIPD report highlights, there are probably more opportunities for self-employment now than there were a decade ago. And the self-employed are more likely to value highly aspects of the work, such as its variety, and choice over their working hours and pay.

Across the range of job-related characteristics, it is shown that the self-employed are as satisfied or more satisfied with their working life than employees, resulting in higher levels of overall job satisfaction – a finding that is consistent both over time and from different data sources.

In a time where work-life balance is of increasing importance, it is perhaps no surprise that self-employment is the path of choice.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our previous blogs on the gig economy, ‘the self-employment boom’ and ‘olderpreneurs‘.

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Housing models for the future

Housing is one of the challenges of our time. The task for architects and designers is to create affordable, robust housing that can accommodate the needs of a rapidly growing, but also ageing population. And it’s not as easy as simply building. The demands and expectations on house builders to also be community builders and the architects of mental and physical wellbeing through design have led architects and designers to consider alternative ways to house us in the future. This includes innovative use of materials and construction methods, addressing the issue of financing through co-operative living models and using bespoke design to create lifetime homes which can be adapted to accommodate the changing needs of our population.

Large-scale development

One of the big challenges for urban areas is large-scale development strategies for designing and delivering housing to meet need. For developers and planners going forward there are a number of factors to consider: the type of investment introduced to an area; how the schemes fit with a wider development plan for the city; and the importance of engaging the community in any plans to develop or regenerate an area.

“Placemaking”, not just house building is central to large scale development discussions, emphasising to planners, architects and developers the fact that they are not just building houses, but creating communities. As a result, designers and developers should be mindful of their important role in community building, to build the right sort of homes in the right places, at affordable prices and with a legacy in mind. They should, create high quality, long lasting units, which will stand the test of time but that also can be easily adapted to accommodate people’s changing needs.

Alternative construction and design

Innovative models and options for future builds have been discussed for a number of years but they are becoming an increasingly mainstream way to build affordable housing that meets the current need, particularly of students and young professionals, and of older populations looking to downsize or move into assisted care accommodation.

Offsite manufacture or modular homes  Offsite manufacture of timber framed houses is becoming increasingly common, with the constituent pieces of the house manufactured off site, then transported to the site and constructed on a concrete block where foundations and services such as plumbing have already been created. Offsite housing can either be open panel, which requires the finishing such as bathroom and kitchen installation to be done on site, or closed panel which provide the entire section complete with decoration and flooring (this is becoming a common way to build cheap, efficient student housing).

Custom build  Custom build projects are similar to self-build in that they give clients flexibility to select their own design and layout, However, custom build provides slightly more structure and certainty which can make it easier when considering elements like financing and planning applications. In essence, customers select the spec of their house in the same way they might make custom modifications to a car.

Build to rent  This model has been adapted from the United States, where build to rent is popular. The model is based on self-contained flats, with central and shared amenities, entrance and communal space. Designed to attract graduates and young professionals, these are being increasingly designed using a “user first” approach. Developers identify the sort of person they want to live in the development, identify what sort of things they might look for in a development, including floor type, furniture, layout, amenities, gadgets, and then build the development around that.

Dementia friendly – Building homes that are safe and affordable, but allow for independence in old age, is one of the major demands on house builders currently. Housing stock is seen as not suitable for current need, but building bespoke sites for people with illnesses like dementia has been seen as a bit of a niche previously. Virtual Reality (VR) is being used by some architects and developers to try to help them understand the needs and requirements of people with dementia and how they can build homes suitable for them to be able to live as independent and full lives as possible. Building dementia friendly homes not only means making them accessible and open plan, but also adapting the layout, adding signage where appropriate and if possible locating the homes within a wider community development. Dementia villages like those seen in Amsterdam are being used as the model for this.

Co-housing

Co- housing offers an alternative to communities in Scotland, and while lessons can be learned from elsewhere in Europe, where co- housing models have been successful, there are also pockets of good and emerging practice in the UK too. More traditional examples include Berlin, where almost 1 in 10 new homes follow the Baugruppe model, and Amsterdam (centraal wonen) where some of the oldest co-housing projects originate. In Denmark, 8% of households use co-housing models.

Co-housing provides the opportunity for groups of people to come together and form a community which is created and run by its residents. Each household has a self-contained, private home as well as shared community space. Residents come together to manage their community, share activities, and regularly eat together. A “Self-build Cooperative Group” is a joint venture between several private households who plan and build their own house together. Usually they are supported by an architect. Often co- housing groups are able to realise high-quality living space at prices below local market rates, although it is not really considered suitable for large-scale development within the current UK market.

Opportunities for a new way forward

Practitioners are often challenged to push the boundaries of design and building in their field. Looking to new models for future building design provides an opportunity to think creatively about alternative uses of materials and space and to consider options for construction, funding and investment in the built environment that challenge the norm. Learning lessons and exchanging ideas from elsewhere, architects and planners have the opportunity to come together to consider how the built environment in Scotland can help to create places  not just buildings  and how this can contribute positively to the wider wellbeing and happiness of people living in Scotland in the future.


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Maggie’s Centres: wellness through building design and the environment

In March 2017, the 20th Maggie’s Centre was opened in the grounds of Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Falkirk. Designed by architects Garbers & James, it is expected to receive 3000 visits in the first year.

Maggies Centre Forth Valley, Garbers and James

Maggie’s provides free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their family and friends, following the ideas about cancer care originally laid out by Maggie Keswick Jencks and co-founded by her husband Charles, who is a landscape architect. Among Maggie’s beliefs about cancer treatment was the importance of environment to a person dealing with cancer.

She talked about the need for “thoughtful lighting, a view out to trees, birds and sky,” and the opportunity “to relax and talk away from home cares”. She talked about the need for a welcoming, reassuring space, as well as a place for privacy, where someone can take in information at their own pace. This is what Maggie’s centres today aspire to.

A number of high profile architects have designed Maggie’s Centres across the UK – from the late Zaha Hadid to Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers and Rem Koolhaas.

The Maggie’s Centre in Kirkcaldy, Zaha Hadid Architects

Promoting wellbeing through the natural environment and effective design

Drawing on research which considers the significant impact that environment can have on wellbeing, Maggie’s Centres are designed to be warm and communal, while at the same time being stimulating and inspiring. The interiors are comfortable and home-like. Landscape designers and architects are encouraged to work closely together from the beginning of a project as the interplay between outside and inside space, the built and the “natural” environment, is seen as an important one.

A building, while not wholly capable of curing illness, can act as “a secondary therapy”, encouraging wellness, rehabilitation and inspiring strength from those who move around it.”

Each of the centres incorporates an open kitchenette where patients can gather for a cup of tea, airy sitting rooms with access to gardens and other landscape features, and bountiful views. There are also private rooms for one-on-one consultations; here Maggie’s staff can advise patients on a range of issues relating to their condition, whether that is dietary planning, discussing treatment options (in a non-clinical setting) or delivering classes such as yoga.

Spaces to promote mental wellbeing as well as physical healing

Maggie’s Centres are also about offering spaces to people to help improve their mental wellbeing. As well as quiet tranquil spaces for reflection and meditation, there are also central areas, focused on encouraging the creation of a community between the people who use the centre. Wide-open spaces, high ceilings and large windows, with lots of opportunities to view the outside landscaping and allow natural light to enter are a key feature of many of the Maggie’s Centres.

The locations also try as far as possible to provide a space free from noise and air pollution, while remaining close enough to oncology treatment centres to provide a localised base for the entire treatment plan of patients.

Fresh air, low levels of noise and exposure to sunlight and the natural environment, as well as designs that provide spaces that promote communal interaction to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, have all been shown to improve mental as well as physical wellbeing. In this way, the physical attributes and design of the Maggie’s buildings are helping to promote mental as well as physical wellbeing of patients and supplement the care being given by the cancer treatment centres located nearby.

Interior of the Maggie’s Centre in Manchester, Foster and Partners

Award-winning architecture and design

In 2017 Maggie’s Manchester was shortlisted for the Architects’ Journal Building of the Year award. And many of the individual centres have won regional design awards for their innovative use of space and incorporation of the natural environment into their designs.

A Maggie’s garden was also featured at the 2017 Chelsea Flower show, highlighting the importance of environment, and the role of the natural environment in rehabilitation and promoting wellness among those who are ill.

Final thoughts

How design and landscape can aid and empower patients is central to Maggie’s Centres. They are a prime example of how people can be encouraged to live and feel well through the design of buildings and the integration of the surrounding natural environment. These environments are the result of a complex set of natural and manmade factors, which interact with one another to promote a sense of wellness, strength and rehabilitation.

They demonstrate how the built environment can contribute to a holistic package of care – care for the whole person, not just their medical condition. Other health and social care providers can learn from them in terms of supporting the wellbeing of patients, carers and their families.


You can find out more about Maggie’s Centres though their website.

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Grandparents – the ‘hidden army’ of kinship carers

mamy and the little boy

By Heather Cameron

Tomorrow is the International Day of Older Persons, designated by the United Nations in order to recognise the important contributions made by older people, while raising awareness of the issues of ageing.

Today there are around 600 million people aged 60 years and over world-wide. A number that is set to double by 2025 and reach 2 billion by 2050.

With people living longer and healthier lives, it is not surprising older people are playing a considerably more active and increasingly important role in society. Not least when it comes to contributing to the care of their grandchildren.

Extent of kinship care

Kinship care – when children are brought up by relatives or family friends in the absence of their parents – has grown markedly in recent years.

It is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 grandparents and other relatives are raising children who are unable to live with their parents. Common reasons cited for this include abuse and neglect, parental illness or disability, parental substance misuse, domestic violence or death of a parent.

In examining the prevalence of kinship care, drawing on census data, a recent University of Bristol study found that there has been a 7% increase in the kinship child population in England since 2001 – more than three times that of the population growth rate of all children in England, which was 2% over the same time period.

The study also found that one in two (51%) children were growing up in households headed by grandparents.

Positive outcomes

With regard to the children in kinship care, research suggests that they do ‘significantly better than children in care’, both emotionally and academically.

Indeed, a recent study on the educational outcomes of looked after children found that children in long-term foster or kinship care made better progress than children in other care settings.

The largest kinship carer survey in the UK, conducted by Family Rights Group, also highlights the effectiveness of kinship care in preventing children entering or remaining within the care system, to the benefit of both the child and the public purse. The data found that 56% of children had come to live with the kinship carer straight from the parents’ home, with 27% having been in unrelated foster care.

The caring contribution of grandparents has also been shown to have made a material difference to maternal rates of employment.

And as 95% of children being raised in kinship care are not officially ‘looked after’, billions of pounds are saved each year on care costs.

But while benefiting the public purse, and despite evidence that kinship children have better outcomes, many kinship families face a financial burden. The University of Bristol study found that 40% of all children in kinship care in England were living in households located in the 20% of the poorest areas in England (an improvement of only 4% since 2001), and three quarters (76%) of kinship children were living in a deprived household.

Impact on grandparents

As there is no statutory requirement for local authorities to make provision for kinship carers and no automatic right to child benefit, many receive no formal support; leading to financial hardship, and the stress that comes with it.

Many kinship carers have had to give up work or reduce their working hours, either permanently or temporarily. And this is often their main source of income.

A study from Grandparents Plus on discrimination against kinship carers found that of the 77% of grandparents that have asked for professional help, only 33% received the help they needed. And 30% said they didn’t receive any support at all.

The study also found that, overall, kinship carers score ‘significantly below average’ when it comes to their wellbeing.

Other recent research has suggested that regular and occasional care for grandchildren can impact on the mental health of grandparents. The findings indicated that ten additional hours of childcare per month increases the probability of developing depressive symptoms by 3.0 and 3.2 percentage point for grandmothers and 5.4 to 5.9 percentage points for grandfathers.

Policies that substitute informal with formal childcare, it argued, could improve the mental wellbeing of grandparents.

Of course there are positive impacts on grandparents too, many of whom find caring for grandchildren rewarding and who enjoy closer relationships with them, which can in turn have a positive effect on their health. As the research suggests:

the effect of grandchild care provision on grandparents’ health seems to depend on its intensity, the cultural context, as well as on its stability and change.”

Final thoughts

It is clear that grandparents play an increasingly vital role in family life. But it seems this role is in need of greater recognition and support, if society is to continue to benefit from this ‘hidden army’ of kinship carers.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our previous blog on the economic opportunities of an ageing society, published on last year’s International Day of Older Persons.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Secure care in Scotland: measuring outcomes and sharing practice

By Rebecca Jackson

There are five centres which offer secure care in Scotland, with around 100 of Scotland’s most vulnerable children and young people placed within these units. Placements happen if they are deemed to be a risk to themselves, or others, within their communities, and it is felt that they can only be managed effectively within a secure care setting. These placements are arranged via the courts or the children’s hearing system.

 

National Secure Care Project

In 2014 the Scottish Government granted funding to the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice (CYCJ) for a fixed term project to build on the work of the Securing our future initiative (SOFI) report in 2009. The SOFI report was a comprehensive analysis of the secure care estate in Scotland. It made recommendations for future practice in secure care and also suggested ways that the system could be made more efficient and young person centred. These included implementing and embedding the Getting It Right for Every Child approach and making full use of the Children’s Hearing and Early Years frameworks, including the SHANARRI indicators on well-being.

A scoping study was completed by CYCJ in 2015 which considered the current legislative and academic frameworks, as well as current practices of the 5 centres of secure care in Scotland. This followed the streamlining and takeover by Scotland Excel in 4 of the centres and Edinburgh City Council in the other.

The scoping study report, along with the project plan, highlights the aims and objectives of this new national programme:

  • identifying and promoting current best practice
  • identifying and exploring alternatives to secure care
  • building capacity within the secure care sector to draw comparisons and learn from the rest of the UK (and from each other)

Other key issues that the studies identified as needing to be addressed included:

Outcomes in secure care

One of the key issues raised by academics, policy makers and practitioners within secure care is the concept of outcomes. It’s been suggested that there is a need for both individual outcome targets for each child within secure care but also for a wider framework of general agreed outcomes to allow for better comparison between centres, which it is hoped will help raise standards of practice.

It is also recognised that long term, as well as the immediate, outcomes need to be assessed and researched. This ties in with the need for more emphasis on transitionary care and support. Although there is an expectation that local social workers will follow up on behalf of the secure care units, this isn’t always the case.

Key questions also have to be addressed from within the sector itself with regards to:

  • what are the aims of the centres
  • what exactly is meant by positive outcomes
  • what counts as an outcome
  • how can we look at a child or young person and say that a certain objective has been met, and can this be attributed to any one particular event, intervention or placement

These questions are not unique to the secure care sector but they do need addressed. Similarly there needs to be a wider acceptance that there are multiple outcomes and that these can be in terms of quality of life, process or change outcomes.

Sharing best practice and using staff as “knowledge brokers”

There is concern among practitioners and academics that, as a result of the changes to secure care provision implemented in 2014, secure care units are now reluctant to collaborate and share best practice.

The nature of the new secure care framework agreement means that, despite being referred to as a “secure care network”, the five centres are now in effect “in competition with one another” for individuals to be placed with them.

There is a risk that this constrains the sharing of best practice, ultimately reducing the collective standard of all five centres and therefore reducing the standard of care afforded to some young people. This was particularly highlighted in the 2015 CYCJ scoping report.

One of the key ways to share information and best practice is to allow the people who work within the centres, working with residents on a day to day basis, a platform to discuss and contribute to a wider discussion of best practice outside of their own individual centre.

Another potentially useful strategy would be to integrate approaches from traditional social work with regards to sharing ideas and information. This may also make it easier for social workers within and outside the secure care context to liaise with one another. Using staff members as “knowledge brokers” could be an efficient and effective way to allow staff to communicate best practice. Tools such as a digital platform, interactive app or online forum could help staff to share their experiences.

With the project scheduled to run until 2017, some of the issues highlighted here were discussed at an event hosted by CYCJ and WithScotland at the University of Strathclyde in April 2016. The hope is to increase collaboration and move the provision of care and creation of successful and useful outcomes frameworks forward as part of the wider National Secure Care Project.


Read more from our blog on supporting vulnerable children and young people across the UK:

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Mindfulness in schools: does it work?

by Stacey Dingwall

Over the last couple of years, the concept of being mindful has almost become a buzzword. However, mindfulness has actually been around since the 16th century, before being developed as a modern day western Buddhist practice from the 1970s.

Transform your life?

On the 17th of March, along with almost 400 other people, I attended the Transform Your Life event at Glasgow’s Trades Hall. The event was organised by the Kadampa Meditation Centre (KMC) in Glasgow, a Buddhist temple which opened in 2013 with the aim of providing a space for people to learn how to meditate and practise Buddhism.

The talk was delivered by Gen Dao, a senior Kadampa teacher who has been ordained for over 20 years, teaching at centres in America and Australia before taking up her current post as principle teacher at KMC Liverpool. Its focus was on equipping attendants with the ability to cope with everyday stresses and anxieties, by applying some simple meditation and mindfulness techniques.

After demonstrating a basic breathing technique, Gen Dao opened her talk by commenting on how prevalent mindfulness has become, noting that it is now used as a management technique and as a means of selling women’s magazines. She spoke about the benefits of using mindfulness not only on a personal level, but also how actively improving your mind can awaken the potential to bring benefit to others. Mindfulness, she explained, was essentially just remembering to breathe, and trying to focus on experiencing only positive states of mind.

The remainder of Gen Dao’s talk concentrated on the importance of mastering the ability to ‘oppose’ negative thoughts, and making the decision to be content and happy, without the intervention of others. Also highlighted was the need to strive for ‘patient acceptance’, or the ability to give up on the feeling that things in your life should be different – instead, we should learn how to view our feelings from a more detached perspective, and not identify with painful feelings, or “bad weather” in the mind.

Speaking to Gen Dao after the talk, I raised the point that, although not a physical pursuit, mindfulness is something that you have to train in, and learning to adapt to a new way of thinking is something that could take some time. Essentially, adopting a mindful outlook could mean changing the habits of a lifetime.

Mindfulness in the classroom

This could explain why some schools are now incorporating mindfulness exercises into classes, in order to prepare young people for the future. Last July, BBC News reported on the first large-scale trial of mindfulness exercises in schools across the UK conducted by the Wellcome Trust, during which researchers will look at whether introducing mindfulness at an early age can help build psychological resilience. The exercises, which will include deep breathing and a practice called ‘thought buses’ in which participants will be taught to see their thoughts as buses that they can either get on or allow to pass by, are designed to show children how to live in the present and eventually, equip them with the ability to solve problems while under stress.

The study will involve around 6,000 children and young people; a considerably larger amount than have taken part in previous evaluations of the impact of mindfulness in schools. While the existing evidence is currently described as limited, these smaller studies have indicated that mindfulness interventions with children and young people do have some success in generating lower stress levels and a greater sense of wellbeing among participants. These findings are important, given that a recent survey of school leaders by the Association of School and College Leaders found that 55% of respondents reported a significant increase in the number of young people in their schools who are dealing with anxiety and stress.

Case study: Mindfulness in Schools Project

The Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) was founded in 2007 by former teachers Richard Burnett and Chris Cullen. Having experienced the benefits of mindfulness themselves, they developed “.B”, a 9-week course that aims to make mindfulness accessible, and fun, for secondary school pupils. The course, which has also been adapted for younger children as Paws B, is now being taught in twelve countries, including the UK. Teachers and pupils who have used the programme report on its ability to restore calm to a class after break, for example, or to calm pupils down at times of particular stress, such as exams or performances. It has also been suggested that the programme can help to improve pupils’ ability to concentrate.

Critics of the impact of mindfulness in the classroom argue that these results cannot be relied on, due to the experiments taking place outside of the boundaries of a randomised controlled trial. They also point to the possibility that participants’ ability to concentrate may only have improved due to their being informed that this is what the exercises are designed to do. Richard Burnett has openly recognised the limits of mindfulness himself, emphasising that it cannot replace the fact that some people require medication and clinical care to deal with their condition, and is more effective in smaller groups supervised by medically trained professionals. Trainers delivering the programme are also open about the fact that mindfulness is not something that will work for every child. What it can do, however, is provide a reminder to breathe when things get too much – something that can surely only be a positive for everyone.

If you enjoyed this post you may be interested in our previous commentary on mental health issues:

Overworked and under-resourced – ‘mission impossible’ for social workers?

By Heather Cameron

A year on from my previous blog on the emotional pressures facing social workers, have the headlines improved any?

Going by a new Guardian survey of social workers, it would seem that the answer is a resounding no.

The Social Lives Survey revealed that while the majority of social workers enjoy their job, two-thirds say they can’t focus on what really matters and only a quarter feel their workload is manageable. Almost 80% work overtime every day, and 86% don’t get paid for doing so.

Heavy and increasingly complex caseloads was the most common reason given for stress among social workers in last year’s Community Care survey.

Unmanageable caseloads

Unison surveyed social work staff from across the UK about their work at the end of a day in April 2014. Just over half (52%) said their caseload size was affected by covering for staff shortages and nearly three quarters highlighted that there was no formal system in place to help manage their caseloads and ensure they are at a safe level. A significant minority (42%) noted that they left work with serious concerns, the main reason for which was being unable to complete paperwork, followed by being unable to speak to other agencies or professionals involved.

Similarly, in May 2012 the British Association of Social Workers published the findings of its State of social work survey which indicated that 77% of the social workers surveyed said their caseloads were unmanageable. One child protection social worker said “the team I work in currently is working at dangerous caseload levels in terms of child protection work”.

The emotional impact of the challenges of social work were highlighted by a number of respondents, as one mental health social worker described:

It makes me so sad that this job seems only to be possible if you sacrifice your own health and wellbeing

The subsequent inquiry into the state of social work report by the All Parliamentary Working Group at the end of 2013 also emphasised the extent of stress among social workers who are overloaded and under-resourced. It heard from a local authority social worker who said:

 “the more cases we have, the more corners we have to cut, and the more corners we have to cut the more we have significant numbers of children for whom we haven’t had the time to do a thorough assessment”.

Another social worker said that as a result of budget cuts, “the conditions for child-centred practice and safe working are being eroded”.

Impact of austerity

A little over two years on from the inquiry, it would seem there is no let up on the impact of austerity on the social work profession.

A huge majority (92%) of social workers who took part in the Guardian’s survey highlighted that spending cuts are affecting services and putting more pressure on care professionals. And it was felt by 88% of respondents that social work isn’t as high on the political agenda as other public services.

With further cuts to hit local authorities from April this year, following the government’s announcement of a 6.7% funding cut for councils, things may get worse before they get better.

To help offset the impact on social care, local authorities will be able to raise an extra £2 billion through a 2% Council Tax precept and the £1.5 billion Better Care Fund.

Nevertheless, it has been argued that this will not be enough to address the immediate social care crisis or to prevent an estimated £3.5 billion funding shortfall by the end of the decade.

‘Bad press’

As well as spending cuts increasing pressure on social workers, the negative perception of the profession was also raised by the Guardian’s survey:

“The government and media need to stop portraying social workers as child-snatchers and do-gooders. They should sometimes focus on the lives we have saved and positively changed.”

It was suggested that newspapers should also focus on the pressures put on social workers rather than always on when things go wrong, and the government should be supportive of the role and address the lack of recognition and support at the national level.

Way forward?

Perhaps the rest of the UK should be looking to Wales for good practice, where the happiest social workers reside.

In Wales there are lower caseloads, more support from managers and better integration with health. According to one social worker, “it’s a better place to be a social worker. Social work is recognised and valued; in England I don’t think it is.”

Social services in Wales have also been more protected from cuts than elsewhere. And you don’t see the same negative language about social workers in Wales as you do in some parts of the media in England, according to the Welsh Government’s minister for Health and Social Services.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather’s other article on engaging fathers with social work.