Spending time in city parks helps asylum seekers to feel at home, research shows

Hyde Park, London, from the air. Image: Getty.

Across Europe, unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers are currently waiting for a decision on their refugee status. Unable to legally work or study, and with very limited funds, many of them feel as though they’re in a state of limbo; like their lives have been put on hold.

With shrinking public sector funding, there are even fewer resources available to help asylum seekers in this position. But now, new research shows that urban parks and public spaces can provide a crucial free resource to enhance asylum seekers’ well-being, and help them to integrate.

Our interviews with asylum seekers, support workers and park managers revealed that parks and other green spaces in the city are places where asylum seekers can gain confidence by taking part in local life, and find much needed moments of respite from hardship. Khalid, a Syrian refugee in London, said:

I like to see people happy. When we sit in the park we say “hello” to people. When we see someone with an Arabic face we talk to them, but we talk to anyone if they can understand our English.

A group effort

Some media outlets are quick to highlight instances of misconduct and rough sleeping by refugees in public spaces. But in reality, many asylum seekers try to remain invisible, staying indoors for fear of attracting the wrong sort of attention.

Recalling their first weeks and months in new cities, many asylum seekers talk about feeling lost, confused and lonely. They use smart phones to find essential facilities, but Google Maps doesn’t provide much insight into local places or customs. Some parks and public spaces can feel unsafe, especially if asylum seekers have experienced racism or abuse in the past.

We found out that asylum seekers are much more confident exploring outdoors with others. Going with friends or in a group reduces anxiety and makes people feel safer and more comfortable – rather than feeling out of place because of their race, ethnicity or religion. It can also help to challenge negative perceptions of asylum seekers, and the areas in which they live.

Class time. Image: Melora Koepke/author provided.

For example, in Paris, asylum seekers are offered daily French classes at the steps around the Platz de la Batille de Stalingrad. These free classes help newcomers to improve their language skills and serve as social occasions for meeting friends and exchanging information in the bustling square.

Suddenly, being visible becomes a positive thing. Passers-by can see that asylum seekers are committed to integrating, and open-air educational activities like these challenge perceptions of the neighbourhood as a place for drug dealing and rough sleeping.

Overcoming anxieties

Organised group visits can also help people to discover places that they like in their local neighbourhood, which they can return to later on. Over time, this can help asylum seekers feel more independent in their day-to-day lives.

For example, in Plymouth, UK, an initiative called START Walking offers a series of walking tours, giving university students and asylum seekers a chance to explore the city’s parks and nearby countryside. The walks are opportunities to make friends both within the asylum seeker community and outside it, to exchange experiences and to share memories of home.

Without options to work or study, the daily life of an asylum seeker can feel monotonous and meaningless. One told us, “if you do not get depressed by your journey here, the asylum system will make you depressed”. It can take months or even years for a legal decision to be reached on whether an asylum seeker is granted residence. Many experience high levels of stress as a result of previous trauma, and uncertainty regarding their future.

But initiatives which get people together outdoors can help asylum seekers to relieve their anxieties, learn new skills, talk to locals and even improve their neighbourhoods.

There is a wealth of research that proves the mental health benefits of contact with nature. Even just sitting on a bench outside can help people feel like they are a part of city life. Being outside and enjoying the natural qualities of parks gave many of the asylum seekers we spoke to a few moments of respite from their problems.

Joining in activities such as gardening or outdoor sport also helped them to regain a sense of purpose and develop a routine. For example, gardening projects delivered by Green League in Berlin and the NHS trauma unit (together with local environmental charity Roots and Shoots) in London helped asylum seekers to spend time outside, meet local people and even recover from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Free wheelin’. Image: Refugee Action/author provided.

Meanwhile, in Manchester, the Wheels for Well-being Cycling Club provides cycling training for asylum seekers and refugees. Group rides build a sense of community among participants, and allow them to explore their neighbourhood more freely.

Both locals and asylum seekers may view parks with suspicion, especially if they’ve heard negative reports or had negative experiences in the past. But we repeatedly found evidence to challenge these perceptions, in the stories joy, participation and healing we heard from our participants. Urban parks can enhance asylum seekers’ mental health and provide opportunities for integration.

Of course, local people and organisations must be realistic about the need to address barriers, and pragmatic about the limited capacity of both the refugee support sector and the parks sector to develop new initiatives. That’s why we recommend that local organisations look for opportunities to collaborate, and find ways to adapt programmes that already work to increase the diversity of participants.

The ConversationThat way, parks have the power to raise the quality of life for newcomers by providing free opportunities to socialise, have fun and take part in community activities – when it’s not raining, that is.

Dominika Blachnicka-Ciacek is a research associate and Clare Rishbeth a lecturer at the University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.