What can an art residency in a Utrecht old folks' home teach us about intergenerational living?

Caroline Derveaux-Berté's workshop at The Sofia. Image: Jade French.

The city of Utrecht might be compact but it’s a bustling centre of student life, cycling obsessives and innovative social design. With social care in the UK in something of a crisis, perhaps this small Dutch city can offer an alternative view on how young and old can reconnect and provide each other with a better quality of life.

Earlier this year, student accommodation in the city centre reached a saturation point, with a growing number of students and early careerists finding it hard to rent in the city. So, it came as a surprise when The Sofia, an elderly care home, stepped in with a solution. It owners began to offer space in its empty spare wing out as student accommodation. The only catch? The new residents had to integrate with the elderly folk who already lived there.

Around the same time, artists and NGO workers Linda Rosink and Barbara van Beers were looking for office space for their project, Artshake. They approached The Sofia and immediately realised that they could make a difference by setting up an artist residency that would organise activities and help people meet one another.

It might sound simple, but art can be intimidating. The first residency, with Italian artist Mattias Campo Dall'Orto was an experiment. Luckily, his mix of photo-realistic portraits and a huge mural painted on the side of the building helped ease up those people who felt they were “not arty”. He also paved the way for some more abstract work from French artist Caroline Derveaux-Berté.

This distinctly European flavour is a deliberate choice. The artists can’t speak Dutch and communicating with the elderly residents about upcoming events and art projects can prove tricky. However, this communication gap also gently forces the students to help with translation and spreading information. In this simple way, the elderly and young people begin to speak on common ground.

By inserting the artist as an uncertain element between the two generations, Artshake provides a talking point for the residents, asking them to get excited – or even critical – about the art together. Beyond this, the building is becoming a social hub for the neighbourhood in general. During my stay, I saw a full-blown orchestra rehearsing with the residents, and Barbara and Linda are keen to implement more art workshops, yoga, and choirs into the space.

At the most recent art residency, Caroline Derveaux-Berté's work on childhood memories was channeled through abstract stories. On one morning, we spent time with 66-year-old Marianne, painting walls and listening to disco. Once we had finished a couple of panels, we ripped the masking tape off – an act which really felt like a collaborative effort. Marianne took us to see the portrait Mattias had drawn of her on the previous residency, explaining how she found the artist's intriguing. “It’s like we’re creating new memories as well,” says Caroline, “Sometimes you can look at the past and become sad, but actually by creating beautiful moments, in the present, you realise life doesn’t just finish at 66.”

The Sofia doesn’t feel like a typical care home. There’s an on-site hairdresser, a games room and coffee on tap by the receptionist. People are encouraged to loiter and chat. There’s a restaurant that wouldn’t look too out of place on Shoreditch High Street, with mason jar light bulbs and new geometric signs all around the buildings. With a fresh take on the care home, Artshake brings a sense of youth into the building showing how older generations can be exposed to new trends.

Now it feels like a home for everyone – but it might not have always been this way. During a transitional period over the summer, the first artist left and Linda noticed that “all the rules were gone. Some of the elderly people took advantage – sitting outside in front of the restaurant and having parties until 2am. Then you had the young people trying to sleep!” In fact, for Caroline the “older people are the young ones – always teaching me Dutch swearwords, drinking and talking through movies. The elderly seem to be getting a rebellious streak back.”

This inter-generational behaviour “swap” suggests that the social impact of a project like this isn’t always easy to measure empirically. When we tried to encourage some elderly people to help us paint, some had excuses: lunch to go to, family to see, dogs to walk. Even though that meant we were left holding our rollers, the power of choice can’t be underestimated. A lot of the original, elderly residents often felt like choices were being made for them; now, Linda notes that the power of saying ‘no I’m busy’ will “empower the elderly people, and show the younger students what it is like. Someday, we will be old. We have to ask: how would we like to live and be treated?”

 As Caroline put it: “It’s about owning the walls. They are the simplest part of where you live but they can also keep you separate.” By breaking down the generational barriers, Artshake has proven that even the smallest element of choice can have a big impact on daily life. By inserting something new, engaging and interesting into elderly care we can begin to close the gaps between the generations.

Just seeing the interaction between different generations is enough for Linda: “As long as we see young and old talking to each other in the restaurant or saying ‘hi’ in the corridors, that’s all we want. It’s very simple.”


All pictures courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

Seven thoughts on TfL’s decision to suspend of Uber’s licence to operate cabs in London, again

No more? Image: Getty.

Well. Here we go again. Two years and two months ago, Transport for London (TfL) told Uber – the minicab firm that has bafflingly managed to convince the world that it’s a tech company – that it was not a fit and proper company to provide private car services in London. Uber squawked, right-leaning commentators railed against Sadiq Khan for being anti-business, users fretted that they were about to be deprived of a service they found useful…

...and then, so far as the average Londoner was concerned, nothing happened. Despite its threats to take its ball away, Uber ultimately didn’t do anything of the sort. Instead, it appealed the decision, quietly improved its performance in those areas in which TfL said it had been lacking, and then kept its licence. Uber never disappeared from the streets of London. The company, in short, blinked.

And now history is repeating. The company was granted two extensions to its licence, the most recent of which expired yesterday. But once again, TfL has ruled that Uber is not a fit and proper company to operate minicabs, pointing to a “pattern of failures” which place passengers at risk, and has said it will not be renewing its licence.

The company can now appeal the decision, and keep operating cabs while it does so. What does all this mean? Some thoughts.

1. The problems now are not the problems then

In September 2017, TfL’s statement credited its decision to revoke Uber’s licence to three factors: how the company reported criminal offences by its drivers; how it conducted medical and other checks on them; and how it used a piece of software called Greyball to prevent officials from accessing its data.

None of those feature in the list of problems cited by TfL today. Instead, it points to a problem in which Uber’s system allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to other drivers’ accounts. This had led to 14,000 trips conducted by unlicenced drivers, which meant they were uninsured. At least one of these drivers had previously had their licenced revoked by TfL. Other problems concerned vehicles without the correct insurance, or the ability of “dismisssed otr suspended drivers” to simply create a new account and keep Uber-ing. (The whiny tweet from CEO Dara Khosrowshahi about how unfair this all is doesn’t even acknowledge any of these very, very bad problems.)

So: even though Uber has acted to address earlier problems, new ones have reared their heads.

2. ...but the song remains the same

But, as in 2017, those problems reflect two big themes: passenger safety, and an apparent lack of respect for TfL’s role as regulator.

And this is, to be blunt, exactly what happened before. TfL is using its regulatory muscle to tell Uber it either needs to raise its game or get out of town. Uber has said it will appeal.

Last time, the courts pretty much took TfL’s side, and put Uber on probation while it worked to correct the problems. Its possible things will play out differently this time – but whatever happens...

3. Londoners won’t notice any change

Check the Uber app on your phone right now. There are still cabs there, aren’t there? For all the noise, if you use the firm’s cabs, the odds are you’ll still be able to use them while the firm appeals the decision.

In fact, you’ll probably be able to keep using them for a long time beyond that, because...

4. Uber will not want to withdraw from London

The company has pulled out of other cities before, in protest at the fact regulators and municipal governments had the gall to imagine it was in some way answerable to them. Some of those markets – like Austin, Texas, in 2016 – were relatively small. Some of them – like Barcelona, last January – were much bigger.

But London, with apologies to readers in the rest of the country, is different. Documents filed with the US Securities & Exchange Commission last April showed that nearly a quarter of the firm’s business happened in just five cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and São Paulo. That tallies with long-standing rumours that London is one of the few places where the firm is actually profitable, rather than just burning through investors’ money while it tries to build a dominant market share.

So: my instinct is that even if the courts again side with TfL, Uber will simply grumble and do what it’s told, rather than actually pull out.


5. The right is still wrong – or at least looking at this the wrong way

Another way in which history is repeating: right-leaning commentators are in a flap that this shows that Sadiq Khan hates private enterprise, London is closed for business, and a load of other annoying nonsense.

It’s rubbish, sorry: this is exactly how regulation should work. An operator isn’t safe enough, so the regulator has revoked its licence. If the operator improves, it can keep its licence. Great! If the operator doesn’t improve, we’re better off without it. Fantastic! Either way, the consumer wins. This decision isn’t about being against business: it’s about being anti-bad business.

6. “But minicabs are often unsafe!” is not a killer argument

Sure, minicab firms are often not great on the driver safety front either. My own personal horror story: the one that had been driving me to Heathrow for several minutes before I realised he was watching the cricket on his iPad rather than, for example, the M4.

But that is an argument for regulating minicabs more, not one for regulating Uber less. One of the advantages of Uber swallowing a big share of the private hire market is that it makes it easier to improve safety through regulation. We should embrace that, not whinge about it.

7. This decision is London’s gift to the planet

Not many cities are in a position to force Uber into anything: just ask Austin or Barcelona.

But London is. And an Uber that is less blasé about passenger safety and less high-handed with regulators will make things better in cities all over the planet.

This is not an emotion one often has a chance to feel, but – I’m oddly proud of my city’s transport regulator today.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.