A new study is exploring how the voices of vulnerable groups can be included in urban planning, and a football team was born as a by-product.
The November night is bitterly cold at the Kissat Halli sports centre in Tampere. A return fixture between Senddaby and the Gambian Team is about to begin. The players are keen to warm up first, because the temperature is close to zero and they are wearing just shorts and t-shirts.
The players forget the cold as soon as the game starts. Even though this is a friendly match, the players take the game seriously – they are not afraid to go in for the hard tackles. Nevertheless, sometimes there is more talking than playing. As they have no referee, the players have to negotiate the rules without a shared language.
Senddaby is a football team of young Iraqi immigrants, which was born as a “by-product” of a research project. Social Diversity, a subproject of the research consortium Dwellers in Agile Cities, is investigating better ways of including vulnerable groups of people in urban planning. The project aims to discover how the views of such people can be heard and responded to while learning from the solutions they have developed to solve everyday problems in their environment.
Young people with immigrant backgrounds comprise one of the groups included in the study. Some of the participants have come to Finland and Tampere to work, while others are quota refugees or asylum seekers. Some have received a negative asylum decision and others have been denied leave to remain in Finland.
The researchers did not want to tell such a diverse group of people what should be important to them. Instead, the immigrant youths were asked what they found significant and meaningful.
“We want the young participants to get something enduring out of the project and to have ownership of all stages of the research process,” says postdoctoral researcher Eeva Puumala.
The group first participated in a pop-up restaurant event in May by serving Iraqi food. The aim was to present their culture in a positive way and to exchange ideas with Finnish customers.
The restaurant was a success, but one group of customers turned out to be difficult to reach. It was hard to make contact with young Finnish men, even with the help of food. Thus, the idea to form a football team was born.
“The young people set up the team themselves and trained independently. We just help by finding them teams to play against,” Puumala says.
The first game ended with a night out with the opposing team. During the evening, the men visited a sauna, took a plunge in a lake and ate Iraqi food again. Since then, word about the team has spread and there has been a steady stream of willing opponents.
“Football breaks down the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. On the field, young people with immigrant backgrounds get approval and appreciation, which is something they seek. Here they are seen in some other role than just as immigrants,” says Imran Adan, a coordinator and peer expert in the project.
Also important is team spirit. It is the glue that binds together players who would not necessarily have anything else in common other than their country of origin and an uncertain future.
“Football has made us a team. It is a way of having fun together and becoming united. We know that we can trust each other,” says team spokesperson, Ali Amer Hasan.
In addition to playing football, the youths are working on a film, which they are screenwriting and shooting in cooperation with the Pirkanmaa Film Centre. In the film, the youths depict their physical and social environment as they see it.
“There is much talk about integration now. Our observation is that people best achieve it by familiarising themselves with their local environment, not through formal programmes. Football and films interest young people and are a good way to meet others whom the young people would not likely meet otherwise,” says Puumala.
In addition to young people with immigrant backgrounds, the Social Diversity project is exploring older people’s inclusion and opportunities for participation, and ways to develop them. Among other things, the researchers have organised group discussions for older people to talk about their daily lives in order to find out what kind of opportunities the urban environment is offering the elderly in Tampere.
The group discussions were organised at Lähitori community centres – meeting places for neighbourhood residents. At the meetings, residents can get advice on everyday problems, participate in and organise group activities and various events, or just come to meet their acquaintances. At the same time, the residents can air their views on urban development.
The researchers have also sought ideas from the rest of Europe.
“For example, Manchester has launched the ‘Age-Friendly Manchester’ programme, which highlights the agency of older people as residents of the city. Their work concentrates on the age-friendly development of neighbourhoods. Among other things, they organise walking interviews and morning coffees where people meet others and talk about what they want. Such encounters also offer the residents a chance to develop and organise various activities,” says researcher Henna Luoma-Halkola.
Through the Social Diversity project, the researchers aim to highlight the views of urban dwellers whose voices often remain unheard in urban development planning and decision-making.
“We’re talking about vulnerable groups, but that doesn’t mean that the residents are victims or otherwise weaker than others. Their needs are often overlooked and that’s why we want to develop ways for them to participate in the development of the city,” postdoctoral researcher Liina Sointu explains.
At the same time, the researchers like to point out that both groups – young people with immigrant backgrounds and older people – include individuals with various wishes and needs.
“For example, the immigrant youths do not necessarily think of themselves primarily as immigrants, but as young people who have similar ideas and personal thoughts and problems as young Finns,” Sointu says.
Just like other young people, immigrants want to forget about their backgrounds, situations and future, and concentrate on something else, such as playing football.
Social Diversity is a subproject within the Dwellers in Agile Cities research consortium investigating the urban environment from the point of view of vulnerable groups and the ways in which the everyday needs of such people can be taken into account in the governance of cities. The study looks for innovative solutions to housing and approaches to improve the lives of various vulnerable groups.
The groups studied in the subproject include immigrant youths, young people who are outside work and education, and older people.
The study uses action research and participatory methods.
The project is led by Professor Liisa Häikiö from the University of Tampere’s Faculty of Social Sciences.
Dwellers in Agile Cities is a research consortium working with funding from the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland for 2016–2019. It includes 20 researchers at the University of Tampere, Tampere University of Technology, the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd.
Text: Hanna Hyvärinen