Category Archives: Cities

Going up? High Rise Housing, Wealth and Social Alienation

Jephcott's Homes in High Flats, 1971

Jephcott’s Homes in High Flats, 1971

The politics of wealth, inequality and austerity are hotting-up in the run-up to the general election. Anger is pervasive, from all political sides but the ‘mediamacro’ presentation of the reality and need for continued austerity remains intact it seems. This is particularly depressing for those seeking to launch renewed optimism about the possibilities for reform, progressive taxation (getting those into it who should but aren’t and those avoiding it) and initiatives to address major issues like the crisis in housing affordability and provision. Cities, like London, are spaces of dramatic excess or continued social abandonment. Yet many of those renting (public or private) in London sit adjacent to massive changes to the built environment that speak of the extraordinary excesses of consumption and accumulation among the very wealthy, despite one of the largest historical economic reverses the country has known.

There have been some excellent analyses of London’s and New York’s dramatically evolving skylines environments recently, pointing out that much of this landscape is an exclusive landscape, off-limits to those distressed and upended by the property market across the city. In the context of ongoing debates about what to do about the super-rich (as though they were inseparable from the operations of an expanding, more global, neoliberal and capitalist system) this transformation is nevertheless notable. As human societies it seems curious that the possibility of such a new landscape could not be applied to the need to face-down much social need. ‘Going up’ will not mean helping out. Yet one of the most curious features of the changes happening in London is that high rise has shaken the taint that we continue to apply to tower blocks and public housing estates – it is social composition and only partially design that separates these structures.

Talking to capital, photo Rowland Atkinson, 2014

Talking to capital, Rowland Atkinson, 2014

I was particularly struck by this change when I recently picked-up Pearl Jephcott’s study of high rise living in Glasgow from 1971 (Homes in High Flats), there is much to think about here, particularly in the context of super-prime real estate that suspends residents for the scant time they spend in these homes. Even by the early seventies the story of a new utopia was facing a rapid turnaround in fortunes for a model that had initially appeared to offer good, clean living after the mess of the slums and tenements. Jephcott’s study had meticulously considered the problems (the difficulties for families with children, noise, new feelings of isolation within vertical communities and emerging anxieties about crime) including measuring the waiting times of lifts in a rather interesting appendix! Yet this story appears old now, almost as done and dusted as many of the blocks themselves and system-built complexes like Pruitt Igoe, destroyed by another administration that had done as much to fail its own experiments by defunding it as changing social conditions overtook its initial promise. But this story continues to unfold. A recent report suggests that around 50 estates have been remodelled in London to add homes of other tenures but we also know that these stories have generated evictions and net losses of affordable homes – new rounds of expulsion in the wake of cash-strapped local authorities facing the lure of investment from private investors.

Today high rise means high profits for developers on small land footprints, increasingly conspicuous displays of wealth and panoptic views of the city for the partial elite of residents who spend perhaps only a few weeks there, leave it to grow in value unoccupied or decide to let it out. In this context it isn’t surprising that high rise can be made to deliver (despite of course the obvious anxieties that followed the attacks on the World Trade Centre fourteen years ago and after which predictions quickly emerged that high rise was doomed as the potential target of future suicide bombers). What is more surprising is the dearth of imagination and means that might see public investment channelled to deliver more housing to those on more modest means in a city with such stressed physical infrastructure. These new rounds of construction spring from the ground because they are connected to flows of capital accumulated across the global economy, both because of and despite the economic downturn. Anyone who follows the FT’s How to Spend It, their property section or the websites of the elite property vendors and luxury goods houses will know that the consumption of the rich, and their number, has been one of the most recession-proof stories at a time when housing stress, homelessness, food-banks, beds in garden sheds, precarious and zero hours contracts mark the life of the capital outside the bright lights of the super prime areas.

It is interesting that we have moved from visions of the catastrophe of tower block living, widespread height reduction and demolition programmes and the block as the stand-in for social distress and crime in popular films and news media to the shiny new landscape of the world cities and their Shards (London) and Nordstrom (NYC) developments. The residents of these blocks may already have gone mad from boredom, like the residents of J G Ballard’s High Rise (1975), who descend into chaos and warfare between the levels of their brand new block. Unlikely perhaps. But the deeper commentary that Ballard was offering rings true – a concern about an alienating physical environment, the boredom of affluence and perhaps most importantly the barely concealed violence of the wealthy. Is a city that only provides for the wealthy in the face of need not pathological? The imperatives and logics of capital accumulation, purchase, investment and renting will always trump the concerns for a city more grounded in the attempt to tackle human need unless we say it is wrong. If the height and structure of the 260 plus high rise blocks in London’s centre are an index of anything it is the de facto callousness of political systems and politicians who suggest that this is the only game in town and, worse, that somehow this benefits those on no and low incomes. It may seem a rather obvious observation but surely we need more than ever before to being these ambitions back down to earth and make cities like London work better for all citizens.

View from the Shard, Rowland Atkinson, 2014

View from the Shard, Photo, Rowland Atkinson, 2014

The sonic island: Urban noise and the value of isolation

Islands have long fueled an imaginary filled with the possibilities of mental and psychic escapes, whether indeed we are able to reach them or not. The desire to disconnect is relevant more broadly to concerns about growing urban noise levels which generate an invisible, yet no less perturbing, sensory layer. Can we find ways and means of creating island spaces, in physical or sensory terms, that allow us to traverse or strategically engage with our cities in ways that allow the personal management of noise exposure and the need to get away from it all – while largely remaining put. The strategies of urban citizens used to find quieter pathways, searching out oases of reduced sound and the widespread application of noise-reducing technologies suggest a deep-seated need for new kinds of islandness even while inhabiting the maximal points of population concentration that we find in cities. A clear focus of such tactics is to find control over, and freedom from, soundscapes where these impose a burden, distraction or even psychologically compressing and damaging experience. We may like noisy music, but less so if it is someone elses and the loss of control experienced in many neighbour disputes over noisy parties and lifestyles is perhaps the clearest expression of this problematic.

In our urban imaginaries the desire for escape which may also be realised as the search for real islands (such as the author’s search for quiet in the wonderful film Caro Diario, for example, as the travellers search for ever quieter and smaller islands after escaping the city to focus on writing). These needs were also expressed by the pioneers of the ambient music movement in the early 1990s where the phrase urban isolationism was regularly bandied around, as a means of encapsulating the search for a kind of ‘sonic island’ – a space-experience in which the body was cut-off from the density and penetrating noise of the city. Now we can find a widespread use of salt tanks, headphones, sound insulated bed pods, book-lined studies and noise reducing technologies which reflect an ongoing need for a therapeutic encounter with islandness within the city; the sense that with a reduction in the symbolic and auditory noise of contemporary life might come the ability to cope and flourish, all of this predicated on a form of escape that brings with it a greater sense of autonomy, control and meaning, whether this be through access to ‘real’ or metaphorical islands.

All of us need a place to retreat to, whether it be the home or another home-like space that offers the possibility of peace, escape and a sense of control in our lives. Where noise impinges from all sides in our lives the resulting stress is profound and debilitating. The desire to escape to the suburbs was arguably as much a wish to evade ‘The nerve wracking sleep-destroying noises of the city’ (Fogelson, 2005: 119) as it was to achieve newfound space standards and amenities. Even as technologies are developed to reduce noise or allow our shelter from it what Erving Goffman called the final ‘territory of the self’ is easily assailed by sonic intrusions of various kinds. Perhaps all cities need to ensure not only that housing regulations allow our homes to be free from noise but also that the fabric of the city contains planned calm spaces as well as parks (the two are not always synonymous and parks are not often found in central city areas) that enable decompression and freedom from noise. Precisely what such calmscapes might look like is perhaps the next challenge, but one that might be very popular!

Reference

Fogelson, R. (2005) Bourgeois Nightmares, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Thinking the pro-social

Social researchers spend so much time considering problems of inequality, crime, poverty, ill-health and related questions that they rarely have time to pause and consider more utopian, counter-factual ideas, to step outside the ‘realities’ and constraints of needing to be policy relevant or palatable for other audiences. Many of us act in ways that are self-disciplining, if not self-defeating – we make careful pre-judgements about who will listen and this often prevents us from making proposals or running ideas that might make the world a, dare we say it, better place. This has long been the case but in the context of contemporary forms of unparalleled inequality, ecological crisis and economic instabilities the role and perhaps duty of social researchers is to draw on their evidence and intervene effectively in helping social conversations about these issues. It doesn’t strike me as a terribly partisan comment to suggest that the UK coalition government and its new round of proposed cuts is inherently anti-social (not least because the mainstream alternative/s offer much of the same). Indeed it has managed to triumph in promoting a worldview that suggests precisely any other argument around taxation, spending and investment is either loopy or some kind of powerful ultra-leftist viewpoint that would endanger civilization as we know it.

Today’s economic, political and social environment undermines everyday social life as notions of the shared, the public, the municipal and common space have been fundamentally challenged. The global financial crisis has ended-up granting energy and fresh confidence to narratives that legitimise cuts to the funding of public services, disinvestments in diversionary and creative programmes for vulnerable groups and fresh rounds of public asset stripping. The apparent logic of such attacks is that we cannot afford, do not need and should not pay for arrangements, institutions and provisions that are shared or collectively provided. Yet social investigation now tells us, through convincing and in-depth investigations (like that of Pickett, Wilkinson, Sassen, Piketty and Dorling) that gross inequalities, absences of social insurance and expulsions from citizenship and common provision generate expanding forms of hardship and social problems.

It appears increasingly evident that the kinds of social distress, climate change and other modern evils cannot be contained in convenient or cost-free ways to the wider population. We appear to be seeing the ‘escape’ of social problems from traditionally vulnerable spaces and populations to include those who have more often been able to avoid such problems has led to renewed efforts by the affluent to insulate themselves from these risks (I wrote about this sometime ago as a ‘cut’ in which the affluent are now able to insulate themselves from the costs of inequality that has diminished arguments for promoting greater equality or progressive taxation).

We now find that a number of problems (insecurity, fear, ill-health, violence, education and reducing social mobility) are being exacerbated by new rounds of value extraction from the public realm in the name of increasing efficiencies and economic growth. New forms of anxiety, hardship and concealed exclusion appear to mark this situation, with mounting concern about the long-term consequences of dismantling a variety of forms of common provision and mechanisms that might guard against extreme wealth and income inequalities (notably the NHS but also systems such as water). One critical basis for arguing against this ongoing disaster is to suggest that we are more capable and happy as private, free citizens when freed against the excesses and intrusion of such a dominant corporate-political sphere of influence. In other words, strong forms of municipal provision, affordable health, education, meaningful and financially rewarding work lead not only to some mad vision of a more equal society – they offer deeper and substantial rewards in the form of personal emancipation, freedom and self-realisation than in societies marked by declining public investments and provision. In such contexts what we find is not only troubling forms of social damage and loss (to say nothing of the revolting levels of excessive wealth and consumption by the affluent amidst poverty) but also diminished forms of self, community that ride alongside the vision of a minimal state and corporate capture of assets and profits.

With social and policy thinking often fixed on notions of the anti-social it appears timely to consider the value and limits of the social itself, of the kinds of mechanisms for community participation and self-realisation amidst these powerful social and economic forces. The position of the academy in relation to these debates and to questions of social resilience, emancipation, social justice, the nature of collectivity and forms of social sustenance and protection are also raised by this context. The real lie amidst all of this is that there are sides to choose from when the systemic logic of markets that pervades and dictates so many areas of social life is antagonistic to almost all visions of a sustainable, enjoyable, healthy life for all.

A black Friday: The kingdoms to come?

Not long after I returned from living in Australia I picked up J G Ballard’s Kingdom Come, a further exploration of a semi-fictional suburban location, one of what he calls in the book rather nicely, the Heathrow towns. Ballard’s novel isn’t so much prescient as a kind of social science fiction that already resonated with contemporary events. After four years in one of the older quiet suburbs of Hobart the story resonated strongly with my experience upon emerging, blinking into the fast-paced lifestyle of what felt like an overpopulated, congested and disorderly urbanism of the British kind so despised by Daily Mail leader writers and expatriates. The book connected my own feelings of disorientation to the partially unfamiliar sites and feelings I experienced back in a now unfamiliar homeland.

ballard dreams of violenceFor those who don’t know the book it concerns a vast shopping centre which forms the centrepiece of the narrative and focal point for consumers bereft of alternative pastimes. Alongside this site Ballard recounts an obsession with sport and the conflation of cultural with hyper-nationalist zealotry that is turned against a scapegoated otherness of retiring Asians. The imagined future of the book is too painfully close to current events and fears to be shelved simply as a fiction that should not overly trouble us. Driving from the south of England to its to urban north to take up my new post I was struck by the red crosses of St George, on car bumper stickers, flying atop A-road burger bars and churches. Were there really as many when I left? Even articulations of such discomfort are themselves subjected to a kind of hostility and suspicion in the current climate.

As with many of Ballard’s books a key theme is how the veneer of civility in modern urban life can so easily be moved to reveal the cruelty, emptiness and violence of everyday life. Spectators in the novel move between the non-places of sports stadia, work and the shopping centre while channeling their boredom by bashing vulnerable migrants. The tone is aloof and clinical, suggesting a kind of moral ambivalence and complicity of the central character in the aggressive outpourings of the surrounding mob. We are left with the impression of a space that speaks for so many others – offering us nothing more than consumer distractions and hidden violence in lieu of the terror of facing the real emptiness of life. The pursuit of imagined or inherited identities, meaningless acquisition or vacuous tournaments between in and out groups on sports pitches are the means by which alienation is handled.

DSC01019

Picture courtesy Daryl Martin, CURB.

With consumer products as cheap as chips, houses are bought and sold as much for profit as homes to live in and a merry-go-round of political distractions and scapegoating of migrants and welfare scroungers important questions are raised about the nature of our social existence. Where can we go to feel joy, surprise, intrinsic interest in the over-capitalised and under-nourishing urbanism generated in the last urban renaissance? Without improving urban design and reducing social inequalities we appear compelled to pursue personal advantages and neglect others, jockeying to avoid spaces we may deem too risky or unpleasant to go near. What political and communal voices will identify ambitions of community safety, human spaces for self-development and social contact and avoid further sell-outs to large scale private capital and to an ‘anything but’ agenda that leaves private wealth untapped and public spaces and assets shoddy or dysfunctional. The rise of the political right across Europe and the gloss of respectability among its counterparts entering mainstream politics now are not surprising in this context. Inequality, social exclusion and genuine fears about local disorder, uninhibited incivility and a vacuity at the heart of political and corporate life are the bedrock of a mild economic resurgence, even as precariousness and economic disaster mark so many urban districts nationally. Ballard achieved much by offering a mirror to our lives that showed the hollow and unpleasant core to contemporary capitalism and the kind of politics and places cast in its shadow.