Category Archives: Cities

Necrotecture: The Political Economy of London’s Super-Elite High Rise Landscape

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This is a much longer version of a piece published in the Le Monde Diplomatique which can be accessed here.

More than 400 high-rise developments are now in progress or have received planning permission in London (New London Architecture, 2016). Almost none of the dwellings these towers yield will be affordable. Close to zero are what we might loosely term public housing, reserved for those on no or low incomes. In the stories now told of London’s massive inequalities (Cunningham and Savage, 2017) and housing problems (Minton, 2017) the towers in place and those to come signal the city’s social extremes and the inability of state or market to resolve social need. Despite the intention that these high quality pads are for the globe’s elite the feeling on seeing these new spaces is rather of a somewhat disposable environment that fits their need, in many cases, to rest money. The community in mono imagined by ‘starchitects’ and estate agents on billboards and in brochures are sales pitches to a floating class of the rich and investors. Whatever drugs the architects of the gold apartment block at Battersea power station were smoking it seems their inspiration was pound signs rather than the giant floating pig pictured on Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover. As in many other parts of London construction here is undertaken solely in the pursuit of money rather than people (Watt, 2016). Much of the development along the Thames appears to offer a parody of place and a mirage-idea of communal life. These are essentially dead spaces and dwellings, their lifelessness important in maintaining clean conditions to allow the realization of maximum exchange value, rather than being valued for use as places to reside. The question of who benefits from such development is an ongoing irritant to the city’s managers and politicians that will not go away.

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London’s position as a shining beacon for the globe’s super wealthy has not been good news for the wider population of the city. When the good times were rolling they were marked by an aggressive expansion of gentrification, private tenant evictions, the demolition of dozens of public estates, welfare reforms and household displacement. Some have suggested that these forms of investment and destruction are related (Atkinson, Parker and Burrows 2017) but, with the advent of Brexit deliberations, the potentially negative role of international investment has been glossed over by the city’s elite who have had to recognise their addiction to international capital. Despite this the rich themselves appear more as a sign of the slow death of the city than one of vitality as in many cities around the world who now appear to be suffering under the vertical weight of the wealthy (Graham, 2017).

Dead vertical

One possible ghost guide to the new follies and ruins generated by investors and developers might be Erich Fromm who, in his later life had become exercised by the focus in our culture on things rather people. Having rather being. There remains something powerful in his idea that our desire for lifeless things suggested we inhabit a kind of necrophiliac culture, a society fixed on the denial of death and the pursuit of shiny objects. Can we not read the pursuit of apartments and empty homes as the peak expression of such desires and drives by the wealthy (Sudjic, 2006), the towers themselves as a form of necrotecture? Can we think of London’s inflated skyscape as the result of an urban political economy harnessed to the death-drive of capital and the unchecked global accumulation strategies of the wealthy?

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In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) Fromm had identified necrophilia as a form of attraction to anything dead, a mechanical form of interest that evaded notions of the social or human connectivity. This love of dead things appears to offer an apposite framing of the love of dead things expressed by the world’s super wealthy. Properties are snapped-up as signs of personal progress and status while remaining wholly or partially uninhabited. Marketing materials for many of the new developments offer images of empty chrome and velvet interiors looking-out over the city. Prospective buyers are able to project their presence as the city’s triumphant captains without seeing signs of community life or troublesome social difference. The psyche of affluence is thus able to insulate itself from any sense of connection or social reciprocity while inhabiting myths of personal success driven by ambition and hard work. This might not matter if dead things and spaces were not so corrosive to the social life of the city more broadly. Massive injections of international capital have fed the logic of building for the needs of the wealthy and international buyers (Ho and Atkinson, 2017). Such investment also damages the apparent legitimacy and vital role of public housing (Marcuse and Madden, 2016) as it has come to be framed as a form of lavish public expenditure while higher bidders wait in the wings. Here the wider sociality of the city is afflicted by a creeping necrosis as other parts of the urban body are starved of a vital supply of people and social circulation generated by absent owners and their investment vehicles – overseen by a political system that has misunderstood city standing to be indexed by the presence of wealth, rather than its creation and wider distribution (Engelen et al, 2016).

The lifeless interiors of the architecture that has emerged from a confluence of capital investment and status-seeking by the wealthy seems to speak of the real endpoint of urbanism (Minton, 2012) and any ability to enable citizens assurances of livelihood and home by urban political economy (Aalbers and Christophers, 2014). The housing crisis is produced by a system in which money rather than people is the primary index of success. Political and economic forces have combined to produce lifeless spaces that are dynamically linked to global chaos, low intensity warfare and globalized criminality elsewhere (Transparency International, 2017) and upon which London’s economy now depends and of which few questions are asked.

If you want to see these processes of accumulation and emptiness in the flesh it is instructive to wander past One Hyde Park or the many empty mansions lining The Bishops Avenue and others in North London. One of the reasons that so many people are exercised about the cost and lack of housing in the city is that in it they witness their own and other’s competition for these resources juxtaposed with a landscape of empty shells that should be homes. While many and sometimes most blocks are almost never occupied many households on local authority waiting lists are exported outside their borough or to the regions (Greenwood, 2017) and a third of a million households languish on waiting lists for public housing in London alone (DCLG, 2016). While taking a walk along the Thames near Nine Elms one can see many new towers, apparently suspended by an invisible line along the river’s corridor. Rather like dead mackerels these luxury high-rise developments shine but they also stink, the odour generated by corrupt planning agreements and a housing system out of sync with the needs of ordinary folk in the city (Scanlon et al, 2017).

 A city for money or its citizens?

The sense of outright winners and vulnerable losers raises big questions about who the city is for (Minton, 2017). If we could buy the argument that the wider economy and population somehow benefit from such investment the new skyscape might have some grain of defensibility. Yet such arguments appear threadbare. Those with economic and political power nevertheless identify an economy of property and finance as the magical machine driving living standards and reputation. London’s new mayor has moved in a slightly different direction, launching an enquiry into the number of homes bought by offshore investors and which appear to be more or less unoccupied (Wallace, Rhodes and Webber, 2017). Some sense of the scale of these problems can be identified with even the discreet presence of the rich leaving traces. One recent study examined utility records to locate homes with abnormally low electricity use which generated the estimate that around 21,000 homes are long-term empty (Transparency International, 2017). In fact around five percent of homes in Central and Western London lie in such empty conditions according the to the government’s statistics agency (Gask and Williams, 2015).

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Non-partisan groups have highlighted significant flows of criminal and anonymous purchasing of thousands of homes that appear to be decidedly non-trivial. The head of the National Crime Agency has suggested that criminal money has driven-up property prices and that hundreds of millions of pounds of property purchases are the subject of criminal investigation as suspected proceeds of corruption, yet these figures only represent a fraction of the total amount. Transparency International (2015) has already revealed that around 10% of properties in Kensington and Chelsea were owned through a “secrecy jurisdiction” and tied to around £122bn of offshore money. The question of who cares is left hanging, with many cases not pursued by resource-starved tax agencies.

One of the most glaring injustices is that while essential workers and even those on respectable incomes struggle to access decent housing the city is producing thousands of apartments for people who may never use them. If you countenance that this is the sign of a functioning housing market you might like to reset your market principles – who does it benefit that housing lies unused by its buyers? How broken is a planning system that leaves unchallenged the construction of blocks of hundreds of flats sold north of £600,000 for a studio but in which the idea of a handful of affordable homes is seen as a threat to its market viability? Mounting evidence shows that developers and planning consultants work hard to circumvent their duty to offer either affordable housing or cash contributions to the local authority (here it is worth consulting the work published at http://www.ourcity.london). Criticism of this system has been growing for some years now but the rising intensity of anger is palpable, even if effective resistance remains elusive.

Urban growth and decline

In 1951 the population of Greater London, its 32 constituent boroughs and the square mile of the City, was 8,164,416. Like many other British cities the mid-century census recorded what was, for another 60 years, its peak. It now seems difficult to remember that Britain’s inner cities were places of economic stagnation, social decline and out-migration. The term inner city was used to invoke a social imaginary marked by these features as much as any sense of real geographical place. By 1981 the nascent Thatcher government occupied a London whose population had fallen to 6,608,513. The most recent survey of the city’s population now shows an all-time high of 8,173,900. This apparent demographic health belies massive shifts in the structure of the city’s economy and new rounds of casualties in housing markets. Alongside changes in the city economy that saw it move to become a nodal point in the world financial global economy massive changes have reworked many neighbourhoods thought untouchable as gentrification opportunities decades before (Jackson and Benson, 2014).

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Today the city again faces an uncertain future. Economic pre-eminence in a global system of urban command centres appears to be giving way to anxieties about London’s future and this includes the possibility that financial institutions may start to move away. Trying to keep the goose that lays the golden eggs, even if they did little for the city’s working class, is even more emphatically the name of the game under the Brexit threat. Such worries appear only to add vigour to the grab for land and sky by capital with projections for the numbers of the super-rich in the city set to grow significantly in coming years (Knight Frank, 2017). Meanwhile those criticising construction aimed solely at international investors are cast as out of touch with the realities of seeking custom in a global market[1]. Yet even the trade in premium real estate sales appears fragile in the context of Brexit and the possibility that key financial institutions may be lured away to competitor cities as the crisis talks continue with sales in the top ‘prime’ markets showing dramatic reductions in volume. Despite this questions of social inequality and exclusion have been pushed to the side by a government scrambling to attract buyers and institutions to keep the national books balanced.

London’s patrician class appear to have recognised which side their bread is buttered on some time ago. What was once our establishment might now be better characterised as ushers to capital and the discrete vendors of prized assets and products (Shaxson, 2011). The international rich come for the city’s financial services, generate construction and jobs for decorators and nannies and are prepared to pay fees and taxes on property sales (or work hard to avoid them). Property professionals and financial wizards continue to offer portentous and authoritative assessments of how tariffs, taxes or regulatory moves would kill flows of capital investment. This may be true now but it wasn’t even just two years ago when selling £10m flats before they were built was possible. What is true now is that the systemic threats being revealed today will injure the city’s poor and working-classes much more deeply than it will the wealthy. If in the last decade we had hung on to the coat tails or Masseratti exhaust pipes of the super-rich our grip must tighten if we are to catch any crumbs that might be dropped our way in the future (Koh, Wissink and Forrest, 2016).

The City’s own strength is simultaneously the wider city’s Achilles heel. While the economic role of the City is well understood, its asymmetrical dominance in the structure of the urban economy presents risks (Christensen, Shaxson and Wigan, 2016). For the price of a cup of coffee any economic geographer will tell you that a key danger for any single-industry town is that it is more likely to die or be filleted as changing fortunes become apparent over time due to competition from rivals. Where in the past such change wrought devastation on the likes of Glasgow, Middlesbrough, Birmingham and the rest of a long list, it may yet be that London’s fate is to see many of its core services lost to the Dublins, Paris’ or Frankfurts of this world. Analysts are now pondering the question of how many individual bankers or institutions will leave after an exit from the EU. The likely answers appear to be thousands and, well who knows! Even if banks are not as mobile as the currencies and services they deal in an orderly or partial evacuation over years remains a real possibility.

When the good times rolled prior to the Brexit vote (please bear with me here if you were on a waiting list, crammed two to a room or saving for that elusive deposit to get on the housing ladder) we were told not to touch the market, maintain a low tax environment to enable overseas monies to flow and benefit the wider city. With the risks to the city’s economy from Brexit this logic asserts itself more emphatically, leaving a city with an apparently very large neon ‘for sale’ sign above it. Many of its most prized assets are now the property of foreign wealth funds or individuals (Harrods, The Shard, Harvey Nicholls). Much of the commercial property on the street on which the Sloane Ranger of the 1980s was born is now owned by the Qatari sovereign wealth fund. These changes are emblematic of concurrent shifts in class and taste and reflect a move from gentry and landed wealth (Webber and Burrows, 2016) to the arrival of an expanding cadre of those who have benefited immeasurably from globalization, the lucky control of state assets or associations with international criminal activity. Their brashness and raw money power is perhaps only matched by the vitriol cast on them by the last vestiges of wealthy long-term residents in the city’s inner West who appear not to realise that it is others in their class that put up the ‘for sale’ sign in the first place.

It’s the money stupid…

The most obvious answer to any question we might wish to ask about London’s problems today is money. Money is why our political interests turn a blind eye to offshore and criminal purchasing of real estate, no matter how shady the source. Money is the reason that public housing is being demolished in the name of ‘affordable’ housing. Money is why gentrification is a good thing and poor residents might be better placed elsewhere. Money lies at the heart of keeping taxes low and regulations slack. Money is the reason for the new dead spaces along much of the Thames and beyond. The city shaped by this dominating rationality is like a negative doughnut, wealth and high-rise housing in its core that falls away to suburbs increasingly marked by slow physical decay and an enlarged presence of the city’s poor. Our claim to world standing is to play host to the most ultra-high net-worth individuals of any city globally – 4,750 living within its boundaries and around 80 billionaires (Knight Frank, 2017). Such boasts appear poor slogans for a city that has become a sorting machine for opportunity and fortune – the rich in one door, the poor out of others, necessary casualties of a city dominated by a prime real estate and finance economy.

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London’s dead homes are the offspring of demands for the unfettering of markets and ambitious urban remaking. Yet we also need to recognise that for many others the city’s new architecture indicates that we are moving in the right direction. Here the notorious assessment of the new director of Zaha Hadid architects, Patrick Schumacher, was a frank disclosure of the values circulating among some practices – pave over Hyde Park, remove public housing, let the market really rip and dictate who gets to live here. Surely, he suggested, everyone knows we benefit from dinner parties in the homes of the rich? Misjudging the views of the wider audience of these comments (the new mayor, for one, slammed his ideas) such ideas remain dominant among those whose bread is buttered by capital. Meanwhile protecting municipal housing, alleviating real poverty in a rich city, wider regional inequalities or caring for the elderly and disabled are seen as unfortunate by-products of a system damaged by the legacy of a previous government. The prospects for challenging the overall direction of the city and its politics appear miserable (Atkinson et al 2017).

Conclusion

Twenty years ago, before Meet the Russians Channel 4’s show, Big Train, offered a skit in which the jewel of London’s hotel establishment was sold to a wealthy oligarch. There would be few changes, the new owner briefed staff, but a small request – to change the name from the Ritz to the Titz. Such possibilities have become thinkable. The culture-shock and clash of capital against everyday life are features of a city that is barely working for its working population. Gross excess is now a mainstay of many reality TV programs on the super-rich, their tastes and demands gawped at by millions where the unnecessary is the very mark of success. More, bigger, shinier, emptier.

The ranks of towers on the banks of the Thames are born of a deep-seated market subjectivity which, in turn, moulds the thinking of those seeking to capture the desires of the hypermobile wealthy. If we build them, they might come, if we don’t, we are screwed. We can speculate on what will happen to a city that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The good times of high rollers and flagship buildings did little for the mere mortals of the city, yet the future holds the prospect that anxiety and economic insecurity will mean that the rich are welcomed with even more firmly open arms.

Authors note: This piece is dedicated to those that died in the Grenfell Tower disaster, a 24-storey public housing tower block in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

 

References

Aalbers, M.B. and Christophers, B. (2014) Centring Housing in Political Economy, Housing, Theory and Society, 31, 4, pp. 373-394.

Atkinson, R., Parker, S., and Burrows, R. (2017, forthcoming) Elite Formation, Power and Space in Contemporary London, Theory, Culture and Society.

Atkinson, R., Burrows, R., Glucksberg, L., Ho, H.K., Knowles, C. and Rhodes, D. (2017) Minimum City? The Deeper Impacts of the ‘Super-Rich’ on Urban Life, Chapter in Cities and the Super-Rich, London: Palgrave, pp. 253-271.

Christensen, J., Shaxson, N. and Wigan, D. (2016) The finance curse: Britain and the world economy, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 18, 1, pp. 255-269.

Cunningham, N. and Savage, M. (2017) An intensifying and elite city: New geographies of social class and inequality in contemporary London, City, pp. 1-22. Online first available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13604813.2016.1263490

DCLG (2016) Households on Local Authority Waiting Lists, Live Table 600, London: Department of Communities and Local Government.

Engelen, E., Fround, J., Johal, S., Salento, A. and Williams, K. (2016) How Cities Work: A Policy Agenda for the Grounded City, CRESC Work Paper 141, Manchester: CRESC. Available at: hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/institutes/cresc/workingpapers/wp141.pdf

Fromm, E. (1973) The Anatomy of Human Destruction, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Gask, K. and Williams, S. (2015) Analysing Low Electricity Consumption Using DECC Data, London: Office for National Statistics.

Graham, S.  (2017) Vertical: The City from satellites to Bunkers, London: Verso.

Greenwood, G. (2017) Homeless Families Rehoused out of London ‘up five-fold’, BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-39386587 Accessed 16 June 2017.

Ho, H. K. and Atkinson, R. (2017) Looking for Big ‘Fry’: The Motives and Methods of Middle-Class International Property Investors, Urban Studies, pp. 1-17. Online first at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0042098017702826

Jackson, E. and Benson, M. (2014) Neither ‘Deepest, Darkest Peckham’nor ‘Run‐of‐the‐Mill’ East Dulwich: The Middle Classes and their ‘Others’ in an Inner‐London Neighbourhood, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38, 4, pp. 1195-1210.

Koh, S.Y., Wissink, B. and Forrest, R. (2016) Reconsidering the super-rich: variations, structural conditions and urban consequences, Chapter in: Hay, I. and Beaverstock, J. (Eds.), Handbook on Wealth and the Super-Rich, London: Edward Elgar, pp.18-40.

Knight Frank (2017) The Wealth Report: The Global Perspective on Prime Property and Investment, London: Knight Frank.

Marcuse, P. and Madden, D. (2016) In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis, London: Verso Books.

Minton, A. (2012) Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city, London: Penguin.

Minton, A. (2017) Big Capital: Who is London For? London: Penguin.

New London Architecture (2016) Tall Buildings Survey, London: New London Architecture.

Scanlon, K., Whitehead, C., and Blanc, F. with Moreno-Tabarez, U. (2017) The Role of Overseas Investors in the London New-Build Residential Market, London: LSE/Homes for London.

Shaxson, N. (2011) Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, London: Bodley Head.

Sudjic, D. (2006) The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful, and Their Architects, Shape the World, London, Penguin.

Transparency International (2017) Faulty Towers: Understanding the Impact of Overseas Corruption on the London Property Market, London: Transparency International.

Wallace, A., Rhodes, D. and Webber, R. (2017) Overseas Investors in London’s New-Build Housing Market, York: Centre for Housing Policy, University of York.

Watt, P. (2016) A nomadic war machine in the metropolis: En/countering London’s 21st-century housing crisis with Focus E15. City20 (2), pp.297-320.

Webber, R. and Burrows, R., (2016) Life in an Alpha Territory: Discontinuity and conflict in an elite London ‘village’. Urban studies53 (15), pp. 3139-3154.

[1] Even the London mayor’s response to the reports commissioned by him to look into overseas investment recognised “international investment plays a vital role in providing developers with the certainty and finance they need to increase the supply of homes and infrastructure for Londoners” https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/13/foreign-investors-snapping-up-london-homes-suitable-for-first-time-buyers

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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.

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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.