Tag Archives: Housing

Enacting equality through insurgent housing practices in Spain

By Melissa García Lamarca, PhD candidate in Geography

 

Spain’s growth has always been intimately connected to the expansion of the built environment. (1) During the country’s third and most extensive real estate boom from 1997 to 2007, over five million units of housing were built – more than the UK, France, Italy and Germany combined – as housing prices increased over 200%. Even though real average wages fell 10% during this period, financial entities granted over 800,000 mortgages each year as the public administration, real estate sector and media actively promoted housing as a sound investment whose value would never decrease. Homeownership rates reached almost 85% of the Spanish population during this period, one of the highest rates in Europe.

 

Real estate cycles 1970-2007 Naredo et al 2008

Real estate cycles 1970-2007 Naredo et al 2008

 

Image 1. Spanish real estate cycles, 1970-2007. Source: Naredo et. al. (2008:184) from National Statistics Institute (INE), Ministry of Development and Ministry of Housing

 

But since the bust of Spain’s boom, unemployment has skyrocketed to over 26% and more and more people are unable to pay their mortgages. A critical situation exists as the country’s Mortgage Act does not cancel the entire debt of a mortgaged household if the confiscation and sale of their house by the bank does not cover all outstanding costs. As banks are unable to sell the foreclosed houses they repossess, those evicted find themselves hugely in debt; including late payment interest and legal costs this can total up to hundreds of thousands of euros. As over 325,000 foreclosures and 200,000 evictions have occurred between 2007 and 2012 according to Spain’s justice department, hundreds of thousands are left with no place to live and a debt to pay for life. This is happening, paradoxically, as millions of homes stand empty, unsold or repossessed by banks upon developers’ bankruptcy, and banks have been bailed out with hundreds of billions of euros from public purses.

 

A vocal and highly mobilised anti-eviction platform has emerged in response to these dynamics. The Platform for Mortgage Affected People (PAH) was formed in Barcelona in 2009 to defend the constitutional right to housing, specifically focusing on three struggles: stopping evictions, retroactively forgiving the debt of evicted households through reforming the Mortgage Act and enacting social rent. (2) Now with over 160 branches in cities across Spain, the PAH has successfully blocked over 700 evictions through their Stop Evictions campaign and are constantly in the public eye through street protests, occupying banks to demand debt forgiveness for affected households as well as lobbying for legislative change. As the latter, culminating in a Popular Legislative Initiative with almost 1.5 million signatures presented to Congress in February 2013, has led to no substantive change, the PAH is enacting equality through its most controversial campaign: occupying vacant, unsold buildings owned by banks to house evicted families.

 

Terrassa bloc Unnim

Terrassa bloc Unnim

 

Image 2: A housing block owned by UNNIM occupied by the PAH and evicted households since mid 2011. Source: PAH.

 

Driven by the motto “no people without houses, no houses without people” and “we rescue people, not banks”, this campaign seeks to recuperate the right to housing through first rehousing evicted families in empty flats owned by banks that have been bailed out by public funds and then entering into negotiating with them for families to pay social rent. The campaign was founded in November 2010 and occupations have slowly but surely increased since, particularly in the Barcelona Metropolitan Region where there are close to a dozen buildings occupied by the PAH to date. One of the first buildings occupied, in Terrassa in December 2011, recently won a victory at the end of May 2013: after one and a half years of negotiations, Caixa Cataluyna – one of several financial entities bailed out with billions of euros through the Spanish Fund for Orderly Bank Restructuring (FROB) in 2009 and merged into Cataluyna Banc – agreed to rehouse those occupying the building under a 150 euro per month social rent. Perhaps in part spurred by this success, a handful of building occupations have followed in the Barcelona Metropolitan Region and in early July the PAH released a how-to manual laying out different phases plus legal and other considerations when organising individual and collective occupations of buildings, in an attempt to roll the campaign out across Spain.

 

Occupied housing block PAH Barcelona city centre source público.es

Occupied housing block PAH Barcelona city centre source público.es

 

Image 3: Housing block owned by Valencia Bank in Barcelona city centre occupied on 11 July, 2013 by the PAH to rehouse four evicted families. Source: Público.es

 

The PAH’s building occupation and recovery strategy is an insurgent practice that exemplifies a powerful enactment of equality. As lobbying for legislative change – in an attempt to create equality through government institutions – has failed, equality is instead being actively taken or enacted by the subjects of equality. (3) These insurgent practices are deeply political acts and, arguably, are the types that constitute politics; as Ranciére (1999: 11) would say, “politics exists when the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part.” (4) Those who constitute the anti-eviction platforms in Spain were people who allegedly “had a part”, who obtained the credential of “first-class citizens” through being property owners (5), but are now the part with no part as they have been evicted and indebted for life. Their building occupations rupture the police order – the structure, justification and legitimacy of a socio-economic hierarchy, or what we normally call politics – into a space for the appearance of a subject, making visible that which had no reason to be seen. (6) Such actions question and break with the current system, filling a critical gap left by the state, private sector and other institutions.

 

In Spain, as well as in many places across Europe and the world, the crisis has shown that the state and market have failed in their claim to provide a secure reproduction of our lives (7) – that is, a framework for us to provide ourselves with shelter, food and other basic needs fundamental to human life and flourishing. Yet the Platform for Mortgage Affected People’s anti-eviction struggles, in particular occupying buildings with/for evicted families, give hope for actively claiming equality in cities across Spain. The outcomes and larger transformative potential of these acts, of course, remain to be unfolded.

(1) Daniel Coq-Huelva. 2013. Urbanisation and Financialisation in the Context of a Rescaling State: The Case of Spain. Antipode, (April): 1-19.

David Harvey. 1978. The urban process under capitalism: a framework for analysis. International Journal for Urban and Regional Research, 2(1-4): 101-131.

David Harvey. 1985. The Urbanisation of Capital. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

(2) Social rent is proposed by the PAH as a rent constituting no more than 30% of a family’s income.

(3) Todd May, 2008. The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

(4) Jacques Ranciére. 1999. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

(5) Ada Colau & Adrià Alemany. 2012. Vidas hipotecadas: De la burbuja inmobilaria al derecho de la vivienda. Barcelona: Cuadrilátero de Libros.

(6) Jacques Rancière. 2001. Ten Theses on Politics. Theory and Event, 5(3): 1-11.

(7) Midnight Notes Collective. 2009. Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons.

 

Melissa García Lamarca is a second year Geography PhD student investigating the insurgent practices and forms of being-in-common of anti-eviction platforms within the context of the financialisation of housing in Spain. She is attempting to understand the role of these practices and forms in creating urban commons in Barcelona. Melissa is also a contributor to Polis, a collaborative blog on cit

Going, going, gone! Empty Homes for £1, but at what cost to community?

by Matthew Thompson, PhD Candidate, School of Environment and Development Venmore St, Anfield (source Share the City blog)

Venmore St, Anfield (source: Share the City blog)

Voelas Street, Welsh Streets, Toxteth (source Share the City blog)

Voelas Street, Welsh Streets, Toxteth (source: Share the City blog)

What to do with street upon street of beautiful period properties dating from the Victorian and Edwardian eras – the architectural heyday of the city in which they once proudly stood – but which now stand empty, derelict, and apparently unwanted? Well it all depends which city you are in of course. In London, these empty terraces would be snapped up in the blink of an eye – in the speculative feeding frenzy driving the epicentre of the FIRE (Finance-Insurance-Real-Estate nexus).

But this city is obviously not London. It’s Liverpool, where such demand is simply nonexistent. Or at least that’s the story we’re told by those behind the Merseyside Pathfinder programme, one of nine Pathfinders rolled out across Northern UK cities in New Labour’s massive £2.3 billion Housing Market Renewal (HMR) scheme initiated in 2003, which condemned some 400,000 homes nationally. In Merseyside alone, around 18,000 houses were targeted for clearance and redevelopment; a huge physical restructuring not seen since 1960s urban renewal.

In this blog post I question the rationale for HMR and unpack some of its contradictory effects in Liverpool, in opening up the space, so to speak, for experimentation in community-led self-help housing.

The policy narrative goes something like this. The so-called ‘wicked’ problems of long-term economic decline, emptying out of the inner-city, and increasingly concentrated deprivation – a downward spiral of demand, falling prices, rising vacancies, dereliction, and abandonment – requires a drastic solution: whole-scale restructuring of ‘failing’ housing markets and replacement of ‘obsolete’ terraces with a ‘sustainable’ mix of tenures for 21st century urban living.

Yet this is a city apparently going through a cultural renaissance: European Capital of Culture in 2008; its urban core transformed through culture-led regeneration and speculative development. In fact, despite a glut of empty apartments left over from the noughties building boom, Liverpool has successfully attracted new residents back into the city for the first time since the 1930s, after decades of decline.

History repeats itself. First as tragedy, then as farce. HMR made the same tragic mistakes of post-war modernist planning, but without the earnest paternalism of social democratic aspirations and welfarist goals. It came at the height of renewed state ambitions for socio-spatial engineering – albeit New Labour’s zombie-like resuscitation of the long-dead-and-buried political taste for comprehensive public planning, with the added ingredient of ‘roll-out’ neoliberalism. And it was of course overseen by a public-private partnership which in true QUANGO style was given the farcically slick name of ‘NewHeartlands’, clumsily flailing at rebranding a new place identity.

Through its focus on solving ‘market failure’ – by reconnecting local to regional markets plugged into global circuits of capital – it is not difficult to see HMR as a classic case of that powerful process of neoliberal capitalist urbanisation made infamous by David Harvey as ‘accumulation by dispossession’. And dispossessed they were. Compulsory purchase orders have displaced many residents of Pathfinder clearance zones to assemble large land banks. The eviction of an 88 year old Bootle woman who had lived in her terraced home all her life is just one of the more controversial examples sensationalised by the media.

Regeneration on this massive scale might be seen as the new extractive industry for our post-industrial age: mining speculative value from urban land through the successive recycling of our built environment. The new-build suburban houses with which Pathfinder replaced some of the Victorian terraces represent a downgrading of both urban density and build quality, with built-in obsolescence part of their very raison d’être.

It may seem all too easy to denounce HMR along these lines. At best a shambles, at worst a scandal. Its fiercest critics accuse it of state-led gentrification tantamount to class cleansing; a direct transfer of wealth from public funds into private hands. Yet even Grant Shapps, in a statement to Parliament, alluded to an intentional strategy of ‘managed decline’ for the financial benefit of developers and the state. Demolition plans teleologically set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy of blight.

But there’s a reason why policymakers and researchers call the socio-economic problems targeted by HMR ‘wicked’. There is a long and complicated history of complex structural forces, policy interventions and cultural conditions interacting and compounding in often unpredictable ways to produce the multifarious effects of decline with which HMR was designed to tackle. Had the programme been seen through to its 25 year conclusion in 2019 it may well have produced beneficial socio-economic transformation. But we will never know.

The Coalition government’s cancellation of HMR in 2011 – coinciding with the worst economic downturn and property slump in almost a century – has left the programme only part-finished. Owing principally perhaps to these capricious political and economic conditions, HMR has undeniably generated more blight. Dense urban neighbourhoods have been flattened or reduced to something resembling a warzone; swathes of wasteland aggressively fenced off from surrounding streets stubbornly still bustling with activity; hundreds of crumbling empty houses boarded up, left to rot. And all without the funds for either rebuild or refurbishment for reuse.

Unsurprisingly, various community and campaign groups – led by the likes of Empty Homes and SAVE Britain’s Heritage – have been vigorously campaigning for bringing these tinned-up terraces back into community use. Channel 4’s ‘Restoration Man’, George Clarke, helped kickstart a national debate in visiting several ex-HMR Liverpool neighbourhoods in his popular TV documentary – and is now championing community-led refurbishment projects as newly appointed head of the government’s Empty Homes Review. The Coalition government have introduced a £100million Empty Homes Fund and a £50m Clusters of Empty Homes Fund alongside a £75million Transitional Fund, specifically intended for refurbishing previously-condemned ex-HMR properties.

However, SAVE have highlighted in a judicial review how the Transitional Fund is being illegally misspent to demolish a further 5,000 houses. This follows the controversial decision to save Beatles drummer Ringo Starr’s birthplace amidst the clearance of hundreds of surrounding houses in the Welsh Streets area of Granby; sparking angry accusations of being a ‘tokenistic smokescreen’ for civic vandalism.

And so it was into this fray that Liverpool City Council recently announced its ‘homesteading’ plan to sell off 20 ex-HMR houses for just £1. The plan follows a pioneering project in Stoke-on-Trent, in which 70 empties are being sold to local people for £1 with a low-interest £30,000 loan made available for DIY renovation, but with the crucial condition that buyers commit to living in them for a minimum of 5 years without subletting.

The demand has been so high – over 2,000 people or 100 per house registering interest – the council has extended the deadline and is considering making more empties available. This raises serious questions that need to be answered over the fundamental logic of HMR in writing off otherwise desirable housing as ‘obsolete’. It also signals more promising prospects for campaigns across Liverpool’s ex-HMR neighbourhoods to establish Community Land Trusts (CLTs) and housing cooperatives for community acquisition and reuse of empty homes.

In one of the three homesteading neighbourhoods, Granby residents have come together to form one of the UK’s first urban CLTs, Granby 4 Streets; a charitable organisation capable of bidding on publicly-owned assets for community ownership. One of these four streets, Beaconsfield Street, witnessed the start of the Toxteth riots in 1981, and has been condemned by council demolition plans ever since; wilful neglect which some residents feel is punishment for ‘the uprising’. But in the last few years, community activism in the form of ‘guerrilla gardening’ has transformed the tree-lined streets from desolation into a verdant display of ownership and pride of place. Communal street gardens, colourfully-decorated frontages, and wildflower meadows are enjoyed by residents and visitors alike in the popular monthly Cairns Street Market.

Granby 4 Streets mirrors similar campaigns across Liverpool to establish CLTs for the community ownership of ex-HMR housing; together representing a radical new model of urban regeneration through grassroots community asset acquisition. Their successful development might contain the blueprint for a small-scale bottom-up alternative to fill the gap left by the retreating state in our emerging era of ‘Big Society’ austerity urbanism.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the £1 houses in the homesteading plan will end up under local stewardship, owned and managed by CLTs, which are, in principle at least, democratically controlled by member residents for the mutual benefit of affordable housing in perpetuity. Or instead flogged off individually to more socially-mobile residents looking for a bargain with little stake in community life.

But the picture is more complex than this simple dichotomy. The conditions of the homesteading plan require that individual buyers live in their new homes for at least 5 years without subletting out to tenants, which may well protect against landlordism and ensure local people affected by HMR become the principal beneficiaries. However, there is no reason why homeowners, after this short period, would not simply sell up and move on, cashing in on their sweat equity to pocket the difference. This not only amounts to a considerable transfer of public assets into private hands, but may also stoke gentrification processes, further displacing original residents.

The positive potential of CLTs and other forms of mutual ownership lies in their unique ability to protect these assets under a trust structure to ensure that housing remains affordable and accessible to successive local residents for generations to come. Covenants and constitutional conditions built into the CLT governance model limit the resale value of houses and ensure a minimum equity stake is retained under CLT ownership so that homes remain tied to the locality and controlled by members through accountable governance processes.

Local authorities are nonetheless apprehensive to simply hand over entire terraced streets to CLTs for a number of reasons. First, individual ownership is perceived as a tried-and-tested model reflecting deep-seated ideological biases for homeownership and owner-occupation. Individuals appear more reliable in renovating one house at a time at a more manageable scale. CLTs must therefore do more to demonstrate their long-term financial and organisational viability as well as their expertise in housing management.

Second, CLTs produce a different set of tensions and contradictions within their own practices as well as in their relationship with the state, the market, and the surrounding local community. They must similarly demonstrate their capacity for inclusive democratic governance and fair representation of all local residents. Inward-looking or tightly-bounded groups may make CLT membership exclusive to certain people: emancipatory for some, but divisive for others. Owning assets in trust for the entire community, both present and future, is ultimately a matter of trust. CLTs must also first gain the trust and support of public and other external partners in order to access their most fundamental resource of all: land.

Finally, the biggest barrier appears to be politics. The transfer of public assets into CLT hands represents a considerable shift of power from local government to local communities. It is unrealistic to assume that councils would jump at the chance to divest their power to potential competitors for dwindling public resources at the local level. This is all too evident in the refusal of Sefton Council to support the otherwise successful £5.2million funding application to DCLG that would have enabled Little Klondyke CLT in Bootle, north Liverpool, to acquire and refurbish 120 homes for community reuse. As it stands, the CLT cannot access government funding without approval from the local authority. And so Little Klondyke remains derelict.

But the tensions do not end there. Even if Merseyside CLTs were to receive public funding to become institutionalised as housing providers there still remains the grave danger of co-optation into housing association structures. Large commercially-driven yet publicly-funded RSLs with profit-making development arms have been heavily involved in Pathfinder redevelopment schemes – and yet ironically formed out of the charitable housing cooperatives that emerged from 1960s grassroots community resistance to municipal urban renewal. Now contending for the £1 houses, these huge housing companies not only present stiff competition for CLT campaigns in the acquisition of empty homes, but also pose the threat of incorporation into increasingly professionalised and commodified social housing markets. Whether contemporary CLTs will be swallowed up into marketised forms of housing provision like their historical non-market antecedents – including many of Liverpool’s 1970s cooperatives – will be the greatest test for community-led self-help housing. Tragic the first time, farcical the next; it begs the question: will history repeat itself?

The relationship between large-scale regeneration programmes like HMR and community-led self-help housing initiatives is complex and ambiguous, and therefore one requiring deeper research. Ironically, it took the threat of dissolution posed by top-down spatial engineering to crystallise deprived yet diverse neighbourhoods into more cohesive place-based communities. Embedded in the ashes of HMR are the seeds of exciting institutional innovations in local asset ownership. The successful development of CLTs may herald a shift toward more mutual social relations and cooperative forms of citizenship that do far more to regenerate deprived localities than expensive top-down tinkering with markets. The real test for Localism – or dare I say it, the Big Society – is whether these embryonic seeds will be tended to politically; and given sufficient institutional nutrition to grow into financially-sustainable forms of inclusive local governance.

Material Struggles, Imaginary Struggles

by James Scorer, Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies

via flickr by Doug88888

via flickr by Doug88888

In December 2010, thousands of people seized the area known as Parque Indoamericano in Buenos Aires, a large space of open land in the south of the city’s autonomous central district.  Demanding the right to dignified housing, the occupiers were forcibly removed after some days by the three state police forces that bear some jurisdiction in Capital Federal (Policía Federal, Policía Metropolitana and the Gendarmería).  Local vigilante groups from adjacent neighbourhoods also participated in the evictions, which eventually resulted in three deaths.

The taking of Parque Indoamericano highlights the ongoing material struggle over housing and the right to the city in Latin America, a tension that, in Buenos Aires, continues to afflict the city despite the significant advances that have been made in social housing during the centre-left Kirchner era (2003-present).  In the wake of the events of 2010, the use made of the Park by the Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires [The Government of the City of Buenos Aires], led by the right-wing Governor Mauricio Macri and staunchly opposed to President Cristina Kirchner, has underlined the importance of that material struggle over the city.

The information provided on the City’s website about the Park is an exercise in sleight of hand.  The same administration that, both via judicial means and state-sanctioned violence, uprooted the occupiers, now states: ‘El Parque Indoamericano es una causa de los vecinos que este Gobierno abrazó desde el principio’ [The Indoamericano is a cause {also lawsuit} of the neighbours that this Government has embraced from the beginning].  The statement implies sympathy for the vigilante groups, suggesting that those protesters living in the shantytown bordering the park (Villa 20) were not neighbours.

The words also draw a veil over the xenophobic comments that Macri made during the occupation about the protesters, some of whom, in turn, expressed their political affiliations by stating that they wanted to call their future settlement ‘Néstor Kirchner’ after the deceased former President.[i]  The Governor exploited the protest by stating misleadingly that the City of Buenos Aires was suffering from waves of immigrants and that the City was propping up the poorer countries that neighbour Argentina.  The city’s ongoing housing crisis can hardly be attributed to immigration, however, levels of which, if anything, have fallen rather than risen since the economic crisis of 2001.  Not only did Macri’s words reflect the growing fear that the Argentine capital is suffering from ‘Latinamericanisation’ but they also tried to massage the material realities of Buenos Aires.

The webpage of the City’s Government also demonstrates that, since those verbal interventions, Macri’s administration has invested heavily in the Park.  The public space now benefits from walkways, new lighting, tree planting, public toilets, basketball courts and football pitches, among other amenities and improvements.[ii]  The tents of the protestors, symbolic of their precarious living conditions, have now been replaced with an assortment of other, pointedly more permanent, material interventions.

These transformations embarked upon by the City take advantage of the Park’s political capital both in material terms and also to reinforce the image of the incumbent as a governor who, as his advertising campaigns state, ‘makes’ Buenos Aires.  The administration’s belief that politics (and the political imaginary) is achieved, measured and sustained via the material, therefore, not only reflects the corporate-led vision of the governor but also masks the manner in which Macri also manages and refashions the urban imaginary.

The recurring formulation of the relationship between the material city and the urban imaginary as a dichotomy between the real and the not-real is not the most effective way to analyse the intersections between the social, political and cultural landscapes of the city.  It often leaves out the imaginary altogether or, at best, relegates it to the position of an inferior cousin.  We need to think beyond such rigid frameworks of analysis and move to a conceptual position that situates the imaginary as a constitutive and structuring dimension of urban politics.  In the case of the Argentine capital, for example, such analysis could include the recent attempt to market Buenos Aires as a ‘green city’, Macri’s mobilisation of the city’s youth via rock music on the campaign trail, the City’s advertising campaign ‘Haciendo Buenos Aires’ [Making Buenos Aires], or the altogether more anomic depictions of the city-being-made in films such as Medianeras, directed by Gustavo Taretto.  Using this interdisciplinary approach to reflect on how these and other urban imaginaries participate in the construction of the city will illuminate how imaginaries mobilize the multiple material and contested infrastructures of the global urban south.  Such is the departure point for the Argentine case studies that Dr. Leandro Minuchin and I began to research in 2010.

James Scorer, Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies, University of Manchester

 

Railways, Red Barrel and Robin Hood: Interrogating the Modernist revival

Guest post by Kenn Taylor.

With the recent campaigns to save Preston’s Bus Station, Birmingham’s Central Library and Portsmouth’s Tricorn Shopping Centre. Not to mention the emergence of Manchester’s The Modernist magazine, books like Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism and critic Jonathan Glancey’s numerous broadsheet eulogies, it seems that we are now going through a period of revisionism in relationship to the Modernist architecture of the 1960s and 70s. That which was reviled by so many for so long is now being venerated.

It many respects this is inevitable. In the cycles of something changing from ‘old fashioned’ to ‘classic’ in the public consciousness, 30 or 40 years usually about does it. It’s also about time. This period of architecture produced many fine buildings of international importance in Britain’s towns and cities, and too many of these have already been lost to indifference. We must protect the best examples of buildings from whatever era from the mere whims of fashion. How much great Art Deco architecture was destroyed, like the Firestone factory in West London, before we realised its value?

Yet, despite the need to acknowledge the importance and value of such buildings, I don’t think we can truly celebrate the best architecture and design of the post-war Modern era without simultaneously acknowledging the failures.

DRU Railway Logo

This was starkly highlighted to me when I visited an exhibition held at the Liverpool School of Art in 2011 – Design Research Unit 1942-72. You may never have heard of the Design Research Unit (DRU) but you will know its work. Their 1965 British Rail logo is still used on every station in Britain, now no longer the brand of the long defunct British Railways Board, instead a generic symbol for railways, and probably DRU’s most prominent legacy.

Their other work was as many and varied as it was influential, as the exhibition displayed. Ranging from the interior of the P&O ocean liner Oriana and sections of the 1951 Festival of Britain, to the ICI logo and the 1968 City of Westminster street signs, which have become as an integral part of London’s streetscape as red buses and black taxis.

The DRU was formed in 1943 by the poet and art critic Herbert Read, architect Misha Black and the graphic designer Milner Gray. It was arguably the first multidisciplinary design agency in the UK, working across architecture, products and graphic design. The DRU was a product of the Modernist belief in the power of the new and optimism for the possibilities of the post-war era. Founded to help build anew Britain after the horrors of war and depression, when everyone, designers included, was desperate to break with the past.

Watneys Cock & Lion

For me though, the most telling part of the exhibition was that which looked at Milner Gray’s work forLondon’s Watney Mann brewery in the 1950s and 60s. Watneys commissioned DRU to provide a coherent look for its huge range of premises. In response, Gray developed a new identity with five different types of lettering and decoration to be used, depending on the architectural style of each public house. Watneys new signage used a ‘slab serif’ font made in pressure-formed plastic, a style which soon became a high-street craze.

Yet, despite its pioneering nature, to me the Watneys project highlights the negative aspect of not only DRU’s work, but the wider failures of Modernist design. After it, many other breweries adopted similar makeover schemes in a period which saw many pubs have their individual characteristics, developed over decades, ripped out in favour of a plasticised standardisation. Designs imposed from on high that reflected little of the culture or history of where they were being dropped in. Looking only modern and fresh for a brief time, before ageing poorly due to changes in fashion and the low quality of the materials they were made of.

Watneys thrusting attitude towards modernisation even spread to their beer, with the revulsion against the mass-produced blandness of its Red Barrel ‘modern’ keg beer helping to spark the foundation of the Campaign for Real Ale and its fight for traditional, quality, regional brews.

Even looking at the simple brilliance of DRU’s British Rail logo, the over-arching brand identity they developed for the railway often took no account of the great diversity of historic architecture that it was being pasted on. It also reflected the wider ‘modernisation’ of Britain’s railways that saw the destruction in the 1960s of many historic stations, including London Euston, which was replaced with the Modernist mediocrity that greets me on every trip to the capital. Euston’s uninspiring shopping arcade descending into dank concrete platforms stands in negative contrast to the still stunning Victorian glass barrel roofs of Liverpool Lime Streetwhich I meet at the other end of the line.

As well as being its strength, Modernist architecture and design’s ubiquity, utopianism, universalism and uniformity were also its undoing. In trying to re-make everything and escape the horrors of recent history, it destroyed not only what was bad of the past, but what was good as well. With a missionary zeal that also saw a huge chunk ofBritain’s Victorian and Georgian architecture demolished, one of the reasons that 60s Modernism is still so despised by so many today.

Many of the arguments around supporting such Modernist architecture seem to hang on the idealism and optimism that surrounded such buildings. In contrast to the cynical vapidness and blandness of so much contemporary ‘ laissez-faire’ architecture that is in many cases replacing Brutalist post-war structures.

Yet such bland homogenisation is just as resplendent in much of the worst of mediocre Modernism as it is in any contemporary neo-liberal urban development. Neither does such thinking acknowledge the dark arrogance that underpinned the philosophies of Modernist design; that educated elites could engineer the world into a utopia through planning and design. The idea that an internationalist aesthetic could be imposed on a specific culture and that it would ‘improve’ the people living amongst it.

Interestingly, this resurgence in the support for Modernist architecture is almost the same as in the 1960s, when civic worthies first really began to fight to save Georgian and Victorian heritage from redevelopment. This was inevitably led by middle class outsiders, whilst many living in such areas were glad to see the back of such buildings, even if they disliked being moved from old neighbourhoods to new estates. So now, while many are now striving to protect Modernist buildings, they are rarely are the ones who have to shop in Portsmouth, get a bus in Preston or borrow a library book in Birmingham. It is precisely this placing of aesthetics and ideas over people and function that caused so much Modernist architecture to fail.

Robin Hood Gardens, London

I saw this illustrated glaringly in a Guardian article by curator and writer Stephen Bayley, about the attempt to preserve from demolition the Brutalist concrete housing complex, Robin Hood Gardens, in a deprived part of East London: “the unintelligent housing policies of Tower Hamlets populated Robin Hood Gardens with the tenants least likely to be able to make sensible use of the accommodation. We have to whisper it, but the Unité d’Habitation [Famous Modernist housing block in Marseilles] works because it is populated by teachers, psychologists, doctors, graphic designers, not by single mothers struggling with buggies.” This is a striking example of an aesthete criticising a deprived population for not being appreciative of what they have been ‘given’. Whilst forgetting the very reason such buildings were constructed was to improve living conditions for poor families, something which they have so often resolutely failed to do.

 

Meanwhile, fellow Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins pointed out that nearly 80% of Robin Hood’s residents wanted the estate demolished and rebuilt so they could stay in the neighbourhood and, even more tellingly, that no one on the preservation campaign actually lives there. Its brash, Brutalist structures may look impressive, yet apparently remain not great to live in.

We should acknowledge the positives of the Modern era. It pioneered techniques and materials we now take for granted and saw many important buildings and designs produced in what was ahigh pointof British construction and production. Yet we cannot view it through rose-tinted spectacles.

The people behind such designs may have truly believed they were making places better for ordinary people, but their bold visions were in many ways also arrogant, and have so often failed. You cannot celebrate the visual power and utopianism of post-war Modernist design without acknowledging how quickly all that decayed and how much that negatively affected many people’s lives. Just as preservationists of the Victorian era who emphasise its pioneering, graceful designs should also acknowledge the poverty, repression and exploitation that marked that era also.

Looking back at that Design Research Unit exhibition, its final section was about how the DRU’s headquarters, a standard-looking brick office building in London’s Aybrook Street, were given a radical, brightly-coloured, rooftop extension by the then young architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers in 1972. Piano and Rogers of course went on to design the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, one of the most influential buildings of the late 20th century and a pioneer of Post-Modern architecture.

Today, that dramatic extension of Aybrook Street has been re-covered in something bland and grey, more in keeping with the style of the older building, its Modernist zeal hidden as if in embarrassment. This is a shame, we should not just cover up or destroy this era of architecture, if it is still of use, but when we look at it, not only remember the power and vision of its designs, but also the danger, as ever, of rapid, destructive change, of putting ideas above people, or of believing in grand solutions, imposed from on high, to any problem. We should preserve these buildings to remind us of our past, not just the good, but the bad as well.

 

Kenn Taylor is a Liverpool-based writer and researcher with a particular interest in community, culture and the urban enviroment.

http://kenntaylor.wordpress.com/
http://urbantransitionuk.wordpress.com/

Multi-Speed Britain: The Widening of Urban Inequalities

by Dr. Stephen Hincks, Lecturer in Spatial Planning, Centre for Urban Policy Studies, Planning &  Landscape.

‘Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse’ (Taleb, 2007: 225).

The interlocking nature of the local and the global serves to create a sense of ‘scalar nesting’ that is comfortable and familiar.  Yet, during crisis events, the outcome of this intertwined relationship is largely predictable: ‘winners continue to win’ and ‘losers lose harder’.  It is inevitably at the local level – the city, the town, the neighborhood, the street – where this Molotov cocktail reaps its havoc.

The depth and severity of the global financial crisis became fully apparent in mid 2007. Based on quarterly GDP figures, the UK experienced the longest recession between the second quarter of 2008 and the third quarter of 2009 since the publication of quarterly GDP data began in 1955. It was also the first time that the UK economy had the largest quarter-on-quarter decline since 1980.  So I was intrigued earlier this week to read Cities Outlook 2012, a report published by the non-partisan think-tank, Centre for Cities (Centre for Cities, 2012).  The report makes the case – through an analysis of recent social and economic data – that the gap between Britain’s most prosperous and poorest cities is widening as a result of the economic crisis. The report found a case for a ‘two-speed Britain’ as more resilient urban economies – including the likes of London, Edinburgh and York – adapt to changing economic circumstances as less resilient urban economies – including Swansea, Hull, Liverpool and Sunderland – struggle to respond to changing economic imperatives.  Research undertaken by the Centre for Urban Policy Studies at the University of Manchester – prior to the publication of the most recent Cities Outlook report – goes further in arguing that rather than there being a ‘two-speed Britain’ there is in fact a ‘multi-speed Britain’ as different types of urban areas respond differently to the impacts of the most recent downturn (Wong et al, 2011).

This, you might argue, is all fairly standard so far.  However, what both reports are clear on is that current government policies seem to be widening, rather than narrowing, the gap between our urban areas.  Without wanting to get too caught up here in the respective analyses, both reports contend that the scale and depth of public sector spending cuts – introduced as part of the Coalition’s austerity strategy to combat the ‘spiralling national deficit’ – are adversely affecting towns and cities up and down the country with the greatest shocks being felt in metropolitan areas that are reliant on public sector employment.  Unemployment in our metropolitan cities has risen sharply and the welfare system has become a safety net across a widening spectrum of society as individuals and households look to ride-out the economic storm.

We are all aware that the current economic climate is intimately entangled with the sovereign debt crisis.  Experiences in the Euro Zone, North America and Britain poignantly illustrate this.  And so, the arguments made for reducing the UK’s national deficit are well rehearsed: the nation’s debt needs to be brought under control for the sustainability of the national economy.  Whether this is something that you accept or not (this rationale for introducing the deficit reduction plan has been contested on the basis that net public debt was about 60% of national GDP in 2010 compared to over 200% in the 1950s following the end of the Second World War) there is political appetite for reducing the deficit.  The Prime Minister’s suggestion, however, that ‘we are all in this together’ seems to be collapsing under the weight of its own hypocrisy.  As the Welfare Reform Bill – of which there are some welcomed aspects including attempts to incentivise work in response to rising levels of worklessness – moves through the parliamentary process debates over the introduction of a benefits cap and the implications of proposed reforms to the NHS have intensified.  In a recent piece written for The Guardian (23 January, 2012), Randeep Ramesh points out that the proposals contained within the Welfare Bill – irrespective of the nature of the transition period adopted as one welfare regime replaces the other – have the potential to increase child poverty and to adversely affect certain disabled groups in society which is something that has been acknowledged by the Coalition itself.  Position these proposals in the context of wider reforms in housing benefit and cuts in regeneration funding – the adverse effects of which are likely to be disproportionately concentrated in our metropolitan areas according to recent research by the Centre for Urban Policy Studies (Wong et al, 2012) – and you catch my drift.

For most people, the arguments made for reducing the deficit, including the need to improve the sustainability of national finances, are, however, broadly palatable.  But, it is the nature and intensity of the cuts that has proven most contentious.  Cut fast, cut hard to reduce the deficit quickly or cut in a slower and arguably more ‘managed’ way: broadly speaking, this has been the crux of the debate.  Clearly, it is too early to judge the success of the government’s strategy but recent OECD figures suggests that the markets have been slow to respond to the deficit reduction strategy adopted so far.

However, in my view, the deficit reduction debate has served to mask a more fundamental and altogether more toxic set of policy assumptions; namely that the claiming of welfare support (and state aid in general) is indicative of a mentality that ‘living off the state pays’.  Do not get me wrong, I am not suggesting for one moment that the much maligned ‘Gallagher-esque’ situation – a reference to the dysfunctional family through which ‘contemporary council estate culture’ is portrayed in the British television drama Shameless – does not exist.  Clearly it does.  But what I am clear on in my own mind is that it is extremely unwise, dangerous even, for politicians and society in general to adopt extreme denominators as benchmarks against which to measure the characteristics and cultures of a place, a situation, a scenario, an individual or a family let along to use these benchmarks as springboards for the development of policy.  Since assuming office in the spring of 2010, under the guise of ‘Localism’, the Coalition has introduced a raft of reforms and proposals including neighbourhood forums, mayoral systems, and the further ‘decentralisation’ of powers to local authorities all of which form part of a plan to reduce the democratic deficit that emerged (perceived or otherwise) under previous administrations.  In many quarters these ‘innovations’ have been welcomed with open-arms.  Yet, as the raft of Coalition reforms, Bills, Acts and amendments meander their way through the parliamentary process, I cannot help but feel that there is a politics of survival being actively played out here through which inequality could bloom further; a politics that the most vulnerable in society – who are disproportionately concentrated in our metropolitan areas – are least equipped to play.

References

Centre for Cities (2012) Cities Outlook, 2012. Centre for Cities, London.

Ramesh, R. (2012) ‘Iain Duncan Smith holds the line on welfare cap’ The Guardian, 23rd January.

Taleb, N.N. (2007) The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Random House, New York.

Wong, C., Gibb, K., McGreal, S., Webb, B., Leishman, C., Blair, N., Hincks, S. and McIntyre, S. (2011) Housing and Neighbourhoods Monitor 2011 – Fragility and Recovery. York, JRF.

Wong, C., Baker, M., Hincks, S., Schultz-Baing, A. and Webb, B.  (2012) A Map for England: Spatial Expression of Government Policies and Programmes. London, RTPI.

 

 

Cities and Climate Change adaptation: Can we learn from each other?

By Melanie Lombard, Hallsworth Fellow and Alfredo Stein, Lecturer in Urban Development, both at the Global Urban Research Centre.

Image: Household adaptation measures to severe weather, 29 de Octubre Barrio, Estelí, Nicaragua. Source: Global Urban Research Centre


The United Nations’ selection of Cities and Climate Change as the theme for World Habitat Day is a significant and welcomed event. Although climate change has become increasingly prominent on the international development agenda, historically the focus has been on the effects it has on rural environments and agricultural production. This is slowly changing. Given the fact that more than half of the global population now lives in urban areas and that the majority of urban growth this century will take place in low and middle income countries, the effects of climate change on cities are likely to be high up on the development agenda for the foreseeable future.

Many cities are already experiencing the effects of extreme weather disasters generated by climate variability, exacerbating existing patterns of urban vulnerability caused by poverty and inequality. Settlements constructed on flood plains or in landslide zones by low-income residents faced with no alternative housing options present a highly visible risk. Less noticeable but no less severe are the effects of severe weather on shack housing lacking basic services, such as heat stress, heavy rains and recurring storms.

The UN Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen in 2009 signalled the importance of moving from a focus on mitigation – in other words, interventions to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases – to adaptation, or how socio-economic systems can cope with and build long term resilience to the effects of climate change. Adapting cities to the effects of climate change requires a commitment from city governments to allocate and invest resources in infrastructure and technology. Such a commitment may be hard to conceive in situations where resources are scarce at the local level, and other needs require urgent attention.

However, rather than seeing this as a zero sum equation, city governments could instead mainstream climate change adaptation into urban policies more generally. Recent research undertaken by the Global Urban Research Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, Estelí, Nicaragua and Cartagena, Colombia, shows that in many cities of the global South, poor communities, households and small businesses are already adapting their assets through small, incremental measures to changing weather patterns. This suggests potential for urban governments to recognise and build on these innovative, low-cost responses already taking place in vulnerable neighbourhoods and incorporate them into broader settlement upgrading programmes.

But the potential for learning from the poor goes beyond the city level. While global problems suggest global responses, they also provide an opportunity for transnational learning. In cities of the global North, governments are responding to the need for climate change adaptation through existing planning frameworks and infrastructure networks, applying the latest technology usually through top-down frameworks. Meanwhile, in the global South, communities are developing their own adaptation strategies, often without central and local government support. What would happen if the two approaches were brought together? Applying community-driven adaptation responses from the global South to a Northern context could facilitate greater citizen participation, flexibility and ad hoc responses. Meanwhile, transfer of planning processes and infrastructure knowledge from the North to city governments of the South could strengthen their capacities to support existing community driven efforts to adapt to climate change. As well as being one of the biggest development challenges of this century, climate change thus also offers opportunities to improve the way we plan – and participate – in cities.

Planning for housing: from the straight jacket to the earthquake approach

by Cecilia Wong, Professor of Spatial Planning, Executive Director of the Centre for Urban Policy Studies

The Localism Bill published before Christmas 2010 was and is still beyond belief to many planning professionals. Many ideas in the document are at best half baked (e.g. the use of neighbourhood plans to increase housing supply) if not totally dodgy (e.g. auctioning local government land with planning permission). DCLG seems reasonably happy to make things up as it goes along, so the amendments to the Bill in May are thicker than the original version. While Ministers urge local government to get on with their Local Development Framework, the reality is that no one is certain whether the dust has settled down yet to avoid wasting the already dwindling human resources. The atmosphere of very shaky policy changes, funding cuts and job losses in the planning community is deadly but also surreal, just like the aftermath of a Richter scale 8 earthquake.

In the early-mid 1990s, British planning was slowly re-emerging from the market-oriented legacy of the Thatcher era and regional planning was back on the agenda. Local concerns over the perceived inexorable spread of new housing development to greenfield land and the consequent impacts on the environment had increased pressure on central government to move away from the ad hoc market-led approach of planning. Such concerns were mirrored by growing numbers of developers who were also worried that the absence of more strategic, regional strategy-making would lead to insufficient provision of land required for future development because local authorities were increasingly subject to the growing pressure of local NIMBYism. The Blair-Brown Labour government saw various experiments to uplift regional and sub-regional spatial strategy-making into a more prominent position, but after a decade’s experiment, the outcome is rather patchy.

Reflecting back over the last decade, both planning and regeneration were preoccupied with brownfield housing redevelopment policy by stipulating the national target of 60% of new housing to be built on previously developed land (PDL) to curb urban sprawl and foster the urban renaissance agenda. The government adopted a straight jacket approach of using targets and performance measures to establish policy frameworks and manage local and regional delivery. While the Government’s brownfield housing target has been met consistently since 2000, the actual amount of brownfield land used for residential purposes during 2000-06 (2774 ha per annum) was only marginally higher than that achieved throughout the period 1989-98 (2644 ha per annum). The meeting of the brownfield target was ironically a function of a parallel decrease in the use of greenfield land as well as a rapid increase in housing density (from 25 dwellings/ha in 1996 to 45 in 2007). However, our research for the Homes and Communities Agency and Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that there has been an increase in the proportion of brownfield land used for housing in the most deprived neighbourhoods. Indeed, housing reuse increased most rapidly in the 10% most deprived neighbourhoods in England, even in areas with long term vacant and derelict land. The market for flats in particular has grown since the mid 2000s.

Brownfield reuse policy has helped to bring residents back into the most deprived neighbourhoods, injecting dynamics into the housing market, and reducing the relative ranking of economic deprivation in these areas. However, this new housing has also altered the socio-economic dynamics of these neighbourhoods. Signs of policy success can also be interpreted as a function of how the housing market interacts with more general policy frameworks, with developers choosing areas with more favourable development potential for major brownfield reuse activities. The vice of including gardens as PDL has the unexpected outcome of garden grabbing as well as major rebuild in millionaire locations such as Prestbury. Driving around the beautiful wooded lanes around Prestbury, there is either a crane inside the plot or a wacking new great mansion already standing in it.

One does need to question whether a blanket national brownfield target, with a very broad brush definition, continues to be a meaningful policy instrument. There is also a need for more nuanced and contextualised approaches to take into account local circumstances. More importantly, we need to find out who are those new residents moving into the new high rise apartments (hopefully, 2011 Census data will keep us busy) and how they change the dynamics of those areas. In theory, the emphasis on localism is a good thing because it strips away the top-down bureaucracy and devolves power, resources and knowledge. In reality, the Localism Bill simply crossed out the words of ‘strategic’, ‘regions’ and ‘targets’; what’s left are ‘spatial’ and ‘landuse’ and, following the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework, ‘spatial’ seems to vanish as well – this begs the question of who is doing the coordination and management of planning for housing. The answer announced is the ‘neighbourhood plans’. However, this was not well thought through and more and more different interpretations are dripping through over the last few months. The Coalition government forgets that the communities within these neighbourhoods are not in a single voice and democracy does not mean a consensual view and that a lack of coordination is not the same as innovation.

The prospect for planning for housing over the next few years is likely to be uncertain and patchy. The differential capacity of communities means that some will achieve success, but some will be vulnerable and subject to manipulation by those with major financial resources and knowledge. It may shake the confidence of investment as developers do not like uncertainty. More importantly, the whole idea undermines professional knowledge and input, though now the government argues that the local authority has to provide such inputs without thinking where the resources come from when a quarter of the planners have lost their jobs.

We used to have a jigsaw puzzle of nine regional pieces to do strategic planning. In order to heighten the challenge, the puzzle has been subject to an earthquake and was shattered into little pieces. Good luck and have fun in putting this puzzle back together – the likelihood is that we will have a very patchy picture with lots of gaps and uncertainty.

References

Wong, C and Schulze Baing, A (2010) Brownfield residential redevelopment in England: What happens to the most deprived neighbourhoods? Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Bristol: Policy Press