Monthly Archives: October 2014

The sonic ghetto

Sonic ghettos

Two fifths of the respondents to the 2008 National Noise Survey indicated that their quality of life suffered as a consequence of noise in their everyday lives. The density and concentration of urban life certainly produces variable and increasing stressors and sensitivities – but is this about poor neighbours or bad building regulations? How many fewer cases of noise stress, anti-social behaviour, noisy parties and other wicked urban problems might be faced-down by better sound insulation? Could this agenda be made to mesh with zero-carbon emission ambitions for buildings? A nice idea, surely. Noise needn’t be a source of community stress or a necessary by-product of the changing urban fabric. Noise is commonly held to be responsible for many psycho-social tensions, civil disputes and the ambient unease of much urban life. Noise is a subjective defined state of affairs – passing trains can be noisy but it is quite easy to become used to (soothed even) them over time. This designation is also shaped by social and spatial factors – the territories of everyday routines, journeys to work and, crucially, homes. For noise to penetrate the home is an insidious and deeply destabilising experience. I get anxious, angry and upset very quickly if I hear music near my home after a protracted experience of loud music from thoughtless students from a flat directly opposite mine in Glasgow years ago. Much such noise is people just doing what they do, not realising that their personal freedoms may generate inwardly hating, stressed and sleepless lives in those around them – some of it, on the other hand, is due to arrogance, displays of aggression and sonic/territorial claims to space through the use of sound-power. Just as good fences are needed to have good neighbours it is quite clear that solid walls and floors may be just as important.

Do not disturb, Rome

Noise isn’t an inevitable or inescapable aspect of urban life, to state this is to deny the possibility of making better buildings or better neighbours. This might on first glance be seen as the analytical realm of the architect, planner, regulator or the environmental scientist. However, as Jacques Attali pointed out in his book Noise, there is a distinctive ‘politics’ of noise and this is most clearly understood in terms of who experiences it, in what forms and with what consequences. As this would suggest, the distribution of noise is also a sociological matter that speaks to the issues of privacy, invasiveness and the zonal distribution of housing, buildings and services. Yet there is still a need to take up Robert Merton’s challenge in one of the first statements (from 1951) about a housing sociology that this should be concerned with the psychic pressures implied by rising urban density. For Merton housing studies should be very interested in the potential compromise of personal privacy and pressure generated by the kinds of new built environment springing up at that time, notably the new housing projects. This neatly leads us to the kind of sonic ghettos being generated by poorly constructed flats in the private sector, particularly since the advent of the urban renaissance under the UK Blair government – waterfronts and central city spaces populated by ranks of low quality buildings that don’t allow their residents a sense of privacy, autonomy and control over their daily lives. Stories of noisy neighbours, hearing people urinating upstairs, coughing, placing cups on hard surfaces in adjoining kitchens and, ahem, more private acts.

The effect of creating a built environment that pressures social subjects in these ways is not only to feel a loss of control from intrusion by others (neighbours no less) but also the sense of an impinging self-surveillance as expressivity and control within their primary social zone is reduced – if we can hear them, they can hear us! With this in mind their remains a need for urbanists to map the social power relations, the production of deficient built environments and the geographies of social stress generated by these effects. The deep misery of those affected requires us to consider such problems. The themes covered offer an agenda for developing further engagement by social scientists concerned with both the intangibility yet deeply affecting qualities of sound and noise in urban life today.

The silent lounge, Copenhagen airport

The random neighbourhood: Bringing concentrated wealth into the concentrated poverty debate

rich and poor 2

The unfair distribution of wealth and income today are increasingly at the forefront of social debate. These arguments appear to be rising in intensity, largely because new media systems have made allowed data and insights to circulate more quickly and clearly. It is likely that you have heard that roughly 80 people own half of the entire globe’s wealth, and similar figures that highlight these massive disparities. But it is also important to think spatially in relation to these questions. London has become a kind of gilded ghetto, a series of positive area effects in which wealth brings more wealth and the agglomeration of unparalleled cultural and financial infrastructures drives further investment. Being wealthy in London allows access to these services and shows how space matters and its attributes drive the residential decisions of the wealthy. This is, of course, in some contrast to the conditions of many neighbourhoods and more deprived households whose position has been further distressed, not only by austerity but the almost wholesale exit of public strategies to address market failure, social and regional disparities. Where the neighbourhood was central to policy interventions it is now side-lined amidst a race to further concentrate capital investment in London and among other existing winners.

There is a palpable anger about inequality that is being channelled and given weight by the cumulative evidence of meticulous analyses. Piketty’s book on Capital in the 21st Century and Dorling’s Inequality and the 1% are good source books with which to face-down dominant ideas that circulate in political and media circuits used to justify why government debt cannot be allowed to escalate, why more equitable taxation as a means to address deficits cannot be used to resolve current conditions and how large the yawning gulf is between the majority of the population and its well-paid and wealthy elites really is. This has made these issues new-found targets that are fair game for debate and criticism.

Let’s go back to the question of how to understand these issues in spatial terms. How do places pull us back or help us to move forward? These are long-standing concerns that underpin urban policies designed to iron-out the worst wrinkles in the uneven social patchwork of market failure and social distress – tackling uneven economic opportunities and social outcomes. In all of this the idea of the neighbourhood effect, of the compounding disadvantages that people face when living side-by-side with many other people with few or no resources, was a powerful theory. Of course in such conditions it isn’t the neighbourhood itself that magically acts to hold people back, but a range of social and economic effects generated by, for example large numbers of unruly kids in a classroom, the lack of role models in the neighbourhood, the increased risk of victimisation from acquisitive criminals and so on. These ideas are not without their controversies, many have left ideas of an underclass and of concentrated poverty because of their relation to paternalistic policies and indeed regressive explanations of those problems.

Areas of concentrated deprivation are produced by at least two key factors – first, a population of households and individuals generated by the economic system we inhabit (so obvious yet so very important!) and second by the nature of public and private housing systems that sort people into estates and neighbourhoods with bundles of more or less desirable qualities and proximity to essential services, amenities and employment opportunities. One way of thinking about the impact of this social mosaic is to consider a thought experiment. Imagine twins who, at birth and incredibly cruelly, were separated and moved to the most affluent and deprived neighbourhoods in the country. What experiences, challenges and advantages do you think they would each face as a result of developing in these different contexts? Such an experiment goes some way to forcing us to think about how we might plan to tackle general levels of deprivation, but also think through how to encourage more socially diverse areas.

One possible way to imagine a template for neighbourhood planning would be to randomly allocate people to all local areas in the country. This interesting thought experiment forms the basis of an article by Danny Dorling and Phil Rees. Yet it isn’t a million miles away from the ambitions of planners to create socially diverse localities by engineering variables like housing tenure, building size and type and so on. The idea of a random neighbourhood that thereby draws in a good cross-section of people with varying incomes, class, gender, sexuality, occupations and ages can be used to think through the benefits of social mix and diversity – how they might be optimised to generate greater inclusion, lower reliance on services and a broader social base of daily contact. This image stands in contrast to the kinds of areas of concentrated deprivation and exclusion that we see in many towns and cities. This isn’t just about the lumpy areas of concentrated exclusion but also necessarily about the nature of concentrated wealth and its obliviousness to social distress.

Visions of what an optimal neighbourhood might be have arguably been stunted by the absence of interest in neighbourhoods by the current government, and no doubt the continued de-funding of policies that have been shown to make a difference at this level in the pursuit of deficit reductions. We don’t have neighbourhood policies, local programmes, forms of social investment and catalysts to mitigate against the way that capitalism will always tend to produce big winners and losers. Without recognition of the need to make concessions the kind of anger expressed at housing shortages (among many other areas of social need) are likely to become much more concerted, aggressive and generate wider appeal. Perhaps more importantly we need to look to and understand how the places and virtues of concentrated affluence and economic growth in the south-east shape the policy ambitions of our political elite. Their disconnection (from the lived reality of poor living environments, denuded public services) takes away any urgency to providing vehicles for mass employment in the post-Fordist heartlands. For those arguing that to improve our chances we should somehow get on our bikes and join the glittering economic heartlands of the south-east we need to recognise not only the segregation and distress of the capital itself but also how very broken and over-stressed that system is already. We need more imagination around local and regional planning as well taxes on wealth and income to even begin to start to redress these unacceptable gaps between rich and poor.

The poverty of urban research: London’s super-rich

The Shard

The Shard

Space matters, as geographers often like to say to sociologists – it also matters to the very wealthy who are overwhelmingly concentrated around the social asset-rich spaces of London’s super-prime property markets. Unless you have been living in a cave for the last few years this is an issue that is exercising rather a lot of people. What kind of a city has London become and who is it for? The project that I am co-leading with Roger Burrows (Goldsmiths) is focused on trying to understand the changes that the city has experienced alongside the massive increases in wealth, both from international and ‘local’ sources. Instead of looking down, as has often been criticised in sociological research, we are trying to look-up and understand the property markets, neighbourhoods, social circuits and wider impacts of these groups on the city.

For the super-rich and the merely very wealthy London works – it has relatively low levels of property taxation, unrivalled cultural and leisure circuits, sits astride the time line and is a relatively safe city, both to live and do business. But there is a much broader series of political questions that lurks in the background here – austerity, welfare cuts, stagnating housing supply, gentrification, estate demolitions and the general sense that London works for capital rather than its citizens. If anything we feel that this makes studying the rich a more urgent problematic – the displacement of low-income households in the city is by no means disconnected from the rising fortunes and investments of off-shore investors and to the insulated political lives of those making the decision to cut welfare and housing programmes. As we move into the research we are learning much more about how and why the wealthy are choosing London, as a place to live or as a place to park money for a time. Much of London’s gain has been generated by the chaos of other regions globally, or the relative intrusiveness of the state in other countries.

The social splitting-off of super-affluence represents one of the foremost challenges for applied social science. Fundamentally this relates to the lag between models of society, power and civic life and the growth, dynamics and effects of super-affluence that have not tended to be captured through these lenses. In a city like London it is clear that there are those investing in, but rarely living in, the city, but there are also many very wealthy people who seek to be in the city. What do these types of engagement and non/elective belonging imply for politics and fiscal policies?

Gaining contact and learning more is fraught with difficulty, one of the reasons ‘studying-up’ , though laudable, is so difficult in the first place. The very rich present us with difficulties precisely because they tend to challenge the ability of a public sociology to locate, understand and report on them.  In many cases the very possibility of connection with such groups has evaporated, and the state already acknowledges this. In the past the traditional imperatives of research meant that work on elite was difficult – secretaries, various defensive and other power relationships kept social investigators at bay.  But, more recently, services like the Australian Bureau of Statistics and US statistical authorities have expressed concern at what is effectively the growing myopia of the state to super rich citizens whose residential arrangements, such as gated communities, prevent their basic profiling. Instead of concern with unemployed and young males, the perennial problem group for survey researchers, we need to acknowledge the increasing opacity of affluent life – from the state and from public understandings of the full range of social life. The state sees unevenly, and appears to be predisposed to support most those it sees least.

London’s burgeoning high rise landscape appears to be driven by underground pipelines of capital flowing into the city from across the globe. London’s luck brings more luck, the longest run of a nationally-sanctioned pyramiding scheme in the form of its property market. Perhaps worst of all the city of Lanchester’s Capital is a heartless space, money talks and politicians listen. Hostility to migrants but not migrating money, to new homes but not to empty homes speak of a callous money-logic that trumps attempts at stating the case for the city as a place for communities, social life and nurturing spaces. How very old-fashioned and cringe-worthy even to suggest such things.


One Hyde Park, ultra prime market residences.

Any basic commitment to an equitable social and economic agenda should feel obliged to encompass these changes and move beyond speculation to learn more about the extent, lifestyles, attitudes and daily life of the very wealthy. Debates about taxation, house-building, civic engagement and urban politics cannot proceed without such insights. This is not to suggest that with knowledge might come political action or condemnation, but that we cannot achieve commitments to social equity and more just cities without it.

Managing information overload

Lest people think I am slightly mad I want to start with another word I found in the Chambers English dictionary, you will notice it also starts with ‘a’, so you can see I haven’t got very far as yet. The word is (perhaps in a rather Steven Fry QI voice) abibliophobia noun the fear or anxiety that one will run out of things to read. This set me thinking as I believe I am with the majority of academics whose fear is of even marginally keeping apace of the books, journal articles (a large part of my inbox used to be journal alerts for contents pages), reports, blogs (!) and perhaps twitter as well. Surely one of the core anxieties of our times is how we can navigate this sea of information, remain informed and not be bluffers who have only read the abstract. We are in danger of being locked into Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s Tyranny of the Moment (think of your average day of repeating the same tasks over and over again and being locked into this kind of activity and you have it – for most of us its email of course, with Eriksen noting that he would go home in order to do decent work – but perhaps even that was before webmail…). The reality is of course that most such information is incredibly ‘thin’ and refers to little of consequence, a good example of this being coverage of the stockmarkets. We can almost tune-in from one day to another and be confronted either with disaster or elation at the performance of the market. This isn’t simply a function of the current crisis, it is just as much about a move away from analysis and the educative role of the media to a point at which the media apparently reflect momentary interests and data, hence we don’t see graphs for the past week or year to set things in context, never mind a proper briefing on what it all means. The project of writers like John Lanchester (check his series of articles for the London Review of Books, Whoops! and How to Speak Money) has been precisely to cut through the froth of media attention and the emotion machine of the stockmarket and offer people deeper understandings of the way markets, governments and bankers work (and often don’t). The reason I raise this is because arguing about the value and need for longer loops of thinking in the academy belies the reality that so many of us are already the kind of twitching subjects of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism – plugged into headphones, phones, ipads, laptops and desktops – frantically trying to reduce the size of our inboxes or trying to boost our social media profile (ahem). This is corrosive stuff, the partial equivalent of the film The Matrix and a new reason to take critical theory seriously – we are being deeply affected by information overload, by immersion in momentary takes on social life and confronted by the ways in which big data and privately run social monitoring systems are challenging the voice and relevance of social research in the academy. There IS a kind of corporate, neoliberal, commodifying, dehumanising aspect to the way that universities and academics are being repositioned as quick voices and quicker thinkers. Say it isn’t so and then reflect on the daily pressures we all face. I hope to move on to words beginning with b soon.

Autotomically speaking

The Chambers English dictionary defines autotomy as: noun. a reflex reaction in certain animals in which part of the body drops off, especially in order to allow them to escape when being attacked, eg some lizards shed their tails in this way. Reading a dictionary is not often considered very fruitful and yet sometimes it pays dividends! Not only is the capacity of some animals to respond in this way a curiosity but it gives us a metaphor for the way in which the city (its systems of governance at least) may act towards particularly ungovernable, deprived, or disorderly spaces. I’ve called this blog autotomically because the term captures much of what I have been thinking and researching in the past few years, identifying spaces of the wealthy and the excluded that are more or less detached from the political, social and sometimes spatial, fabric of the city. Zones of exception like refugee camps, gated communities of the wealthy, no-go areas for policing authorities, reputationally damaged areas that are avoided by citizens. Simon Parker (University of York) and I have been working around these themes of ‘sensitive’ urban space for sometime now, they form the backdrop to the post-crash conference series we organised at CURB (York) and the backdrop to a series of papers (imminently to be published!) exploring these ideas. So this first note is a nod to acknowledge the ways in which lizards, worms and spiders can help us think about how cities operate and to the benefit of sitting with a cup of tea reading a dictionary looking for inspiration.