Monthly Archives: January 2020

Cover story

The image says ‘London’. My editor responds to my meekly expressed concern that the proposed cover of my new book, with its focus on Canary Wharf and Docklands, is not really the heart of the ‘alpha’ city. Grudgingly at first, I begin to absorb his point – if you are not a Londoner, if you are only faintly aware of what that city is about, if you might struggle to ‘place’ the city in some way, then this is indeed its heart to all intents and purposes. It helps that the U-shaped loop of the Thames offers an aesthetically pleasing enfolding of this space – the otherwise straight-line flow of the Thames repelled by the citadels of corporate HQs and finance houses. The effect is an attractive, symmetrical focal point to the cover.

Where is London’s centre of power, and what do we consider that power to consist of? If I were forced to put a thumb tack on a wall map of the city to indicate its heart I might hesitate, before plumping for the intersection of roads in front of One Hyde Park, Harrods and Harvey Nichols. This, as much as any other seat of city, City or national government, or transnational company’s office block, speaks of what the city has become in the past decade – a place for money and the moneyed. In this sense power feels like it is comprised of finance on the one hand, an international visiting, resident or investing wealth elite on the other, and with public service and government relegated to a backroom role of engineer, operating to maintain the machine and its component characters, institutions and flows of bodies, cash and bricks.

Picking a cover image is an attempt at distillation, just as the book itself is an attempt at distilling, viewing and summarising enormous forces and processes. By pointing to visible examples we can begin to glean the force of capital as it continues to shape the city.

As London and the UK begin a formal of severance of links to the EU today, the broader, more abstract empire defined by capital will be more assertively embraced, the saviour of the City, if not many of its citizens who endure a place of austerity, poverty and dislocation.  

The role of a more urbanized criminology, and a more criminological urban studies

Rowland Atkinson and Gareth Millington

Gilets jaunes, Paris, 2019, image by Norbu Gyachung – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76468780

This short blog discussed the genesis and themes of our book Urban Criminology, published by Routledge in 2019.

Our frequently discussed globalised urban condition has sparked much discussion among urbanists – where and how will people live in dignity? How will they be governed? How will such living be sustainable in economic and environmental terms? We might equally ask – how will this condition generate new rounds of victimisation and why? How will questions of crime, safety and control be resolved in new and existing urban arenas?

We came to these issues as urban sociologists with a strong interest in the question of crime and harm, but also with the realisation that we could fruitfully engage a more formal dialogue between urban studies and criminology. Criminology of course is in many ways an ‘urban’ discipline – who did not know their Chicago school and its concentric rings, who had not been exposed to the maps of Mayhew? Moving beyond this we tried to think about why would we not also want to engage more deeply with the often unacknowledged links between the city, political economy and the development of a critical approach to urban life today. We were particularly keen to explore how urban conditions, characterised by intensifying inequalities in wealth, around housing and access to core services were immensely relevant to criminological thinking. What kind of shared canon, ideas and cities themselves might be foregrounded in a more explicit dialogue of relevance to scholars of the city, as well as those interested in crime and harm?

Urban Criminology starts with an observation, that there is much going on in urban studies that is neither recognised nor considered in criminology, but also that reverse is true. This problematic led us to consider a range of domains in which the conceptual armoury and studies of both disciplines might be engaged in a rewarding exchange of ideas. We organised these areas in terms of questions about more traditional forms of crime and harm, such as those clustered in deprived neighbourhoods or in forms of explicit interpersonal violence, on the one hand, while also thinking about new, emerging or less recognised forms of harm that have become of more widespread concern in recent years. Here we might consider the move from white collar to grander crimes within finance, the use of new technologies and aggressive methods for control in cities, the operation of housing systems that produce new social geographies and stresses or the adoption of new tactics for terrorism in urban arenas around the world.

While these various issues seem immediately relevant to thinking within and across urban and criminological studies arguably none are emphatically new. Our contribution lay in trying to offer a fresh synthesis that highlighted the need for a clearer dialogue between urbanists and criminologists. At the back of these concerns was a challenge to the reader – that to understand many forms of crime today we need to understand how the city itself ‘works’ and indeed, does not work. Such operations include of course a wide range of social, political and economic structures that themselves vary according to national and urban contexts but which are also influenced by global economic forces that generate new and mutating forms of harm.

Bushfires encroach on urban settlements in Australia, 2010, Image by Helitak430 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85436323

To offer some sense of how these new combinations of factors and outcomes are coming into view we examine such issues as the relationship between neoliberal governance regimes and the deregulation of safety implicated in the Grenfell tower disaster and creation of more precariously employed city labour forces more generally. Global capital is now also more entwined with the unhousing and trauma associated with demolition, housing displacement and continued mobility of many around the world as capital looks for new spaces to gentrify and appropriate. New forms of boundary making, around gated communities and affluent enclaves with private modes of policing, also appear as a kind of security ‘foam’, complex physical and urban governance structures that raise new questions about how inequality, crime and (in)security are distributed and related through the contemporary city.

We might ask, what is ‘urban’ about crime? We suggest in the book that what binds much of the varied concerns of criminology and urban studies today is the need for a deepened critical perspective. Such a perspective should recognise the primacy of the urban condition and its manifold form. It should also avoid naivety in understanding that, at root, power and inequality produce more aggressive responses to the question of crime (while sidelining others forms of harm), but also that these same conditions are themselves generative of harm in cities around the world today. In addition, the relationship between national and global political management of economies can be linked to new forms of risk, value extraction (from labour and nature) and the expansion of financial services. All of this generates significant questions for how we should understand to the question of how urban systems are producing new and different forms of crime and harm. Fraud, manipulation and laundering among global and urban elites seem particularly important areas for further investigation.

Where to from here? We hope that Urban Criminology offers the means of galvanising critical criminology in attempts at seeing the city as a site in which harm may be produced and indeed mitigated. Urban life is replete with examples of violence, harm and aggressive political actions towards vulnerable populations. But it is also a site of hope, social action and movements that are increasingly conscious of and antagonistic toward question of inequality, power and unfair modes of social control. Cities may be key sites of harm as we move forward, but they may also offer the crucibles within which fairer and more just social conditions may be formed. We hope that the book may offer some contribution to such discussions, between urbanists and criminologists in the future.

Urban Criminology is published by Routledge

Looking for Planet B – The super-rich, the environment and social injustice

The unchecked lifestyle choices of the globe’s super-rich, and its affluent more broadly, are a curse on our planet.

In 1958 Shirley Jackson wrote about the retreat of an affluent family into their palatial home. Preparing for the end of the world she describes how the world outside ‘was to be plundered ruthlessly for objects of beauty to go in and around the house; infinite were the delights to be prepared for its inhabitants.’ (P. 8  Jackson, S. (1958) The Sundial, London: Penguin). Post-war North American affluence pales into insignificance beside the excesses and gross consumption of today’s consumer societies and the habits of its wealthiest. In 2010 Oxfam reported that 388 people owned as much as half of the planetary population. By 2014 the figure was 85, by 2016 it was 62 and, in the latest revision, the organization found that a mere 8 people commanded wealth unparalleled since pre-Biblical times.

There is rising concern not only at the level of power and influence that such riches command, and how such power is used in the pursuit of further wealth, the erosion of support for the poor and massive over-consumption of fossil and other resources. Worse still, opulent lifestyles, privileged social networks and secluded homes feed a mechanism described by a US sociologist as the ‘toilet assumption’: our damaging human effects and the increasingly denuded world outside are rendered invisible. What prospect for reform and healing if the harms we do remain unseen?

The rise of the world’s super rich and the concentration of global wealth has come at a bad time for the planet. The popular political formations, themselves forged of these conditions, are offer images of continued economic growth, public denial of harm and denigration of the conscious. Those with achieve a disproportionate take on resources and lead profligate lifestyles – multiple residences, private jets, extensive cohorts of staff, gourmet delights alongside endless rounds of newly accumulated clothes, precious metals and jewels. The world’s rich are not sustainable. This is not simply because of what they themselves do and own but because of their lead and influence within a culture fixed upon fashionable rounds of consumption, disposability and the signaling of success through monetary worth and acquisition of status goods. The revelation that SUV drivers globally form the equivalent of a seventh nation in terms of pollution in their own right is likely to lead to a morally inflected discussion among communities and calls to shame those making personal choices with public and planetary consequences. The hyperactive flightpaths of celebrities, the rich and academics have come under scrutiny. Yet the rich are not only a problem because many would like what they have. What many now understand to be needed to face-down multiple climate crises and injustices, in social and environmental terms, will not be achieved unless excess is more firmly regulated, or their lives become more firmly embedded in the communities that increasingly censure them.

Rising inequality, as many now agree, is bad for us all. One reason for this is that the wealthy are able to outbid and out-consume others on merely mortal incomes. London’s skyline is now puffed-up with more than 500 skyscrapers at some stage of construction. Many of these apartments are bought purely for investment and lie empty for much of the year. The most recent estimate is that half of homes in London’s ‘prime’ property areas are under-used according to their extremely low use of utilities. Reality television shows regularly highlight the excessive consumption of the bunkers and fortress homes of the super-rich, but in my own research I have seen homes with ten bedrooms, personal cinemas, underground pools and even car lifts to sunken parking. In many cases beds and indeed houses lie empty for much of the year, visits timed to coincide with key cultural events and arts openings. More remarkable still is the creative destruction that accompanies more extreme cases – the demolition of extensive and often prized residences. The next step is often construction of a much larger home, capable of supporting grander parties and with expanded wall space for prized modern art canvases and sculptures bought more for investment than aesthetic reasons. Everything, including kitchen sinks, are regularly thrown out and reinstalled to maintain a look that is of the times. These lifestyles and homes offer standards now gawped at by many – considered the glittering potential prize of social escape and total luxury. Yet the cost is clearly huge. The excessive consumption habits of the rich show that luxury is untenable at a time of profound necessity and our increasing realization of ecological limits.

Cicero suggested that to have a library and a garden is to have everything we need. For the global super-rich such ecological groundedness and erudition is twisted into the bloated wings attached to multiple homes and extensive lawns patrolled by private security guards. The costs of hyper-consumption are plain to see – unending air miles in private or chartered jets, diamond encrusted baubles, edible gold leaf cocktails designed to coax money from the wealthy. What damaging mindset is generated by societies that have allowed or encouraged the growing ranks of the wealthy? Such attitudes matter because they infect our public life and damage our grossly unequal societies. Think tanks and complicit politicians defend excessive wealth and the inequality that goes alongside it. But in ecological terms we know that affluence is costing us the earth and those with less are affected worst and first. For the rich the dream is of escape, from taxes, from social obligation and even from nations. The latest news on the rich is their purchase of estates in New Zealand as bolt-holes come environmental or political apocalypse and attempts by billionaires to create cities in the sea free of tax and social burdens.

Working toward a celebration of connection to environments, to society and meaning are values that require emphasis in our public culture. Yet the expansion of the ranks of the wealthy militate against this. Indeed the actions of many millions among the affluent middle classes are also part of this story. Attempts at bringing harmony, happiness and an ethic of sustainability become rather like comedian Sean Lock’s suggestion that personal environmental efforts often feel like bringing a dustpan to clean up a volcano. Strenuous efforts at valuing that which is finite around us is increasingly common. Yet we know that rising living standards and private incomes unleash countless forms of waste and over-consumption on a fragmenting and damaged world. In this sense our consciousness must be aware of the need to engage and challenge excess as moral issues that bind us together, despite the rhetoric of personal wins and choice. The one percent are not with us on these issues.

Woody Allen once said ‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying’. For the rich an anxiety about death is met not with a sense of common humanity and obligation, but with attempts at building wealth, ego excess (foundations and gifts for named wings of museums in some cases) or a strong interest in living forever through technological advances. One of the very real problems that we face as a global society is that those with money and power have a tendency to choose to give very little of what they have, rather than changing or improving the mechanisms by which such unnecessary wealth is generated in the first place. We must all have less if the world around us is to survive. The message for the super-rich is that they need a lot less.