The politics of wealth, inequality and austerity are hotting-up in the run-up to the general election. Anger is pervasive, from all political sides but the ‘mediamacro’ presentation of the reality and need for continued austerity remains intact it seems. This is particularly depressing for those seeking to launch renewed optimism about the possibilities for reform, progressive taxation (getting those into it who should but aren’t and those avoiding it) and initiatives to address major issues like the crisis in housing affordability and provision. Cities, like London, are spaces of dramatic excess or continued social abandonment. Yet many of those renting (public or private) in London sit adjacent to massive changes to the built environment that speak of the extraordinary excesses of consumption and accumulation among the very wealthy, despite one of the largest historical economic reverses the country has known.
There have been some excellent analyses of London’s and New York’s dramatically evolving skylines environments recently, pointing out that much of this landscape is an exclusive landscape, off-limits to those distressed and upended by the property market across the city. In the context of ongoing debates about what to do about the super-rich (as though they were inseparable from the operations of an expanding, more global, neoliberal and capitalist system) this transformation is nevertheless notable. As human societies it seems curious that the possibility of such a new landscape could not be applied to the need to face-down much social need. ‘Going up’ will not mean helping out. Yet one of the most curious features of the changes happening in London is that high rise has shaken the taint that we continue to apply to tower blocks and public housing estates – it is social composition and only partially design that separates these structures.
I was particularly struck by this change when I recently picked-up Pearl Jephcott’s study of high rise living in Glasgow from 1971 (Homes in High Flats), there is much to think about here, particularly in the context of super-prime real estate that suspends residents for the scant time they spend in these homes. Even by the early seventies the story of a new utopia was facing a rapid turnaround in fortunes for a model that had initially appeared to offer good, clean living after the mess of the slums and tenements. Jephcott’s study had meticulously considered the problems (the difficulties for families with children, noise, new feelings of isolation within vertical communities and emerging anxieties about crime) including measuring the waiting times of lifts in a rather interesting appendix! Yet this story appears old now, almost as done and dusted as many of the blocks themselves and system-built complexes like Pruitt Igoe, destroyed by another administration that had done as much to fail its own experiments by defunding it as changing social conditions overtook its initial promise. But this story continues to unfold. A recent report suggests that around 50 estates have been remodelled in London to add homes of other tenures but we also know that these stories have generated evictions and net losses of affordable homes – new rounds of expulsion in the wake of cash-strapped local authorities facing the lure of investment from private investors.
Today high rise means high profits for developers on small land footprints, increasingly conspicuous displays of wealth and panoptic views of the city for the partial elite of residents who spend perhaps only a few weeks there, leave it to grow in value unoccupied or decide to let it out. In this context it isn’t surprising that high rise can be made to deliver (despite of course the obvious anxieties that followed the attacks on the World Trade Centre fourteen years ago and after which predictions quickly emerged that high rise was doomed as the potential target of future suicide bombers). What is more surprising is the dearth of imagination and means that might see public investment channelled to deliver more housing to those on more modest means in a city with such stressed physical infrastructure. These new rounds of construction spring from the ground because they are connected to flows of capital accumulated across the global economy, both because of and despite the economic downturn. Anyone who follows the FT’s How to Spend It, their property section or the websites of the elite property vendors and luxury goods houses will know that the consumption of the rich, and their number, has been one of the most recession-proof stories at a time when housing stress, homelessness, food-banks, beds in garden sheds, precarious and zero hours contracts mark the life of the capital outside the bright lights of the super prime areas.
It is interesting that we have moved from visions of the catastrophe of tower block living, widespread height reduction and demolition programmes and the block as the stand-in for social distress and crime in popular films and news media to the shiny new landscape of the world cities and their Shards (London) and Nordstrom (NYC) developments. The residents of these blocks may already have gone mad from boredom, like the residents of J G Ballard’s High Rise (1975), who descend into chaos and warfare between the levels of their brand new block. Unlikely perhaps. But the deeper commentary that Ballard was offering rings true – a concern about an alienating physical environment, the boredom of affluence and perhaps most importantly the barely concealed violence of the wealthy. Is a city that only provides for the wealthy in the face of need not pathological? The imperatives and logics of capital accumulation, purchase, investment and renting will always trump the concerns for a city more grounded in the attempt to tackle human need unless we say it is wrong. If the height and structure of the 260 plus high rise blocks in London’s centre are an index of anything it is the de facto callousness of political systems and politicians who suggest that this is the only game in town and, worse, that somehow this benefits those on no and low incomes. It may seem a rather obvious observation but surely we need more than ever before to being these ambitions back down to earth and make cities like London work better for all citizens.