How citizens and communities taking control of their neighbourhoods are outlining hopeful urban futures
Cardinal Place, London. A great example of not so great urban development
Ah, Britain. I had the privilege to visit London for two days, as a result of the kind invite by Philips’ Livable Cities programme to participate in a round table discussion and help select the winner of the #pinyourcity contest.
The great UK cities
A quick count tells me that I have been to eight British cities in the past two years. It keeps fascinating me how privatization is perceptible in these cities. Privatization has resulted in the securitization, shinification and standardization of the British inner city. Securitization is wonderfully described in Anna Minton’s Ground Control. Initially from 2009, an updated version was published this year – with an extra chapter about the impact of the Olympics on London in terms of the ‘suburbanization of the inner city’ (as I like to call it) – the book explains how British cities are now owned by private corporations, designed for profit and watched over by CCTV. The shinification is illustrated by the clustering of corporate offices in the city centers, most of them built since the 1990s after the market had been severely deregulated. Cities wanted to show that their city centres were back in the global game of finance, business and consumption. This great article by Rowan Moore shows how the sky scrapers that have been popping up over the past decade and will continue to be built over the next few years, do not meet planning guidelines, community needs and architectural standards. Still, politics seems to encourage the ongoing shinification. Often, these shiny towers do not contribute to their surroundings, producing anonymous and even hostile public space and hardly offering public facilities. And there’s the standardization, which has to do with urban environments becoming as safe, clean, and predictable (similar to other places) as possible.
The privatization has also resulted in a sharp divide. Both in society (after a dismantling and marketization of the welfare state), and in cities. Spatial segregation is increasing, just as the pressure on low-income residents of neighbourhoods that are the new frontiers of gentrification. The always great Polis just published a great article on new developments in Stratford, where UCL is planning to build a new campus, the protests against it (by the local community, but also by groups from within UCL), and the role and responsibility of the university in urban renewal.
But a relatively polarized society also seems to encourage grassroots action with a social and sustainable agenda in cities. In Western cities, these seem to become the next popular urban thing, both for policy makers and for creative urbanites, as a sort of follow-up to creative cities policies and only symbolic creative production. I think that’s great, because there is much more ‘use value’ in it, compared to ‘sign value’. I visited three of those projects founded on such principles in London. Being on a tight schedule, I could only visit three of them in Dalston.
Dalston Eastern Curve Garden
First I visited Dalston Eastern Curve Garden. Created on the former Eastern Curve railway line running from Dalstion Junction Station in 2010, the Garden grows stuff but also has a great wooden construction under which you can meet, eat and drink. More recently, a glass house was added. Regular events and workshops are organized there, working together with local communities and youth groups. I was only there briefly, but it felt like a great place run by a great bunch of people.
Arcola Theatre’s bar
After that I checked out Arcola Theatre, which is amazing. In a converted paint factory the studio theatre is now providing high-end performances and plays, but is also delivering community engagement and creative learning. Moreover – and even more exceptional – it has set up an energy business, Arcola Energy. This added sustainability to its social agenda. The theatre became a testing and demonstration ground for energy-efficient methods, cutting its standard energy consumption by 60%, and Arcola Energy now does consultancy and provides sustainable energy solutions to theatres and other organizations. The theatre works with local volunteers and other organizations. It also runs a fantastic eco-café, now open all day and offering organic and handmade food and drinks from local gastronomes. One of the things about Arcola Theatre that I like most is Pay What You Can Tuesdays, which lowers the threshold for local people to visit the theatre.
My last stop before heading for the airport was FARM:shop. This is the third inspiring place I visited within not much more than a square mile. The name FARM:shop basically explains what it is. A farm in a shop. It is a café where you can have coffees and sandwiches. It is also an urban farming space, where different growing typologies are demonstrated – aquaponics, polytunnel, indoor allotment and a rooftop chicken coop. The produce is also sold in the shop and used in the food they sell. Their aim is to have shops like these all over the UK, connect peripheral farms to urban communities and inspire people to grow their own food. And it is inspirational. Especially because it has a DIY feel and the people are very nice. It makes you feel like doing the same stuff at home. And the sandwiches are incredibly good.
These projects are just three of them that I visited in a rush There’s a great publication, Compendium for a Civic Economy, which features more inspiring examples of communities and citizens taking control of themselves and each other in social enterprises. You can buy it in hard copy, but the first edition can also be read online:
At first, coming to London to discuss livability, I couldn’t help but thinking about the city’s livability as also being segregated: to the rich, London is highly livable because high-end lifestyles are perfectly catered. The less well-off, however, are being more and more marginalized, and much of the city’s amenities are not affordable or suitable for them. According to Saskia Sassen, an inherent ‘quality’ of global cities is social polarization. But some kind of countermovement is taking place and I cannot wait to see it crystallize in the near future.
Note 1: I am always very much trying to decypher the ‘dark matter’ in urban development. But not all of the institutions’ agendas are solely driven by economic and financial growth in urban renewal. The Guardian published a great story about a housing corporation in chic North-London is building for low-income tenants in Islington.
Note 2: While the UK government is often characterized as only having acted from a privatization and deregulation mantra over the past decades, it is remarkable that all of the UK’s national museums have free admission (since 2001, actually), which is a great gesture to the country’s residents and tourists. This is something the Dutch government could definitely learn from.