Posts tagged London

19 notes

UK cities: from privatized dystopias to fertile soils for community projects?

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.

Civic response
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:


No magic potion
The retreat of government from civic society (and handing over parts of it to private service providers) and a dismantling of the welfare state seems to evoke creative civic entrepreneurship. We should not see this as an overall solution because it cannot fill all the voids left behind and cannot help everyone affected by unemployment, poverty, sickness and gentrification. It is too easy to point at the success of a handful of (exceptional) projects to show that a policy such as Big Society is successful. I believe national and local governments should be the ones providing social safety nets. 
Visualising what is possible
Nevertheless, projects like these can (potentially) have a considerable impact on local communities, individuals, urban economies and the environment. And, their progressive and experimental character gives us an inspiring peak into the future of how we might want to live and work together cities. They are also showing us how to relocalize money streams to benefit local communities and that local governments are happy to chip in on meaningful projects. Moreover, they show that creativity is increasingly being used for more meaningful initiatives, rather than just for the production of symbolic value.

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.

Images by dunclukPreoccupationsArcola Theatre, me. 

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.

Filed under privatization london public space capitalism neoliberalism civic economy community urbanism

10 notes

London’s High-Rise Craze

"Is London’s skyline going down the tube?" Illustration by Nick Brown

The always sharp Rowan Moore wrote a great piece about London’s incoherently exploding skyline for The Guardian, saying that most large towers currently being built or recently built are of inferior quality, not connected to their environment and creating one-dimensional urban spaces. He wonders how the city’s planning system has become so unbalanced, who is paying for all this, and who is making money out of it.

Do read the full article, “How a high-rise craze is ruining London’s skyline”.  

There’s also a gallery with images of skycrapers recently built and soon to be completed. The pictures do not really illustrate a positive development.

Vauxhall Cross, due 2015. Image: PR.

Thanks Jeroen Pool for pointing out this article to me.

Filed under London high-rise neo-capitalism urbanism

2 notes

Greedy City

A postcard the Failed Architecture team ran into in a London bookstore, after returning from a workshop in Nottingham.

Filed under capitalism architecture London

6 notes

The Olympics and the City

Yesterday I got to know about an upcoming project of Gary Hustwit. He’s the guy behind Helvetica, Objectified and, most recently, Urbanized. His next thing will be a photo book about the legacy of the Olympics in former host cities. I think that’s an interesting question to ask: what will a city be like after the events are over?

Hustwit’s last project, Urbanized, turned out to be a really enjoyable documentary. At first, I thought ‘how the hell are you going to capture today’s urbanization in one documentary?’, but I backed the project anyway through a Kickstarter campaign. The result was quite impressive, in terms of giving an overview of the many challenges our cities are facing, and because of its visual presentation of pressing urban issues. The problem is that you can’t include all the necessary - historical, cultural, economic, architectural, etc - nuances in a 85-minute documentary. Therefore I think the film is particularly good for a wider audience of people not being experts in the urban studies or architecture fields, showing some of the pressing issues that everyone should be aware of. To me, watching the film only raised countless questions, only making clear that “the city” is far too elusive and undefinable to understand or ‘fix’ as a whole. But still, I’m planning to show Urbanized to my parents, so that they will get a sense of what it is I’m spending all my time on.

The Olympic City
Hustwit now started working on a new project, together with photographer Jon Pack. It will be a photo book that looks at the legacy of the Olympic Games in former host cities around the world.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing this book. Hosting the Olympics has be come a means for cities to create prestige value and attract all kinds of investments in the global arenas cities nowadays compete. It is always thought to generate tourism and business activity. But what happens after the Games are over? That’s what this book will be about. 

Olympic benefits
Although the book will document both the successes and failures, I’m quite sure the total sum of costs and benefits involved with organizing the Olympic event is a negative one. This is something Belgian Professor Stefan Kesenne recently showed in a publication about the impact of large sports events on the local and national economy of the host city. While candidates for hosting such a big event (the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup) always present extremely positive models showing the miraculous economic blessings of organizing it, realities are invariably less bright. These reports are often so misleading because they are carried out by lobby groups or other ‘idiots’ (as Kesenne puts it) that only show say what the IOC or FIFA want to hear, because otherwise they can forget about the event.
The exorbitant investments accompanying the organization of such an event create jobs, of course. But “so does building a bridge in a desert”, says Kesenne. The largest benefits of the tournaments, being the tv-rights and ticket revenues, go straight to the IOC and FIFA.  

With this in mind, I think The Olympic City will be a valuable book because it visualizes the misleading planning and broken promises always associated with the Olympics. Unused, inactive and decaying sports facilities, instead of flourishing economies and vibrant urban districts. And I believe a photographic book can be a strong medium to get your message across. 

Oh yes, you can support the project through its Kickstarter campaing. Check out the video of the makers below.

Source: Kesenne, S. (2010) “The orchestrated public misleading of IOC and FIFA" (In Dutch)

Filed under city olympics London Athens Beijing legacy failed architecture

57 notes

How Coffee Revitalizes the City

Coffee culture expresses new ways of working and living 
and shapes our cities

Coffee Bru Specialty Coffee Bar
Coffee Bru, Amsterdam.

Coffee helps us. It helps us get out of bed, it raises our productivity and promotes creativity, it’s the driving force of conversations and the fuel for writers and bloggers. This piece is also written in a coffee bar, my personal favorite. It’s called Coffee Bru and was recently named the best coffee venue in The Netherlands and Belgium in a newly published coffee guide. Coffee Bru is located outside of Amsterdam’s centre in a neighbourhood in transition. In a typical week, I spend about three days working in this place. Sitting here consuming coffee just helps me through the day and through my work, or at least gives me the illusion that my productivity benefits from the consumption experience.

Energy impulse for the city
But coffee is not just providing myself and other people with energy. It also ‘helps’ the city. Since coffee culture has grown so rapidly over the past years, coffee has become a catalyst for urban development as well. And this is not just a revival of the ‘coffee houses’ that first emerged in Europe in the early 1600s. It is more of a phenomenon in which several developments in the society and the economy meet, while having a strong connection to spatial dynamics.

Coffee places: physical articulations of our economies and societies
This mechanism has to do with the processes of postindustrialisation and several economic and societal developments that are associated with it. One of them is that in more flexible economies, the boundaries between social and professional life are fading. Business meetings are sometimes hard to distinguish from just hanging out or catching up, especially for smaller and more flexible businesses (eg. freelancers).
The fusion of professional and personal lives are related to the fact that businesses and individual professionals are becoming more and more footloose (at least within their city) and that this makes so called third places (places other than the house or the office, such as coffee bars and libraries) easier to use for work purposes.
Next to this, we are more and more concerned with aesthetic reflexivity and the sign value of things, rather than use value. Coffee (consumption) is a product/service that is increasingly subject to this. We are willing to pay more for fancy-named, exotically flavored or artisanally brewed coffee, because we like the product, but also because we like to relate ourselves - our identity - to the product or the experience (yes, you too). Several years ago, the hip thing to consume was coffee with flavours and creams, preferrably in huge take away cups. Over the past years, the hip has shifted towards more artisan coffees, strict brewing rituals and freshly baked cookies and cakes in small-scale and cozy cofee bars with vintage and ingenious interiors.

A variety of coffee brewing methods
A variety of brewing methods is the new wave. ©Mabel Suen

The spatial dispersion of coffee venues
In the meantime, the Starbucks-esque coffee venues have become more mainstream, generating large visitor flows and revenues. They are typically situated in the city centres or on the main streets of gentrified neighbourhoods.

Barista Jam is located amidst traditional shops in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong

The new type of coffee bars are generally situated in other places. One the one hand, because they cannot afford the high-end locations as they are often startups run by young people, but on the other hand because their crowds are also in other places. The main audience of the new coffee venues generally consists of people from twenty to fourty, with a dash of hip (or hipster). Looking around in these places, you see many students and young professionals/freelancers working, reading and socializing. (What’s also remarkable, is the amount of young mothers with babies hanging out.)

Artisan Roast coffee bar, Edinburgh
Artisan Roast, Edinburgh.

Whatever the exact composition of the audience may be, it seems that much of the visitors also like living in neighbourhoods in transition and/or cannot afford to live in ‘better’ neighbourhoods. As is the case for the venues. The (slightly) off-centre location provides a suitable space to lower rents, and somewhat edgy character with which they like to identify themselves. 

And that is what many young urban dwellers like: the ‘undiscovered’, slightly hidden and rough character of the venues combined with innovative products, services and interiors. An initial result is often a flocking of young people, partly because there is a high demand for good meeting places, which has to do with the above mentioned shifts in society and economic structures.

Local buzz and gentrification
Popular meeting places, in turn, create a certain vibrance for their environment. This can help the neighbourhood develop, increase liveability (whatever that may be exactly) and attract more people and businesses to the area: a next phase of gentrification. It is evident that there is a correlation between commercial and residential gentrification. Commercial gentrification attracts more activity, making an area more attractive for more affluent residents. Residential gentrification on the other hand, generates a demand for more upscale commercial activities.

There is a lot to say about gentrification. A mild version of it is generally perceived as something good, but just as there is a momentum for these avant-garde venues to set up shop in not-so-hip areas, there is a certain tipping point in the gentrification process. This often entails (a.o.) rising rents, a declining share of social housing (at least in the Netherlands), at some point disappearing facilities and amenities for the less well-off, and in the more profound cases chain stores entering, standardization and a looking-alike of neighbourhoods.

We’re all gentrifiers
But let’s not go on and on about gentrification, that’s a whole ‘nother (very important) discussion. What is striking to me is that coffee bars are physical expressions of changes in taste and the ways we live and work. The popularity of these venues, in turn, can work as a catalyst for certain areas, because it creates a particular local energy, attracting more activity to these neighbourhoods. This is how I observe it. And while I happily fuse my work with the enjoyable activity of consuming coffee and being part of the coffee culture, I’m aware of the fact that this makes me a small cog in processes of gentrification as well. But that’s something we can hardly escape, since our ‘cities of production’ have already changed into ‘cities of consumption’.

I’ll take a V60 Yirgacheffe, thanks. That’s to show how much I know about artisan coffee brewing my favorite.

Filed under Amsterdam Coffee Bru London coffee culture gentrification urban renewal Artisan Roast aesthetic reflexivity urbanism

14 notes

Failed Architecture #5: riots and architecture

Talks and Q&A | Wednesday October 5 | starts 20.00h | English | 2,50 Euro

At De Verdieping/TrouwAmsterdam with:
Dennis Bos, Robert Grimm (UK) and Arnold Reijndorp

During the 5th edition of our series of talkshows and public discussions we will focus on the riots that recently took place in London and quickly spread to other cities in England, leaving several people killed, dozens of people injured and hundreds of buildings looted and burned. As Churchill famously intoned ‘We shape our buildings and then they shape us’. What is the relation between the material city and conflict? Have new urban forms produced new forms of violence? And what is the role of the architect and urban planner in this respect? Can they be blamed and/or can they provide a solution for this enduring problem?

Read More

via failedarchitecture

Filed under Dennis Bos Robert Grimm De Verdieping TrouwAmsterdam Michiel van Iersel Tim Verlaan Mark Minkjan UK riots London Paris Manchester

11 notes

Utopia London tells the story of some of London’s postwar architectural pieces through the eyes of their designers. Why were the structures built the way they were, did they survive the different reigning zeitgeists and how are they being appreciated nowadays?

For those of you in the Netherlands: tomorrow night the film is premiering at Shadow Cities in De Verdieping in Amsterdam. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Filed under London postwar architecture modernism architecture social housing