The show currently on BBC2, Mind the Gap, is well worth a watch as it covers many of themes that are important to modern urban geographical studies (you can watch it on the iPlayer, but only till 17th March), notably those being taught at undergradute level, not least by me for GG2053. The first episode ‘London and the Rest’, offered a useful insight into why London is a Global City, and what this means not only for the population of London, but for the rest of the UK and indeed the world. However, despite it’s rather glossy veneer and The Apprentice-style, helicopter, Gods-eye-view aesthetics that is so ubiquitous within mainstream documentaries, the program masked just as many important issues as it did illuminate. It failed to launch the visceral critique that its presenter threatened to do at times (his conservative approach masked an obvious desire to launch a tirade against this gargantuan urban behemoth), and in so doing presented a rather polemic, but no less informative pointer to why London has become the teeming Global City it is today. So I want to map out (using the traditional scalar model for clarity’s sake) a few points of departure from the episode that will help contextualise it in the wider relevant debates about contemporary urban studies.
I’ve recently moved. I moved from a small flat to a house to accommodate a growing family, but in order to afford to do so, we had to move out of the area we were in, to a smaller town/village nearby that has a large traveller community, a significant Nepalese diaspora and soon to be homeless service men and women once the neighbouring barracks are torn down and replaced with mock town housing. As an urban geographer I’d like to think that I’m aware of some of the nuances of urban processes including gentrification, and as such, I was acutely aware that, as a middle class, white collar academic from the heartland of Surrey, I was potentially a gentrifier of the area. In upsizing for a growing family, my situation is typical of a myriad of academics who find themselves looking for alternative accommodation on an (often) meagre income, and as a result, looking in more diverse areas of ethnic communities and/or lower social-economic class.
On the 6th March this year, I tweeted about plans to redevelop the South Bank in London. The following day, the full extent of these plans were detailed. The new ‘Festival Wing‘ development includes “the under-used spaces from the undercrofts” being turned into retail outlets, and the creation of a “new riverside area for urban arts”. This translates as the reconfiguring of the iconic skateboarders ‘mecca’ (known simply as the ‘undercroft’) into a row of shops, as it is a key site of entry into the new Festival Wing. Moreover, the plan is to create a new site in which the skateboarders and graffiti artists can go, situated a few hundred metres further west, under the Hungerford Bridge (more details here).
For me, this exemplifies many of the problems associated with current urban redevelopment policies. Not only is it a case of a consumerism that is predicated upon a rarified notion of urban culture trumping a subcultural community, but the notion that the skaters (and associated activities) can be ‘rehoused’ in a designated area shows a complete lack of understanding of how such activities work, and what they can bring to a city’s cultural offerings. There are many (inter-connected) reasons why I am in such staunch opposition to this particular part of the development, but for the sake of clarity, I have delineated them into 3 key points…
Having given two lectures in a week that featured a long, detailed analysis of the creative class, it was perhaps with a little bit of cosmic timing that I came across this article that same week in The New Republic, on the ‘real’ problems of gentrification. The process of gentrification (and all it’s subsequent ‘real’ problems, more on that later) is obviously mechanistically linked to the inward migration of the ‘creative class’ into any given area of the city – which is essentially any of those places that are ‘cool’ and ‘bohemian’ this week (which is, now, apparently, it would seem, the suburbs). On first reading of the New Republic article, the genuflection to Jacobs and her ideals rang true enough, the championing of street culture and the lamentation of homogenized urban development is clearly in the vein of the much lauded Jacobsian urbanism. However, while it was commendable that the article was highlighting the ‘sterility’ of contemporary urban aesthetics, this is where it’s derision toward gentrification was focused – this, the article claimed, is the ‘real’ problem of gentrification. Read More
Apparently, the High Line in New York City has been quite successful. It may have passed you by as there hasn’t really been anything about it in the press or the television or all over twitter, but it seems that many people quite like it and now every city worth it’s salt is engaging in ‘blue-sky’ thinking and coming up with ever-more ‘creative’ and ‘innovate’ ideas. From ‘Lido Lines’ to ‘Low Lines’ to ‘Insert-generic-antonym-here Line’, cities are now investing in revitalising old disused infrastructures to create new public spaces that the public can engage with. ‘Re-imaging our cities for the 21st century‘ is how one article put it. This really was the straw that broke the camels back for me, and now, the High Line mania, it seems has well and truly ‘jumped the shark‘. The problems with the viral-like spread of the High Line-like phenomena are multi-faceted and I would wager than different people will have their own particular issues with it. But there are two main problems that have ‘surfaced’ because of city’s scramble to enact a High Line-like policy; first, the rush to gentrify with gimmicks, and second, the diversion of scarce public funds to do so.