Am I a gentrifier?

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.

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City-Regions of regions of cities?

On one of my daily walks across the campus of the University of Salford, I came across something that really encapsulated some of the current thinking of the local area. It was a piece of cardboard, maybe 5 inches by 15, wedged in the grills of the heras fencing that surrounded the Maxwell Hall development. On this cardboard someone had scrawled “Manchester ≠ Salford”. I really wish I had taken a photo, as the following day it had gone. To put this into context as to why it was there, the front of Maxwell Hall faces A6 (Chapel Street), and on the front of the building is the huge University of Salford logo – the green circle with the lion (nicknamed the Peugeot Lion for obvious reasons). The building is now under wraps, presumably to unveil the University’s new logo, which reads, “the University of Salford, Manchester“. The merits of the new brand are not up for debate here, but what it plays into I think is more important – in that is a prime example of the sprawling ‘city-region’. Read More

“To City or not city”

72 hour Urban Action - an innovative planning scheme in Tel Aviv

I read an article on Urban Acupuncture that cropped up on my RSS feed not too long ago and given it’s proposal of more community focused and localised approach to urban planning, it certainly struck a chord. Eerily reminiscent of what Jane Jacobs proposed back in 1968, the Finnish architect, Marco Casagrande who is credited with the term ‘urban acupuncture’ could be accused of simply recycling a common urban ideal for 21st century urbanites. Indeed, the idea of ‘micro-planning’ conducted informally by local residents is nothing really new – instances of re-use of abandoned buildings or derelict spaces as micro-parks or mixed-use urban lounges can be recounted throughout many cities across the world. Whether it’s artistic interventions or playful appendages to functional urban artifacts, people have been ‘micro-planning’ for many years. There are countless examples, but for a fantastic resource of some of the best, one has to look no further than Pop-up City blog, or the Urban Subversion twitter feed. The 72 hour urban action scheme started Tel Aviv, shown in the picture above, is also a great example of the way in which planning can be interventionist, local and above all, useful.

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What a silly planker…

After the death of an Australian man who was ‘planking’, I can’t help but feel that the news coverage has been a little bit too ‘hang-ringing-y’ – and there have been some calls to ban it altogether (although further examination of this story suggests that the Australian PM did not call for a ban at all!). As an advocate for playful interaction with the urban environment, I have often called for and documented the ways in which people are using the city in creative, innovative and different ways. The city is a place we should explore with corporeality; cities function best when we utilise every neuron of our creative capabilities to interact with the urban topography.

Rockwell_Fountain - photo by bnycastro, Creative Commons

‘Planking’ (or the lying down game) as it has been called in the various social networks devoted to it (mostly though, it is that most dogmatic of social media Facebook) has been popular now for over 3 years or so, and this is the first death. How many deaths have their been from skateboarding parkour, urban exploration, base-jumping, tomb-stoning etc? I’m guessing not many, but even so, there is a sense that the media have latched onto planking because of it’s prominence in social media. Granted, it’s a visual stunt, but there a many more skateboarding and parkour videos littering the cyber hinterland. The death of an individual practicing planking is clearly a very tragic event, but the media coverage, it would seem, is blaming, albeit covertly, social media. It is not the first time we have seen this. We all know the phrase ‘Facebook murderer‘, and more recently, I saw a tweet which conveyed the shear maladroitness of a BBC journalist in light of the super-injunctions debate. The phraseology of the BBC, or Sky News, or which ever outlet you chose to waste your time watching, is of course sensationalist in this regard, but this does make it excusable to bat it away as inconsequential. The internet is a tool or human communication, and just when we speak to each other face to face, we can say some moronic things as well as constructive things. The man who fell to his death by trying to balance on a balcony railing only 5cm wide, 7 storeys up, is clearly someone who is not adverse to danger and may well have met his doom in some other risky practice. I’m sure the majority of ‘plankers’ will not attempt such a dangerous photo opportunity, but you will get the extreme minority who will (another example is Dan Witchalls, the man addicted to base jumping). This is symptomatic of human society in toto, not just because of the connectivity and communication afford to us by social media.

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Practising urban diversity

I’ve been reading Sharon Zukin’s latest book, and it is a stark reminder of the plight of current urbanism. While focused solely on New York, the sentiments hold true for a number of other cities around the world (but by no means all). In criticizing Jacobs, a bold move it has to said, she outlines the fact that ‘authenticity’ in cities that Jacobs so vehemently fought for is as manufactured and socially-constructed as the gentrifying forces of modernism she rallied against. The desire for bohemia and the ‘next cool place’ creates streetscapes that are a certain kind of authenticity that is sanitised. (I’m slightly paraphrasing and using a more verbose vernacular to highlight the point and because I haven’t finished the book yet!)

The point is well made, and it struck me that diversity, which Jacobs herself recognised as so vital to cities has become part of the political urban rhetoric. Economic development is predicated on a diverse provision of goods and services, mono-industrial cities rarely survive one crisis of capitalism, let alone several. Social diversity, again is considered an inherently good thing, indeed one of my blog posts argues along similar lines. Having a good mix of races, religions, peoples and ideas, if you purport to a Jacobs reading of urbanism is a healthy diagnostic of city status. But having considered this along side the often fractious schisms that occur in these areas, increased diversity seems less inviting. Sure, surrounding yourself with like-minded people can breed isolation, individualism and and increase in idiosyncratic values (sometimes to the point of excess). But the opposite of this (heterophiliy) is not always a panacea; in fact, it can be equally as deleterious.

The mere presence of diversity then, it seems, is not enough. The important conceptual ingredient here is practice. Having just finished a paper with some colleagues on the nuances of network practices (including not-working as well as networking), the message there is as pertinent to urban diversity as it is to economic geography. Having a wide variety of people and ideas in one place can only be productive if the practice of networking, or the relationships that occur within that diversity is constructive. The theory is that a more diverse population will create a wider variety of progress, innovation or community. The most innovate companies are those which create heterophilic networks and nurture the innovative thinking that arises (even if it doesn’t work). This is most evident in the disruptive innovation theories.

So perhaps the celebration of diversity should be directed at the constructive practice of connecting diverse groups of people together. Cross-Community groups are an example of these kinds of initiatives, and on a much larger more political scale, we saw the mutli-faith protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo coming together to enact political change. Cities will become (indeed, they are becoming) more crowded – that is a fact that we cannot ignore. As such they will inevitably become more diverse with in-migration and the increase ease of mobility (the current program on BBC2 ‘The Chinese Are Coming‘ is a good, palatable example of how globalisation, mobility and the spread of capitalism is creating more diverse urban populations). So surely it is of more benefit to focus on the action and practice of relationships (and championing models of good practice), then the presence of diversity itself?