Two or Three Things I Know About Her

By Benedict Seymour, 10 April 2001
Image: Holly Street Estate ruins, Hackney, London.

To gentrify or to regenerate? The British government prefers the latter. With its commitment to public-private partnerships, city-centre repopulation and social inclusion it hopes to save cities on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But, faced with building projects to rival the scale – if not vision – of Egyptian pyramids and gothic living conditions to match, they’re far from salvation. Benedict Seymour looks at the reality of regeneration in the modern metropolis.

Jean-Luc Godard’s film of 1966, Two or Three Things I know about Her, explored the transformation of the Parisian region – and its mores – by massive urban re-planning and development. The ‘her’ of the film’s title is not only Paris and its burgeoning periphery, but also a housewife who becomes a prostitute to support her life in the ‘consumer society’.

At the same time Godard was making his poetic film-essay, the young Richard Rogers was developing his own architectural response to the functionalism of the modern city. Inspired in part by the sci-fi reveries of Archigram and the politics of play and participation that would climax in the events of 1968, Rogers’ architecture tapped into the anti-hierarchical mood of the times.

A third contemporaneous reaction to the post-war planning regime could be witnessed in the east London borough of Hackney. There, campaigners against the compulsory purchase and demolition of older housing and communities – the programme of ‘slum clearance’ that accompanied the British policy of tower-block building – were fighting to save their somewhat dilapidated but rather elegant Victorian terraces from the bulldozers.

While the sociologist Ruth Glass was coining the term ‘gentrification’, some of these young professionals were founding a housing association to defend their homes.<1> But what kind of gentrification was going on in this part of Hackney? Uniting with local people of different classes and racial backgrounds to protect their property, these pre-Thatcher ‘young urban professionals’ also ended up advocating the rights of the area’s tenants, fighting back against harassment from landlords, and helping prevent an unmitigated middle-class takeover of their neighbourhood. Thinking of the displacement of other classes and ethnic groups that had occurred in a less enlightened wave of gentrification across the borough border in Islington, they sought to avoid what they termed ‘Barnsburyfication’.<2> This was conservation with a social conscience.Not all the young professionals in Islington were indifferent to the threat of ‘social cleansing’, however. One active figure on Islington’s distinctly ungentrified estates was Anne Power, a veteran of Martin Luther King’s ‘End Slums’ campaign in Chicago, now engaged in community-based projects.

Fast-forwarding 30 years, the term gentrification is still very much in use. It’s heard in different registers, from cynically judgement-free description to angry denunciation, yet it remains largely absent from official discourse. Here the much more benign term ‘regeneration’, which makes no reference to hierarchy or social conflict, has taken its place. Concreting over cracks in the social edifice, ‘regeneration’ can also assimilate the idea of enlightened gentrification as practiced in the 60s and 70s. With the grand narrative of modern planning and tabula rasa development in disgrace, the understanding of urban social transformation has also mutated. Eschewing antagonistic, ‘us-versus-them’ thinking, regeneration policy emphasises co-existence and co-operation as the key to neighbourhood renewal.

This salvaging and recycling of gentrification may be the distinctive intellectual achievement of veterans of the ‘good gentrification’ like Anne Power, now Professor of Social Policy at the LSE, and (Lord) Richard Rogers, Chair of the government’s Urban Task Force. When New Labour came into power after 20 years of Thatcherism, Rogers and Power were acknowledged experts, well placed to conduct an analysis of the accumulated problems of the city. With the Urban Task Force, Rogers and Power developed the diagnosis and programme for change that is now official New Labour policy on regeneration.

According to the Urban Task Force, British cities have been in decline ever since the war, haemorrhaging jobs and people, while infrastructures collapse, communities break down, social and economic segregation increases and the suburbs sprawl. As well as the legacy of past development and under-development there is also the prospect of massive population growth and the need for millions of new houses over the next 20 years, with the exodus from the desolated cities of the North to the economically privileged south-east and London putting even greater pressure on receding ‘greenfield’ space. Rogers and Power noted the redevelopment and ‘recycling’ going on in some inner city areas and identified this a possible source of hope.

Arguing that, for the sake of the cities, the countryside and the national economy alike, the new approach must emphasise the regeneration of cities, refunctioning old buildings and building new ones on ‘brown field’ – already used but now derelict – land, they also saw how, on its own. This would just intensify the gap between thriving urban centres and their moribund peripheries. This could be combated by reconnecting, restoring and repopulating the innermost neighbourhoods, improving transport and services, particularly education, thereby encouraging people to return to the city rather than merely working in it while living in the suburbs beyond.

According to Rogers’ and Power’s compact but dense book distilling the Urban Task Force’s findings and proposals, Cities for a Small Country (2000), we need to live more densely and compactly. Where slum clearance took a bulldozer to 19th century over-crowding, we now need to repopulate our cities. Even London, which has been growing steadily in the last ten years, could benefit from extending its penchant for regenerating old warehouses near its centre to the outlying boroughs, bringing dead space back into use and preparing the ground for a revival of business, shopping and cultural life. If the switch from green field to brown field development is not made, with 3.8 million new homes needed by 2021, an area bigger than Exmoor will have to be concreted over. <3>

Regeneration isn’t just about physical transformation, however. Rogers and Power stress the links between urban deprivation and social exclusion, showing how low housing demand in the depopulated (or simply poor) zones of cities is related to impoverished public services, unattractive environments and weak employment markets. Nevertheless, improvement in the quality and design of physical environments could be a stimulus to rejuvenating urban schools, health care and other facilities, attracting people back to the cities, halting the flight to green field developments and the safe, well-serviced suburbs.

At the heart of Rogers’ and Power’s ideal of what you might call ‘non-violent’ urban revival, and perhaps the main inheritance from their youthful interest in people power and community action, is the notion that social diversity – ‘mixed tenure’ and ‘mixed use’ – act as a motor of social integration: “To overcome the long legacy of social exclusion, cities must hold on to both richer and poorer residents.” wrote Power in a recent article in The Guardian. “Their interests coincide. They both want good quality, spacious homes in a pleasant, safe environment, close to work, good schools, shops and transport. The two groups need each other. The original welfare state was built on this compact. So are cities. The rich pay in, and gain, alongside the poor – and both benefit.” <4>

This very ‘Third Way’ remix of welfare state ideals, launched into an environment of public-private partnerships and fundamental governmental parsimony, does have a reassuringly positive and humane ring to it. With a plurality of programmes and of people, it suggests, perhaps a way can be found to manage fundamental social conflicts (even without an old-fashioned welfare state), reducing the physical, mental and – presumably – economic distance between people. A vast network of support measures and development projects stressing the combined social, community and business elements of regeneration are engaged in the attempt to actualise this vision, behind which lies the old-fashioned notion of a balanced social totality in which the inequalities of capitalism are contained and managed – made ‘sustainable’, to use the social policy buzzword.

>> Holly Street Estate ruins, Hackney, London

As well as a practical proposal for reinventing British cities and pulling us up to the level of our European rivals, Rogers and Power’s vision of an Urban Renaissance is probably the closest New Labour will ever get to a utopia, albeit one that is lukewarm, reformist rather than revolutionary, predicated on some fundamentally low expectations, and on closer inspection, unlikely to succeed even on its own terms.

While the government’s urban white paper (November 2000 ) embraced much of Rogers’ and Power’s vision, it also, characteristically, diluted it, gently encouraging rather than forcing developers to deliver on the target of 60% brown field development and partially rather than completely reversing the tax arrangements to incentivise them. Without getting into the complexities of the Neighbourhood Renewal programme announced a few months after the urban white paper, once again, when the government seemed to commit to an ambitious project – in this case a 20 year programme to empower the country’s most deprived neighbourhoods – the understanding of regeneration as a holistic process involving communities as well as developers was accompanied by a chronic under-investment in the structures put forward to realise it.

Augmenting the enticements to affluent ‘Urban Pioneers’ to activate the latent potential of the city, the Neighbourhood Renewal programme reached out to ‘community champions’ – retired head teachers, social workers, and others with expertise – and offered to devolve more power to them. However, as some neighbourhood managers have already pointed out, their newly recognised and financially rewarded efforts will be frustrated unless they are given genuine powers and resources. Again, there is a strong sense that the rhetorical emphasis on participation should not be taken too seriously, and that this postmodern, anti-bureaucratic, ‘grassroots’ approach to regeneration is what you might call a gentrified way of refusing to spend money. Talk to any regeneration professional about their mission in the city and you’ll end up getting an earful about business and community alliances, social programmes aimed at boosting employment, cutting crime, etc. etc., but very few will admit to the ultimate failure of these proliferating partnerships to compensate for the lack of government investment.

The most striking symptom of this failure is the crisis in housing. While the London Mayor Ken Livingstone enthusiastically endorses Rogers’ Urban Renaissance, recently appointing him as advisor to the Greater London Authority, he has attacked the government’s measly financial commitment to backing up the rhetoric.

“Nowhere are the inadequate levels of public investment in the UK clearer than in housing. The Labour Government has committed £5 billion of extra resources to housing investment in this Parliament, but virtually all of the money has gone to tackling the backlog of disrepair in councils’ own stock... When we look at new house building, the current government has the worst record on building new council and housing association homes of any since the war.” <5>

In London, where the problems analysed by Rogers and Power take their own, in some ways anomalous, form, high demand for housing coupled with high house prices has placed acute pressure on the social housing stock. No amount of ‘joined up’ government can compensate for the fact that Labour has halved social housing construction and doubled the rate of stock transfer (that is, the sale of council housing to housing associations or private landlords) since they came to power in 1997. <6> While there has been much talk about social exclusion and regeneration, housing – presumably a big part of any Urban Renaissance that goes beyond cultural showpieces and random acts of architectural beautification – has not been a policy issue.

It is hardly surprising that property has become an over-weaningly popular subject of conversation for Londoners. Tenants and owners alike are caught up in this crisis, whether they perceive it as increasing the value of their homes or increasing their likelihood of becoming homeless. It’s a kind of parodic realisation of Power’s ‘social compact’ – all are united in residential insecurity and property obsession. In the last ten years the number of low rent homes in London has fallen by more than 50,000 due to the impact of Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, and the sale and demolition of housing estates. The numbers of properties available for letting went down 17 per cent in the last two years. The cumulative result is that almost 100,000 people are now homeless. More importantly for the Urban Pioneers who can afford to make their homes here, key workers – nurses, teachers, firefighters, policemen – can no longer afford to live alongside them. <7> This is the most severe threat to the city precipitated by the housing crisis, and suggests exactly how monocultural the regeneration of London has been. Far from increasing demographic diversity, these figures suggest a rapid shrinking of the capital’s social bandwidth.

While attempts to provide more affordable housing for key workers is now government policy and top of Livingstone’s agenda, this does not even begin to address the effect of the transfer of council stock to housing associations, whose ‘affordable’ rents are simply not as affordable as the council’s. This phenomena may also contribute to the fact that, further down the social ladder, the number in temporary accommodation has increased by 50 per cent during the last two years to over 43,000 households, and is projected to increase by another 12,000 by 2002. <8> Despite the glamourous presence of the simulacrum of regeneration as it manifests in the media, on building site hoardings and the blithe news sheets of regeneration agencies, with big cultural success stories like Tate Modern on the South Bank, or the transformation of Shoreditch into a zone of Islington-style bars and restaurants, London is facing its worst ever crisis of homelessness.

The social mixture Power and Rogers champion, encoded in estate refurbishment programmes like Holly Street in Hackney and the Marquess Estate in Islington as a commitment to mixed tenure (council, public sector and private housing) could actually be contributing to this disaster. Not only do these projects reduce the density of estates, cumulatively reducing the number of houses available, but, while bringing new owner occupiers and relatively affluent tenants of ‘affordable housing’ into the area, they displace council tenants – and seldom to the ‘3-bedroom house with a garden’ that they are promised. <9>

Mixed use and mixed-tenure may well serve as a cover for a real decline in council housing, a dystopian or, at the least, half-baked realisation of Rogers’ and Power’s dream of a ‘good’ gentrification.

Perhaps the likes of Livingstone can pursuade the government to free up some more money for housing – his vocal criticism is refreshing, as is Rogers’ and Power’s own sustained pressure on New Labour to live up to their vision. Yet there remains the question of the quality of regenerated urban space, the actual result of regeneration as it has been practiced so far.

Another rarely mentioned side-effect of lopsided regeneration – perhaps of regeneration tout court – is the psychogeographic banalisation of the city. Along with the potential for social homogenisation, out-of-town developers’ limited forays into privatised urban housing – perhaps encouraged by the government‘s stance on brownfield development – has lead to the outbreak of a rash of architectural absurdities. One example is the developer’s ongoing, and polymorphously perverse, love affair with the loft. Another orphaned child of the post-war margins, this upwardly mobile example of refunctioned industrial space has gone from squatted artist’s pad to pre-packaged urban solution, progressing from naïve authenticity to the status of a readymade. Fusing with the ‘traditional’ (read revivalist) aesthetic of the developers, the ‘loft concept’ can now assume virtually any form, creating oxymoronic hybrids: unpartitioned live-work interiors with stripped wood floorboards come cloaked in the tried and tested reassurance of neo-victorian shells – Andy Warhol’s Factory meets the gamekeeper’s lodge. The aesthetic evacuation of the city effected by such isolated acts of regeneration – not to mention the impact of large-scale projects like Tate Modern or Hackney’s new Ocean Centre – coincides with the physical evacuation of the underclass. Inverting the long-established relation between centre and periphery, this inner city suburbanism (Inburbanisation?) is a fitting symbol and symptom of the flaw in Rogers’ and Power’s vision. Unfortunately, it looks like that old-fashioned word ‘gentrification’ may not be obsolete after all.

Benedict Seymour <ben AT>

1 Patrick Wright, A Journey Through Ruins, Paladin, London, 1992, p. 120.

2 ibid.

3 Richard Rogers, The Observer, 16 July, 2000.

4 Anne Power, The Guardian, 25 October, 2000.

5 Ken Livingstone, ‘The State of London: Spatial Development’, 2000.

6 Tim Dwelly, quoted in Housing Today, 12 April, 2001.

7 Ken Livingstone, ibid.

8 ibid.

9 See Matt Weaver, ‘Dense Thinking’, The Guardian, 25 October, 2000.