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Notopia: who is the city for?

London is becoming entirely unaffordable leading to a kind of hollowing out of the city which New Yorkers are long used to

Recently, I met an architecture academic who’d just moved to Berlin after 23 years of living in Manhattan. Originally from Norway, she moved to the US as a young artist and seemed the epitome of a cosmopolitan, left-field New Yorker. So why the move? Manhattan was, she said, now unaffordable for her and increasingly sterile with most of the artists she’d once known long gone.

This hollowing out of New York began a generation ago with former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s ‘clean up’ of the city. Alongside a crackdown on homelessness, begging, graffiti and ‘squeegee merchants’, the nature of public space in the city was also changing, as genuinely public space gave way to hundreds of ‘privately owned public spaces’, the politically anodyne acronym New Yorkers know as ‘POPS.’ The other part of the jigsaw was the comprehensive roll-out of Business Improvement Districts (BIDS), throughout New York, San Francisco and other US cities, in which the control of places and security pass to private companies funded by local businesses. According to guidelines laid down by the New York Mayor’s office, BIDS pledge above all to keep areas ‘clean and safe’, in keeping with Giuliani’s vision.

Anna minton

Anna minton

Keeping places ‘clean and safe’ sounds like a pretty good idea, because after all, who would want to live in a dirty and dangerous city? But behind the sophisticated marketing narrative, ‘clean and safe’ raises profound questions about access, inclusion and behaviour in cities – all questions encompassed by the notion of ‘the right to the city’. This was popularised by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre who published his book of the same name in 1968, shortly before the student revolts of that year. Later Lefebvre was to publish The Production of Space, with its emphasis that every space produces and reflects the political ideology and socio-economic circumstances of its time.

‘But behind the sophisticated marketing narrative, ‘clean and safe’ raises profound questions about access, inclusion and behaviour in cities’

New York is far from alone in pursuing policies that reflect a dominant neoliberal ideology which is privatising the right to the city and shrinking democratic space, especially in what are called the ‘Atlanticist’ economies of North America, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. London in particular is being entirely reconfigured, emulating and perhaps exceeding the process Manhattan went through 20 years ago. When I first started to research the privatisation of public space 10 years ago, I was shocked to discover that privately owned estates, such as Canary Wharf, Liverpool One or Cabot Circus in Bristol, were the template for nearly all new development in the UK. Like the BIDS, which were also spreading like wildfire round British towns and cities, their mantra was ‘clean and safe’ – translating into high levels of uniformed private security and an unprecedented emphasis on sanitation – which can include hosing down homeless people during the night to ‘move them on’. In addition to rollerblading, skateboarding, cycling and even eating and drinking in some areas, these places also ban photography, filming and critically, political protest, which means that they are not democratic spaces.

Anna minton 3 copy

Anna minton 3 copy

Advocates claim that the Georgian squares and terraces which include some of the most beautiful parts of London were built on a similar model, by aristocratic landlords who controlled the ‘Great Estates’, such as the Duke of Westminster who owned large parts of Mayfair and Belgravia and the Duke of Bedford who owned Covent Garden. What they don’t say is that during the 18th and early 19th century, the Great Estates were closed to the general public, surrounded by high fences and railings and policed by security guards and sentry boxes. As local government grew in power, paralleled by the increased democratic representation which came with the widening of the franchise, large-scale public protest against the gating off of such large parts of the city resulted in two parliamentary enquiries and finally the decision that councils, rather than private landlords, should control the streets. Since then, it has been customary for local authorities to ‘adopt’ streets and public spaces, to use the official terminology. This was a hard-won democratic achievement which is now going into reverse as privately owned corporate estates take over. While today’s private estates may appear to be more transparent and may not necessarily be gated, they have their own ways of restricting the right to the city; even the headquarters of the Greater London Authority is part of the privately owned More London, with the consequence that democratically elected Assembly members are prevented from conducting interviews outside of their own building.

But while the trend towards the privatisation of public space is not entirely new, the level of development currently taking place in London is on a different scale leading to the wholesale reimaging of the city, as more than 400 towers sited in privatised enclaves go up. Of these, more than 300 towers are to be luxury apartments, aimed largely at foreign investors. The Vauxhall Nine Elms development, which will be home to the new US Embassy and the Battersea Power Station complex, is one of the largest, spanning 227 hectares from Lambeth Bridge to Chelsea Bridge, along the south side of the river, up to Vauxhall and along to Southwark – mile upon mile of serried ranks of balconied apartments in gated complexes.

‘Hollowing out of New York began a generation ago with former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s clean up of the city’

At the same time huge swathes of publicly owned land are being transferred by local authorities to private developers, as dozens upon dozens of council estates face demolition in a process that academics describe as ‘state-led gentrification’ and activists claim is social cleansing. The Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle was home to 3,000 people on predominantly low incomes before it was demolished in 2014. Elephant Park is now going up on the site, where a two-bedroom apartment is on the market for just under £1 million, in a development of 2,500 luxury apartments of which only 79 are social housing, while research shows the original residents have been moved out to outlying boroughs or out of London altogether. The development, by Australian developer Lendlease, also boasts ‘the largest private park in Britain since Victorian times’, but of course it is a private park, where access and behaviours will be closely monitored and controlled. 

Anna minton 4

Anna minton 4

The Heygate may be one of the most clear-cut examples of state-led gentrification, but it is far from alone. In east London, Modernist icon Robin Hood Gardens and the Carpenters Estate await their fate, with the wrecking ball deemed to be coming for Robin Hood Gardens at any moment, despite an international campaign to save it. In Lambeth in south London, six estates are being considered for demolition, including Cressingham Gardens which has been described by a past President of the RIBA as ‘one of the nicest small schemes in England’. With 100 estates tipped for demolition, the list is endless, although the direction of travel of government policy implies that this could be just the tip of the iceberg.  

‘London becomes entirely unaffordable even for ordinary Londoners, let alone those on low incomes’

Andrew Adonis, the former Labour cabinet minister appointed by Chancellor George Osborne to head up the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission, is emerging as a pivotal figure promoting estate demolition. Writing in City Villages: More Homes Better Communities, the Institute for Public Policy Research report which has driven forward this agenda, Adonis states: ‘The sheer number and size of council estates in London, particularly inner London, is far larger than commonly appreciated.’ He goes on to estimate it could be as many as 3,500 estates – which gives an idea of the potential scale of the policy – that ‘sit on some of the most expensive land in the world’.

Anna minton 2

Anna minton 2

The influx of global capital centred on the London property market is on the one hand stoking the super prime market, leaving London with the second-highest house prices outside Monaco, and on the other hand driving the demolition of affordable housing on estates at a time of acute housing crisis. As these price rises ‘trickle down’ throughout London, the city becomes entirely unaffordable even for ordinary Londoners, let alone those on low incomes, leading to the kind of hollowing out of the city which New Yorkers are long used to.

These are the issues, based on the global financialisation of land and property, which are investigated in the University of East London’s new MRes course, Reading the Neoliberal City, where Anna Minton is co-director, alongside Doug Spencer.