Having visited both Berlin and London this year, I can’t help but think about how the metropolitan centers of the world are constantly reinventing themselves and how redevelopment has become a vital ingredient in keeping these “global cities” alive and kicking!
My friend and guide to London this year, Jhilmil Kishore is a conservation architect and, knowing my interest in housing and cities, she took care to point out to me the transformations in the city. As we strolled the streets, we talked about gentrification and affordability, about the failure of public housing and the increased dependence on the private sector as a provider of services. Not far from her own neighborhood, she showed me the high-end adaptive re-use projects and redevelopments at Southwark and also took me to the fantastically glittering privately-owned and managed business district of Canary Wharf.
Since the 2012 Olympics, this part of London has been busy getting a makeover. Experts have noted that public investments have now made surrounding areas attractive for private real estate developers. For instance, the Canary Wharf Group is embarking on a new project also in the dockland areas along the River Thames. They are about to redevelop Woodwharf, currently a 16.8 acre site for light industrial use, into a mixed use area reportedly with “3.1 million sq ft of office space, 1.25 million sq ft of residential development, 200,000 sq ft of retail space, and a 200,000 sq ft hotel” as mentioned in a news report. The residential areas will come up first, to complement the financial district at Canary Wharf. And a new transit line will connect the area to central London.
It’s definitely a positive that the project pushes mixed use as the way to go, but I’m wondering what the thinking is on catering to a range of price bands on residential and rental properties. A mixed use city block really reaches its potential when entrepreneurs, start-ups and mid-size companies can hope to do just as well as big corporates. And when a mix of different kinds of people can live in close proximity to each other. Of course in a city like London, we hope transit can solve some of those issues but I wonder if we rely too heavily on that one thing!
I do accept that developments like the proposed one can benefit other parts of the city, even if not geographically connected but related through a set of networks. Of enormous concern in this case is the impact on the existing communities in these areas. Earlier privately redeveloped areas haven’t really benefited local neighborhoods much, creating very few jobs for locals and usually displacing them as the rents and property prices become unaffordable post redevelopment. This thought provoking piece in the Global Urbanist highlights this aspect and suggests that more social investments are also needed if new developments like these are not to be seen as resentful and hugely traumatic by residents. How accountable is a private developer to do the right thing and create more inclusive neighbourhoods? This is a problem area, unless the city government lays down some ground rules. Once again, I don’t know how it works in London and maybe my UK-based friends can enlighten me.
As an urban planner, I’m always amused to see how planning tools and trends become marketing mantras for the real estate sector. Walkable, transit-oriented, mixed-use, smart, sustainable…all the right catch words for now but it doesn’t always mean the developments are actually being planned that way! In the end, no matter what the current trends are, developments need to see beyond financial returns if they are to have long-term benefits for the city.
Isn’t it funny that when you’re experiencing something, it seems like you see a whole lot of the same around you? When you’re pregnant, you tend to notice other pregnant women. When someone you know has a road accident, suddenly everyone seems to have had one!
Having thoroughly enjoyed the sights and sounds of London, I seem to find my virtual world filled with information about the city. I found it very interesting that, while cities like Bangkok and Jakarta are constantly criticized for their absolute primacy (primate cities are those that dominate a country, capturing most of its population and economic activity: Mark Jefferson, 1939) in the the context of their national economies, London is rarely seen in that negative way. Of course, it is a more international cosmopolitan city, one that a Londoner acquaintance pompously touted as “the most wonderful in the world”!
But its also true that about 7 million people live in London while the nation’s second city Birmingham has only about a million people. UK Think tank Centre for Cities finds that London has created 10 times more private sector jobs than any other city since 2010, and that nearly 1/3rd of young people (aged 22-30) who changed cities in the UK moved to London. Real estate prices in London are through the roof and affordable housing a serious crisis; plus, the poor are being pushed further out while the inner city is more and more gentrified. Many of my Londoner friends work in real estate, housing and architecture and I heard this from them as well as at the RGS IBG conference I attended.
Centre for Cities is claiming that London’s domination is because other cities are not performing well enough and it asks for more power to be devolved to smaller cities. On the other hand, a survey of non-Londoners shows that they believe that the capital gets a much better deal than the rest of the country. Not hard to believe when you see the cranes and construction equipment that dot the city skyline working on many big ticket buildings and redevelopment projects!
This sort of situation has other interesting consequences. I read somewhere that one in five Londoners are in favour of London becoming a city-state! An unlikely possibility, but the sentiment says a lot about how London’s identity is distinct.
Clearly, policymakers need to think hard about balancing growth among cities within a country to create wider access to job opportunities and for a more equitable distribution of resources and yet, there is something to be said for the sheer energy created by a concentrated wealth of resources and capabilities.
Here in India too, policy has been hugely tilted towards metropolitan areas and attempts to support smaller cities have not met with much success, for various reasons. Beyond the constant refrain of smart cities that we hear from the present government (it’s like a broken record, stuck!), I really hope there is some thinking in place for how to revitalize cities of various sizes and on how to empower State governments to put their urban agendas in place.
A couple of weeks ago, I was attending the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society in London. It was a huge conference, with several parallel sessions and I could obviously attend only one at a time. Even so, I was exposed to multiple facets of geography and it was particularly interesting to see various research methods being used in the world of social science.
The use of visual methods for research is a particularly exciting field now and I noticed it was a recurrent theme in several sessions. Film and photography in particular are gaining ground as legitimate means to document how humans experience spaces and situations. Combined with interviews, focus groups and more traditional methods of qualitative research, they promise to take research a step ahead certainly.
I’d like to show you a glimpse of a piece of research presented by independent researcher Silvia Sitton, who is based in Modena, Italy. She set out to study the way Italians in London lived. Without visiting London herself, she did this through a system of self-reporting by participants using photographs of their home, living space and neighbourhood. Silvia supplemented the visual documentation with skype interviews to create profiles of Italian people in London city and understand their experiences. To me, as a researcher interested in migration and housing, her work appealed instantly. She had been able to capture how they felt about their adopted city, how they used space, their daily routines, their challenges and high points as well.
The website she built to house this information (screenshots below; to visit the site, click here here) is in Italian, but its stunningly simple and Silvia told me she would love to replicate this sort of research in other geographical contexts. The value of gathering data without the bias of the researcher is immense here, isn’t it?
I didn’t want to be the tickmark tourist on my recent visit to London. Of course I still ended up doing a bunch of touristy things, of which the most fun was our Saturday morning spent exploring Portobello market. We had been advised to get there real early if shopping was on the cards, but too much wine and excellent company the previous evening ruled out that possibility. So we ended up strolling out of Notting Hill Gate tube station mid morning, eager to experience the famous Portobello all-day market. Here’s my quick run-down of what I loved about it, with some of the zillion pictures I clicked that day!
1- If you’re a crowd hater, don’t go! I loved the hustle and bustle, the jostling… and even the irate look on the face of a well turned out Londoner that had “Bah! Tourists!” written all over it!
2- The colours of Notting Hill and Portobello are so not London. It’s like being transported to the Mediterranean in the middle of England! Pastels and bright colours on building facades make me smile indeed! And the random details too…
3- The antique market is the best bit here, in my opinion. I bought an original map of India, circa 1820 for 40 pounds, quite a steal (Tip: Cash begets discounts)! And just pottering around this section made my day!
4- Food haven, indeed. From crepes to paella, there was quite a spread if you had the appetite!
5- The sheer length of it. Portobello is never ending or so it seemed. Lots to see, lots to do, if you have the patience and the spirit. And if you’re not here to buy, it’s all the more enjoyable with that pressure off!
I’ve anticipated this London trip for so long and yet have had little time to plan an itinerary. A work trip for the most part, I knew my touristic experiences would need to be squeezed in. I’ve opted to live with a friend, someone I’ve known since college and so, by default, I’ve been let into her little world. I let her lead me through her neighbourhood on my first day in what locals consider “the greatest and most beautiful capital city in the world”!
We started our stroll with a visit to her local square. Kids kicked a football around, a few stalls were selling trinkets and toys. The residential neighbourhoods we walked past were still and sleepy. A dog barked at us, a baby gurgles, the locals stood out in the sun in bunches, satiated with pints of beer and lazy lunches.
My friend lives in the London Borough of Southwark, south of the Thames and close to the London Bridge. And our walk took us river-ward. An area with Roman origins, the riverfront we walked onto is rich with wharfs and restored warehouses. On a surprisingly sunny yet balmy Saturday afternoon, the place had a zippy, young feel to it. Families out with their children, friends catching a drink at the pubs and restaurants that lined the Thames, that sort of thing.
The sun lit up the Thames and the famous landmarks that were spotted out to me dazzled and shone. The Tower Bridge, of course, the City Hall designed by Norman Foster and, as my friend put it, a miniature of the Bundestag Dome we saw in Berlin, and the HMS Belfast right there in the centre of the river. We walked across and around the Tower of London where, along with the swarms of tourists, the sea of ceramic poppies greeted us, a recently installed commemoration of the World War I in its centenary year.
A surprising detour through the upmarket St Katherine Docks where the Queen’s gilded boat rests and where I was amused to see The Dickens Inn, rebuilt in the style of a 17th century timber-framed building and apparently inaugurated by the famous writer’s grandson. That the author spent a part of his life in this part of London is well-known but it was had to reconcile the images of Dickensian London in my head with the extensively redeveloped swank sights before me!
And thus, after being introduced to this delightful part of London, I dragged my jet-lagged self back at last night, happily tired and looking forward to more good times here!
Affordable housing in clearly a tough nut to crack. Everywhere.
I was interested to read the following lines in The Global Urbanist’s feature titled ‘Is vertical living a solution for London’s strained housing stock?’, which discusses the possibility of densifying areas of London to cater to the growing demand for housing:
Underpinning the density debate is the politics of compromise. Dollar Bay in Canary Wharf, a 31-storey luxury tower providing 111 high specification apartments, was granted planning permission in part because it contributed 51% of the area of the scheme towards affordable housing. The reason it could achieve this, however, was because it was provided off-site, with the majority of its 59 affordable housing units approximately one mile away. Many schemes don’t even identify a site, simply providing funds towards a local authority’s affordable housing budget; King’s Reach Tower contributed approximately 22 million pounds, for example.
To me, working in the Indian context, this is both a hopeful and a hopeless statement. Hopeful because it offers solutions- asking developers of high-end high-rise housing to provide affordable housing stock or contribute to a fund for the same. Hopeless because it smacks of the same sort of social divide (note, the affordable stock is in another location) and ‘politics of compromise’ as here in India. Of course, the management and execution of a fund for affordable housing in India would in itself be a nightmare, with issues like weak will, corruption and scams being the fate of most well-intentioned public schemes.
The other article authored by Dr. Mathew Gebhardt of Portland State University that came to me today via realism.in (a great initiative, doing a super job of creating relevant information) discussed experiences in the United States with mixed financing for affordable housing projects. The piece simply blew my mind. It mirrored so closely what we are trying to do in India that I realized it was critical to study experiences elsewhere very very closely, not just experiences in other so-called developing nations like Brazil, Argentina and Thailand, but also in the developed world, where the struggle to create affordable housing has had a longer history.
The challenges are rarely where you expect them to be. The vast differences in the aspirations and needs of low-income families vi-a-viz middle-income families is true of the US as much as in India. Genhrat writes: There is a tension between the need to design market rate units with high end amenities to meet market demand and lender criteria and affordable units in the most cost effective manner to meet program requirements. As an example, en-suite bathrooms or air conditioning might make sense for market rate units but are unnecessary and unallowable additions for affordable units. We face the exact same type of issues while designing affordable homes here and community inputs are key.
However, even when you have developers who might be willing to come forth and enter this segment, they are challenged by a complex regulatory environment, the access to finance is complicated, incentives are often unavailable because of multiple schemes that rule each other out! We see this in India all the time. Gebhart details the same experiences in the US as well. Complicated programs that make accessing public funds confusing and difficult or mixed finance schemes that are equally or even more risky than competing projects are not likely to attract the number or diversity of developers or lenders that are necessary to address significant affordable housing shortfalls.
Sigh! This is a tough nut indeed… and it is clear we need a lot more experimentation and collaborative thinking. Plus, a comprehensive and intelligent documentation of what has happened and is happening to guide future work.