... Nobody should be excluded from city life

commented by Johny Pitts

The better America (Issue IV/2020)


The author Johny Pitts. Photo: Jamie Stoker

Cities should be varied places, urban studies legend Jane Jacobs says. They should not be too tidy, they should encourage a mix of business, they should include rich and poor people. I think that cities have to keep their souls alive. You need areas with cultural life – corners with their own weird wisdom, places with graffiti and life on the streets.

That’s what London used to pride itself on. There used to be a high-rise estate right next to one of the richest streets of Europe. In the past, London had an incredible cultural output, like its Cool Britannia moment in the 1990s or the Young British Artists or its music scene. But it’s changing so much and it’s amazing how expensive the city has become. My old two-bed flat was in Peckham, which has lots of social housing and is where they filmed comedies about the working class experience like Only Fools and Horses. It is now worth half a million pounds. It’s insane. Now, unless you are of a particular class or inherit some money, you can’t survive.

We have to stop treating housing as a commodity

We are living in an era of gross inequality and that has to be tackled, and we have start in cities. We have to stop treating housing as a commodity. They should be places to cultivate community and not investment opportunity. Cities do need to protect their citizens to a certain extent, but they also need to allow spaces which look disheveled to exist. Take the Heygate estate, near where Tony Blair gave his first speech as prime minister in 1997, but which was knocked down just a few years later and many residents were displaced. You see that happening all over London. It’s the same all over, in Lisbon as well as in Marseille, where I now live. Everywhere investors are buying huge chunks of our cities.

These changes don’t happen out of nowhere, they are propelled by changes in how we work, like the start-up industry. This often involves young people who come from money or who have capital. This enables them to set up anywhere, like in a beautiful old house in Lisbon. There they profit from a lower cost of living, but others living there and who are on the minimum wage can’t afford to move around like that. If they do move, it’s because they have been pushed.

When we want cities to remain a place for all people, we need to pay attention to what Doug Saunders, a Canadian author, calls “arrival cities”. This phase refers to spaces on the edge of cities. They could be called the Hinterlands: they are the peripheral places where first generation immigrants might come and work. These places contain the exciting niches of cultural life.

What happens in the urban “hinterland” is what, years later, ends up happening in the centre of our cities

I think it is in everyone’s interests to allow these spaces to thrive. The future is in the periphery, so we have to look after these places. What happens in the urban “hinterland” is what, years later, ends up happening in the centre of our cities. It is important to tend to these areas and not push their residents elsewhere. But it’s a balancing act. These places need to be funded and helped but they also need to be respected and as places of cultural production as well.

Maybe we are seeing a slow death of urban areas. London might feel like it’s at the top of its game right now because it’s so expensive. But just think of the Japanese bubble economy in the late 80s where Tokyo real estate went through the roof—until the bubble burst.



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