An Eerie Dystopia

“To walk through certain parts of London today is to enter an eerie dystopia of late capitalism run amok. All over town, from Battersea to Stratford, vast welters of towers are in the throes of construction, invariably encircled by billboards depicting attractive white people at rest and play. But longtime Londoners know from experience that these towers are not really homes to be lived in but bricks-and-mortar commodities, investment opportunities that until recently were seen as safer than any government bond. If you ever find yourself walking through developments that have been recently finished and sold, you’ll discover street-level plazas devoid of people or even much evidence that many people are ever here…

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“In her 2017 book Big Capital, Anna Minton described this scramble for prime London real estate as the catalyst of a “domino effect,” whose effects ripple outwards across the capital and beyond.

“The super-prime market displaces established communities to new areas, driving up property and rental prices elsewhere,” she writes. “And as current policies are geared to attracting foreign investment and building luxurious apartments rather than affordable homes, there is nothing to act as a counterweight.”

“The sense of apartness precipitated by these developments is in large part architectural. London used to be a low-slung city, but many of these luxury towers are vertiginous and imposing, dwarfing the besieged remnants of what came before. But arguably more significant than this aesthetic discordance is the social upheaval it augurs. As more and more towers have gone up, so too have socio-demographic lines that once felt blurred become abrupt and partite, as the runaway cost of housing manoeuvres people into economic enclaves, and poverty is pushed outwards into peripheries and ghettoes of disadvantage. Traditional places of commonality, where shoulders rubbed, have been replaced by pockets of consumption. High-streets that once displayed a multifarious range of shopfronts and establishments have evolved to reflect more stratified times: the poorer areas with their betting shops and pawnsters, the wealthier ones lined with estate agents, restaurants, and prim cafes. Our civic spaces and landmarks have been commodified as cash-strapped councils look to make up budget shortfalls by monetizing their assets or repurposing public libraries into private gyms. Boundaries, both physical and social, have started to rise across the city…”

Text: Henry Wismayer, How London Became a Playground for the Rich, Medium.

Pic: London’s proposed Tulip Tower

The Production of Space

“[Agree To All] offers an immersive but unsettling glimpse of how the future urban experience might look like for some, with smooth, frictionless landscapes, smart technologies in control and elite access to differentiated services. […] Whether a city will look like this or not, it will invariably be a part of a very unequal ‘winner-takes-all’ societies, which ‘thrive on debt and cheap money and the quick and massive burning of fossil fuels’. It’s in this kind of society that half of our cities will still have to be built […] We wonder however – what if these ‘alternative urban configurations’ don’t materialize? What if the dystopian imagination in the opening installation becomes reality? Let’s imagine what that city would look like.”

“Hajer writes that ‘real estate has given rise to an ever more speculative economy, especially during the last couple of decades. Instead of social need, it focused on the opportunity to make money on offices, shopping malls and housing for the upper class’. It did indeed, and cities of the future will see an even more powerful real estate sector and the increasing influence of the corporate sector on the production of space in general. This also means that decisions made democratically will gradually be replaced by decisions taken in corporate board rooms. Likewise urban interventions with a social or cultural dimension will increasingly be replaced by projects that produce the highest possible financial return.

“Money made in the real estate sector, but also elsewhere in the city, will quickly leave and end up in the hands of a few, and most likely in some tax havens as well. The urban economy will rapidly become an ‘extractive economy’, as Hajer calls them. Cities will increasingly open themselves up for extraction, competing for global flows of money through city-marketing campaigns aimed at foreign investors and visitors. This will result in a race to the bottom, and erode social and cultural capital at the local level. A crucial development allowing this extractive economy to expand is the continuing flexibilisation of the housing market. State-owned or rent-controlled housing is being rapidly sold off, providing investors with a host of new opportunities. The simultaneous elimination of housing rights allows for a quicker succession of rent hikes and will further consolidate the position of large real estate owners.”

Text: What the city of the future looks like if we don’t change course, Failed Architecture.

Pic: Eliel Saarinen’s Munkkiniemi–Haaga town plan. Aerial view from the north.

A Sidewalk War

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“A sidewalk war has erupted in Lower Manhattan.

“Paul Proulx is caught in the middle of it. Just to get to his apartment in the financial district, he has to contend with hordes of commuters and selfie-snapping tourists clogging narrow sidewalks. But these are the least of his problems.

“Security barriers around landmarks and key government posts send him in circles if he forgets to plan ahead. Scaffolding stretches above him in an impenetrable line, ensuring that the walk home is dark and claustrophobic. He is not even safe on his side of the curb. Delivery trucks routinely park on the sidewalk as if they own it.

“If that was not enough, there is the trash. Supersize contractor bags of smelly, leaking garbage are stacked up to 10-feet high outside gleaming high-rise towers, ready to topple over on someone who is not paying attention, or is just really unlucky.

“We fight every day for every square inch,” said Mr. Proulx, 44, a land-use lawyer and soft-spoken father of three who moved to the area from Brooklyn in 2007.

[…]

“We have turned a corner out of the challenges we faced in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and we’ve gone much farther than I think a lot of us ever would’ve imagined already,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a meeting called “Getting Ready for Nine Million New Yorkers” hosted by Crain’s last month in Midtown Manhattan. “And this growth has been extraordinary.”

“Still, Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, added that the “pathway to nine million” would not be easy. “It will come with challenges to say the least,” he said. “We all are experiencing the congestion in this city, and that is in part because we are victims of our own success.”

“Roughly seven out of eight neighborhoods now have more residents than in 1990, according to an analysis of census data by Queens College using neighborhood boundaries as defined by the city’s Planning Department.

“The biggest change was in Lower Manhattan-Battery Park City, which gained 30,502 residents for a total of 42,485 in 2014, up 255 percent from 1990.

“Crowding exists in other parts of the city,” said Patrick Kennell, 40, a lawyer who is also a member of the Financial District Neighborhood Association. “But it’s unique here because of the sheer amount of development that has happened post-9/11.”

Text: Downside of Lower Manhattan’s Boom: It’s Just Too Crowded, The New York Times.

Pic: Soylent Green, 1973.

Displacement Hotspots

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Data from the Sentinel-1 satellites acquired between 22 February 2015 and 20 September 2016 show that Millennium Tower in San Francisco is sinking by about 40 mm a year in the ‘line of sight’ – the direction that the satellite is ‘looking’ at the building. This translates into a vertical subsidence of almost 50 mm a year, assuming no tilting. The coloured dots represent targets observed by the radar. The colour scale ranges from 40 mm a year away from radar (red) to 40 mm a year towards radar (blue). Green represents stable targets. Credit: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2015–16) / ESA SEOM INSARAP study / PPO.labs / Norut / NGU

“The Sentinel-1 satellites have shown that the Millennium Tower skyscraper in the centre of San Francisco is sinking by a few centimetres a year. Studying the city is helping scientists to improve the monitoring of urban ground movements, particularly for subsidence hotspots in Europe.

“Completed in 2009, the 58-storey Millennium Tower has recently been showing signs of sinking and tilting. Although the cause has not been pinpointed, it is believed that the movements are connected to the supporting piles not firmly resting on bedrock.

“To probe these subtle shifts, scientists combined multiple radar scans from the Copernicus Sentinel-1 twin satellites of the same area to detect subtle surface changes – down to millimetres. The technique works well with buildings because they better reflect the radar beam.

“It is also useful for pinpointing displacement hotspots over large areas, thanks to Sentinel-1’s broad coverage and frequent visits.

“Working with ESA, the team from Norut, PPO.labs and Geological Survey of Norway have also mapped other areas in the wider San Francisco Bay Area that are moving. These include buildings along the earthquake-prone Hayward Fault, as well as subsidence of the newly reclaimed land in the San Rafael Bay.

“An uplift of the land was detected around the city of Pleasanton, possibly from the replenishment of groundwater following a four-year drought that ended in 2015.
Text and Pic: Satellites confirm sinking of San Francisco tower, Physics.org

An Eerie Stillness Settles

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“You should know the script by now. A previously overlooked inner-city area becomes newly fashionable, and its housing prices start to edge up. At first, the ensuing transformation creates some buzz—a new paint job here, a new luxury shop there—but soon the population who would previously have called the neighborhood home realizes it can no longer afford the area’s rising costs. They scatter to cheaper lodgings elsewhere and the area becomes the shell of its former self. That this process is happening in London right now is no surprise. What’s more unusual is the social group that is being displaced: the rich.

“According to a new conference paper presented last week by Dr. Luna Glucksberg of the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics, London’s wealthiest families feel they are being pushed out of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Families that raised their children in areas such as Mayfair or Knightsbridge (at least during the periods said children weren’t away at boarding school) are now finding prime London property so expensive that they are stooping as low as buying their offspring homes in farther flung neighborhoods, including Fulham, Battersea or the Georgian parts of Islington.

“This plutocrat displacement […] displays London’s top-end globalization. Areas such as Belgravia were once synonymous with the British ruling class—Oscar Wilde fans will remember that in The Importance of Being Earnest, Jack Worthing is castigated by Lady Bracknell for having a house on “the unfashionable side” of Belgrave Square. And the area is still the ruling classes’ home, it’s just that this class is now international.

“Today, 60% of properties for sale in this part of London go to international buyers. The general tenor of the place has changed nonetheless. In the evenings an eerie stillness settles on it. That’s because these new owners are so rich in both money and global property that their London addresses frequently sit empty, functioning more as dust-sheeted deposit boxes rather than actual homes.

Text: The Guardian, No One Feels Sorry for the Latest Victims of London ‘Gentrification’

Pic: Empty London, Nick Dolding.