Shieldfield, Newcastle, 2022 [Author’s own]

On more than one occasion, friends visiting or living in the UK from elsewhere have asked one of two (or, both) questions:

why do so few people in British cities live in apartments?


why do British apartment blocks look so dystopian?

The first question is answered by the second, but when asked I struggled to give a meaningful explanation. This led me to investigate why exactly have architects and planners in Britain failed to provide comfortable, pleasant, and practical solutions to city living.

In the UK, there seems to be a real aversion to dense city living which leads to even relatively inner-city areas consisting of individual semi-detached and terraced houses, often with private gardens. In London, for example, by the outer fringes of Zone 2 (for context, the common reference point for Londoners is the London transport system, where concentric circles form six zones with Zone 1 being the centre) the streets already start to take on a suburban-esque feel. This spatial layout is normally reserved for commuter towns and outer suburbs in other European cities, not inner areas still within reasonable walkable distance to the centres of power.

In smaller British cities, the suburbanification happens much sooner. The only notable exception is perhaps Edinburgh, which is arguably the most European of British cities in terms of spatial patterns and social organisation. Very few British cities are organised in the doughnut-shape so ubiquitous (probably to the point of being near-universal) in major cities at least in Europe: the richest and nicest flats are in the city centre and are distinctly the preserve of the bourgeoisie, and the further you get from the dead centre (and presumably then, the cheaper the land becomes), the housing solutions become increasingly shabby. Only by the time you get to the outermost zones, or banlieues (hello Paris!), often you start to hit the problems that inner-city areas in the UK face.

In the UK (the pattern of which the US seems to follow), more often than not the trend is reversed. The outer areas are often where the bourgeoise lurk in their private houses with their own gardens, big driveways, seclusion, and cleaner air away from the dirt and the dangers of the inner city. Inner city areas tend to be either largely uninhabited (as in my city), full of empty properties that must be amassing capital for somebody, somewhere, or full of dystopian-looking council estates. Nowadays, the inner-city area in most provincial British cities has been used to house students in purpose-built new build (cheaply constructed, expensive to rent but student loans cover that off) after a speculative building boom and studentification in the last decade or so that brings with it its own problems.

Edinburgh Old Town, though, is full of attractive city-centre tenements that house the well-to-do. Meanwhile, the outskirts of Edinburgh are unlikely to attract the hordes that come to the UNESCO World Heritage City from all around the world each year: Cannot see them wanting to hang out in Niddrie for example, and neither Craigmillar nor Oxgangs.

Spatially speaking, then, the vast majority of cities in the UK are already radically different from mainland European counterparts. The reasons for this probably deserve a separate analysis of their own and derive from a complex set of historical factors related to our industrial and economic heritage, political organisation, and socio-cultural norms.

Spatial factors notwithstanding, this still does not answer the question as to why our tower blocks are so uninviting.

Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Tower block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Glendinning & Muthesius, 1994

To delve deeper into the question, I picked up the dense and richly illustrated compendium of the history of post-war public housing in the four nations that constitute the UK. Miles Glendinning and Muthesius, academics and architectural historians anchored at the University of Edinburgh produced this detailed guide in 1994 covering technical design, policy factors (each nation has its own political traditions, cultural norms and social specificities leading to slight-to-moderate variations in national policies), and history.

The key conclusion from the book is that the post-war modern public housing building project in the UK was an impressive project, with the building boom starting in the 1950s, peaking in the 1960s (famously, the Conservative Minister for Housing in 1963 laid out a 10-year plan for mass council house building in the UK, absolutely unthinkable in today’s imaginary) and tapering off in the 1970s before Thatcher came to power and began her radical assault on the state (this is covered in more detail in my entry on Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing by John Boughton). However, what started off as a grand national project to adequately house the population after the Second World War soon descended into the murky world of local politics, private interest, and sheer profiteering.

The speed with which the housing boom took hold led to inferior quality control, which Adam Curtis’ 1984 documentary Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster shines a light on in a series of interviews with major actors in the housing boom such as Cleeve Barr and Tom Akroyd. Tower blocks in the UK have also suffered from a poor reputation in terms of safety: The Ronan Point disaster where a 22-storey block collapsed in Canning Town, East London in 1968 only 2 months after it opened, killing four people, and injuring 17 in a gas explosion. This was due to poor construction and faulty design and led to the removal of gas from high-rise buildings. As Curtis illustrates, however, this actually made things worse: rising costs of energy required to fuel the new electrical appliances fitted in council homes in the wake of Ronan Point led to people using their own makeshift solutions using gas cannisters, which obviously posed a significant danger to people living in the blocks. More recently, the fire in Lakanal House in Southwark, South London in 2009 led to six deaths and upwards of 20 injured. The cause was officially down to a faulty television set, but the exterior cladding in the tower block caught fire and spread rapidly through a dozen flats, trapping residents in their buildings. The only escape route, a central stairwell, filled with smoke making it difficult for people to escape.

Most recently, the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017 killed seventy-two people and its charred remains are still there today, a mass tombstone on the West London skyline. The exterior cladding went up in flames in a matter of minutes, and the enquiry is still ongoing. Nothing has been officially confirmed as yet, but the role of government in securing procurement of this type of cladding for tower blocks across the country is the question that must be answered.

Understandably, since these disasters people in the UK have low confidence in the safety of tower blocks and this has not exactly contributed to a positive view of tower blocks. However, safety concerns are just one factor in determining why the UK has so badly executed a move to dense city living. Following comparisons with cities elsewhere in the world, and a closer look at the Tower Block project in the UK, here is what I think are the main contributing factors:

1. “An Englishman’s home is his castle”: Cultural preferences for private over public
The notion of collective and the suspicion with which anything of public value is treated in this country runs unbelievably deep. There is such a deeply held belief that public space is something to be avoided and that sharing with others is bad that I am sure paved the way to an easy roll-over into the shitty mass privatisation of public goods and the death knell of “gas and water” socialism in the Thatcher years.

We credit Thatcher with too much and she is an easy target; scratching more deeply under the surface of this wretched country and it seems that many of Thatcher’s beliefs were already alive and well. She was successful at capturing them and leaning into them, I suppose.

But that is the most depressing thing: I am increasingly finding all the things I despise about this country run millennia deep. I cannot see the way to a better and fairer future. Only the opposite – I see the signs of increased gaping inequality in a country that’s already far more unequal than most of the usual European comparators (with which we are increasingly lagging behind on pretty much all social and economic counts to the point that I’m not so sure we can treat Germany, Netherlands, France etc as a comparator anymore).

But I digress. Ruth Glass wrote in the 1960s in her collection of essays “Cliches of Urban Doom” about the Merrie England dream – the pervasive desire to live in a pastoral, all-English, quaint village community replete with thatched roof houses and a village green.

This is, of course, not a realistic depiction of 21st or even 20th century Britain, but it seems to stick in the national imaginary. The ideal is to live in a cottage of one’s own, where you can shut the front door, lock the garden gate, and keep the prying eyes of neighbours at bay. Living in an apartment, nose-to-nose with neighbours above, below, opposite, and to each side is obviously not in line with that dream. It would be far to difficult to avoid other people. Conversely, though, I introduced my Italian partner to the concept of “curtain twitching,” which to me is even more quintessentially British than the Merrie England ideal described above.

He laughed and pointed out that it is highly strange that in a country so obsessed with privacy people are damn nosy and status obsessed. He noted that in Italy, people are used to living cheek-by-jowl with neighbours, but nobody really gives two hoots about what anyone else is up to. I suppose, keeping everything in the open means that there is nothing really to hide. In contrast, British homes, with their tall hedges, front gardens and thick curtains are shrouded in mystery.

Garden City Movement of Ebenezer Howard, is a work in utopian thinking draws from the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s thinking. Howard is keen to emphasis his not socialist but not “individualist” slant – a true Fabian in the making (something I have strong opinons about but that’s for another time) – or a third way / mixed economy supporter before his time. From this standpoint he supports keeping workers apart against threat of Bolshevism. More on that later.

In 2013, Daily Mail ran an article called “Bring Back Bungalows.” A general rule I follow in life is that if the Daily Mail endorses it then “it” must be wrong. And if anything would be a mouthpiece for the Merrie England ideal, it would be the Daily Mail. I think that confirms that the paranoia of letting city-dwellers live close together might lead to revolution is still, over a century after the Bolsheviks, a subconscious preoccupation of the England ruling class.

2. Poor planning

In many UK cities, the usual skyline is overwhelming low-rise interrupted only by standalone 15-storey plus tower blocks dotted at random. This has quite a jarring effect, and the tower blocks stand out like a sore thumb.

From a spatial point of view, this is the result of a combination of land use policies and practical considerations related to the quality of the land. In Tower Blocks, Glendinning and Muthesius highlight the large degree of autonomy local councils enjoyed in planning and building in the 1960s. While the national guidelines encouraged an increased densification, likely conceived with London in the forefront of their minds, some councils such as Leeds and Newcastle preferred to expand their urban core. In clearing out the riverside slums around the riverside in Newcastle, for example, the council under T. Dan Smith’s guide developed land further out from the city, particularly around former industrial sites in the East and West of the city.

This led to the construction of tower blocks on cleared brownfield sites, previously used for mining. As such, the structural property of the land is rather poor. Much of the land in the North East mining country, for example, is like Swiss cheese. I live right next to one of these T. Dan Smith’s tower blocks and looking out of my living room window I can see that each house is my street is at a slightly different level, creating a somewhat Tim Burton-esque vibe. Subsidence is a way of life here. At the end of the street a 20-storey tower block looms over us, on a former mine shaft. The tower blocks were built on any spot that was deemed sufficiently structurally sounds, which leads to a sporadic landscape.

These one-off tower blocks look quite different to the rows of squat tower blocks that tend to be grouped together, among more medium-sized (4-6 storey) buildings in other European cities. This gives a more gradual skyline, as opposed to the contrasting scale of a single 20-storey block erupting from a sea of 2-storey homes.

3. Political stigmatism and the collective imaginary

The lack of continuity between the tower blocks and their surrounding areas did create fertile conditions for those up to no good to thrive. Rather than landscaping the areas around the tower blocks, the 1950s-1970s tower blocks are usually surrounded by concrete. In addition, many of the visionary architects of the time had these ideas of “playful” passages, walkways in the sky, nooks, and crannies for people to walk around (all concrete, of course), and concrete common areas to sit outside. I’m sure these were designed with the aim of creating a pleasant environment for tower block dwellers, who had no access to their own outside space, but the effect is really quite the opposite.

Instead of vibrant, lively places they became convenient locations for dodgy dealings, with their hidden corners and networks of alleyways, underpasses, and passages.

The situation was made so much worse by Thatcher’s assault on the social housing sector and mass sell-off of council blocks, which led to a sort of social engineering and negative feedback loop. Oscar Newman’s defensible space theory also had a disproportionate and unfounded influence on housing theory in the UK from the 1970s onwards. Newman’s theory, focused on the now-demolished Prutt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, posits that the more private a space is, the more control and influence the resident has over it. He notes that where space is collective, since it belongs to no specific individual then it is likely to attract criminal behaviour. This completely flies in the face of the Greek and Roman architectural theories that prized common space (Agora and the Forum, really the forerunner in some respects of the post-renaissance Italian piazza) and the opportunity for city dwellers to intermingle in neutral territory. Defensible space draws on the most Anglo-centric phobia of the collective, which is seen as suspicious and dangerous as people simply cannot be trusted to look after what is not directly theirs.

Following this, housing in the Anglo world aims to physically defend itself from outsiders and plays into fear of the unknown. Even today, the Secured by Design in the UK is a police initiative that aims to improve the security of buildings by fitting them with surveillance devices such as CCTV systems and bars over windows. This has led to some highly unwelcoming and quite frankly intimidating architecture. Anna Minton, author of Ground Control, described it as “oppressive,” and I certainly tend to agree.

4. Value engineering

Vitruvius, the Roman architect, and engineer who wrote De Architectura (the collection of ten books on architecture written in 1st century BC), notes in Book I that no expense should be spared on materials required for building, especially not public buildings. Fast forward a couple of millennia, and we see that for all the current government’s talk about one of the three Vitruvian principles, Venustas (beauty) even enshrining it in the latest raft of planning reforms (see Building Better, Building Beautiful bluuurk), they conveniently forgot the point old V repeatedly hammered home about not being cheap and skimping on quality.

This is not just our current government, of course, but cheapness and cost-saving (for the masses that is, of course profit for the few is the mantra of the day) took first place over utility quality, comfort, and even safety long ago. Glendinning and Muthesius’ Tower Block tome offers some insight into the world of value engineering, and why it leads to mediocre quality. Essentially, value engineering means that if a cheaper alternative is available to a solution, then the cheapest one must be procured.

Looking at how the Tower Blocks of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and even more so, the new builds of the 1990s and early 21st century one can really see value engineering at work. Certainly, the Venustas bit was lost here as well. Adam Curtis’ documentary, available on YouTube in its full glory, The Great British Housing Disaster, certainly gives an illustration of what cost cutting and shoddy workmanship leads to. And of course there were also tragic consequences, not only Grenfell (cheap cladding and surely corruption to an as-yet unknown quality in government procurement processes), but also Ronan Point, the tower block in East London that collapsed in 1968 a mere two months after it opened and also Lakanal House, again in London in 2009 which caught fire and it was shown that the fire escape routes were simply a long way short of sufficient.

5. Anti-urbanism and prioritisation of fast and private mobility

The latter is not unique to the UK, of course, but the instinctively anti-urban sentiment seems to run deeper here than elsewhere (see point 1). The UK was last modernised really in the 1950s and 1960s, after much of the industrial cities were flattened during WWII. Reconstruction coincided with the rise of the private car, and our cities are certainly engineered in an extremely car-centric way. Coventry, which was heavily bombed, is perhaps the most shocking example of this I have seen. Busy arterial roads cut through inner city areas, making it exceedingly difficult to get around by foot.

A society heavily reliant on private mobility and where public transport has been heavily stigmatised and heavily cut back in recent decades, making it costly, disjointed, and inconvenient (Thatcher famously said that anyone on a bus over aged 25 is a failure), doesn’t lend itself well to housing that has little to no private car facilities, as many of the mid-century tower blocks do. Coupled with a cultural preference for private space and an own garden, individual houses preferably with a drive or a private garage attached are much desired. Car parking solutions are indeed a factor when people here seek to buy their own home.

6. Lack of private outdoor space

One thing that the UK severely misunderstands is the concept of the balcony. Where private homes and private gardens are secured, I suppose this has the impact of downgrading any other solutions of private space in more collective living arrangements. Tower blocks in the UK rarely have balconies available for residents’ use, and even new builds tend to use the misleadingly named “Juliet balconies” (aka bars over the windows to stop people jumping out, I think, I cannot see any other function they might serve). As a result, tower block living is deemed wholly undesirable as there is no individual access to outside space.

Balconies fulfil a much greater role in Italy, France, Spain, and other countries particularly in the South of Europe. This alone probably warrants a separate entry in its own right.

8. Scale

Scale in the UK is strange. Until recently, even London had a relatively low skyline compared to cities of a comparable size elsewhere in the world. Still today most provincial cities consist largely of low-rise buildings, punctuated discordantly by enormous tower blocks. Scale is important, and it is underrated. Too tall, and without the right frames of reference, then it is out of whack with surroundings and creates a hostile, dystopic atmosphere.

In the film the Human Scale, Jan Gehl outlines how scale can be achieved to balance the need for dense living with a comfortable and welcoming city-feel. Around eight storeys is the perfect dimension for the human brain, as long as the buildings are anchored to street-level somehow. This can be achieved by adding trees, or fitting ground floors with balconies or canopies covering shop fronts and cafes. It is something that the average Brit is eager to romanticise about large European cities, and indeed many mainland European cities do achieve the balance of dense and cosy. Here, with a suspicion of public space and no traditional street culture to speak of (beyond booze-fuelled mania, but that is a different story), it is something distinctly lacking in British cities.

Our low-rise cities coupled with inhumanly scaled buildings definitely contribute to a sterile and unforgiving street environment, even more marked in cities that have recently undergone a vertical building boom such as Manchester, London, and Birmingham. Rather than a sense of convivial street life, the overwhelming feeling is that of the ever-increasing blood-sucking grip of the financial sector is never far away.

9. Lack of maintenance

The individual flats inside the tower blocks (at least the ones I have seen) tend to be quite roomy on average, certainly bigger than the standard new builds aimed at working or middle-classes. Indeed, in the 1950s-1960s much thought was put into spatial standards and how much space residents would need to go about their day-to-day in their dwellings. Local council housing teams tended to employ sociologists who would make calculations based on family size, demographics, and various other factors and ended up with a generous square metreage by today’s standards. When families first moved into the new tower blocks from their cramped, overcrowded inner city terraces and slum areas, they were surely quite taken by the relatively high standard of dwelling they had newly acquired.

However, a cursory glance today shows that not much in the way of modernisation has really taken place since the 1960s. Lift shafts are often in a poor state, interior décor has barely been touched apart from perhaps a new lick of paint every now and again, and broken windows, intercom systems, and doors seem to be a relatively standard feature of the old tower blocks.

Surely if maintenance cycles had been rolled out on the regular and the flats were modernised incrementally and equipped with modern technology as it evolved, they’d be much better places to live. But no, most of them still seem to be stuck in the 1960s and after more than half a century of wear and tear that hardly leads to a desirable place to live.

10. … Perhaps they are back in vogue?

That said, apartment living – as opposed to living in a “block of flats,” carefully distinguished by property developer marketing-speak, seems to be making a comeback. Luxury apartments (a far cry in aesthetic from the classic “block of flats” but I would argue that quality of the new ones has been severely compromised comparing like-for-like) are cropping up in waterfront areas and former industrial districts across this highly financialised country, largely populated by young, middle-class professionals. This is borne partially out of necessity but also logic of the market, which in this country certainly leaves no stone unturned when it comes to opportunities to extract profit. That, however, is an entry for another day.

More Chronicles of Nairn-ier: Outrage! and Counterattack

A Manifesto for Good Planning in Nairn’s Outrage!, 1955 (Architectural Review)

The aim of the last entry was to introduce Ian Nairn and his ideas, although it went down a rabbit hole of comparing two influential post-war urban theorists, ethnographers and flaneurs – almost centrist-Situtationist psychogeographers of the rising Anglo-American middle class on either side of the Atlantic. The two did have certain traits in common and a similar place in the societies to which they belong either side of the Atlantic. Indeed, they were mutually aware of each other and they did meet in New York in the 1960s where they collaborated briefly following Nairn receiving a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation.  Nairn’s work clearly influenced Jacobs and his Outrage! is referenced in “Death and Life” and subsequent essays.

So, now let’s talk about Outrage! and the follow-up, Counterattack. In 1955, Ian Nairn issued the Architectural Review with his critique of the concept he termed as coined Subtopia, or the slow tentacles of suburbia spilling over increasingly into the British countryside. In effect, it is a call to arms to increase urban densification and protect the countryside from a process of urban sprawl. Written in 1955, it is eerily prescient and the dawn of mass ownership of private car certainly accelerated this process in the following decade. As the distances that people could easily travel increased, so did the reach of towns into lower density settlements into the countryside as city dwellers increasingly sought larger homes with bigger gardens and more space without having to compromise city living and access to work.

In essence, Outrage! calls for better town planning strategy in the Dutch style of densely packed cities with clearly demarcated green belt countryside between each. There’s a lot to say for this, and I certainly see huge merit in compact, walkable (or cyclable) cities, particularly from the point of view of minimising carbon footprints and promoting urban cohesion. However, this requires careful land planning strategies and coordination at a national level, which is certainly lacking in the UK with successive governments pushing for more and more planning deregulation. It also requires a significant degree of social cohesion, which is extremely weak in the UK, partially due to a deeply engrained national obsession with individualism and privacy. However this has been significantly exacerbated by past brutal 12 years of Thatcherite razing state institutions to the ground so that the state barely exists anymore, turbo-charging the dismantling of public services and privatisation of any notion of collective space. With that comes extremely weak social ties, and a zombie UK state left completely hollow and in a fragile and weak condition with spiralling levels of inequality and deep-rooted structural problems in economy and society that I cannot see improving in the foreseeable.

Ian Nairn would no doubt be horrified at the condition of Britain today, and in many ways Outrage! was eerily prophetic without ever expressing any political dimension. In fact his politics seem somewhat unclear, much less so than that of Jacobs. He never really articulated the reasons for the march of Subtopia, and Outrage! seems largely an exercise in nostalgia for an golden era where the private car didn’t exist and the countryside consisted of idyllic villages and the rural peasant life.

Outrage! and the follow-up Counterattack! are beautifully illustrated by one of the lead Townscape theorists Gordon Cullen. While Nairn didn’t seem to present any immediate solutions to the rapid, messy and short-term thinking behind the sprawling out of post-war Britain’s urban, the beauty of his two polemics lie in his engaging narration style, and a running commentary of the concerns and fears of those living through the social democratic, state-led reconstruction of a Britain ravaged by the war. In particular, his manifesto at the back of Counterrattack! on what not to do when planning cities, and his case-book of bad practice and examples of ugly bits of town planning in a route he took from Southampton all the way up to the Scottish Highlands.

The short book rich in illustration and photographs offers a window into a time when Britain was re-moulding itself following the bloody first half of the twentieth century. Looking at it from the perspective of someone who has grown up largely under a period where the state has been weakened and diminished into something unrecognisable from the state-led development from 1945 onwards, it’s easy to forget that this was a huge period of significant social change which no doubt led to a degree of upheaval for those living through that time.

The most striking thing about Outrage! and Counterattack is their lightness on theory and political context. They barely make mention of the strong municipal-led politics and social democratic policies of the decades following the end of the two world wars that forged modern Britain and lifted many out of poverty and gave them free access to high-quality healthcare, subsidised and good quality housing, education, and the building up of a strong welfare state that ensured everyone had a decent start and end to life, supported by a consensus that this is what a modern state should look like between both Labour and Tories. This has been brutally dismantled since the 2008 crisis and erased from the collective imagination, to the point where Labour’s manifesto for the 2019 election was deemed as dangerous and insane by the political elite , when it reality what it wanted to do was re-imagine the welfare state of the 1950s and 1960s but updated to suit the needs of the 21st century. Clearly, the post-war cross-party consensus of caring for every individual from cradle to grave has retreated, and instead replaced with a Labour-Tory consensus of a return to a Victorian age where life was nasty, brutish and short for most, whose sole purpose of existence was to exploit just so that small hoard of landowners and business owners could live in ostentatiousness and eye-watering luxury. We, the left, lost that debate it seems and now we can do little but sit back and watch the horrors unfold.

Anyway: in the absence of social critique rooted in political context, Nairn’s main contribution was his stimulating additions to the debate on the quality and nature of town planning and its aesthetic considerations. He brought to the fore the Townscape theory, which Cullen was an advocate as well as Kevin Lynch, author of “The Image of the City” and wider questions around urban design which perhaps had been lacking in the town planning discipline until that point. His contributions as an outsider to the discipline (certainly he ruffled the feathers of technical experts in the profession such as architects and town planners), and his assertion that the character of place cannot be created in a top-down, technocratic manner but by large teams, including sociologists, cultural theorists, commentators and especially, regular citizens.

The Townscape theorists were concerned with how aesthetics and conservation of rural character of British countryside villages could be combined with the social democratic modernisation of post-war Britain. Nairn railed against “clutter” or man-made necessities of urban living – roundabouts, signage, fences, electricity pylons, lampposts taking over the British landscape, and wanted to see it carefully planned and managed so it could be harmonised with the rural landscape.

In Counterattack! Nairn maps out varying archetypes of lampposts and rates them in terms of their ugliness and lack of harmony with their settings. He also critiques local council’s attempts to manage public spaces, with the characteristic flower beds and hanging baskets that filled high streets and town centres, which I recognise from my upbringing in the suburb of a deindustrialising northern town in the 1980s and 1990s. I wonder today, how Nairn would take the average British northern town battered by over a decade of austerity. Gone are the hanging baskets, much of the lampposts and street lighting, and many councils have even removed trees in a bid to save money, which is a neat illustration of the sheer madness of such deep cuts to public spending as we face increasing challenges due to climate change. Trees are a great way to keep dense urban areas cool in the increasingly warm summers, as well as great for natural drainage as our climate gets wetter and floodrisk becomes a near constant threat each year. Our town centres now are sad places: colourless, joyless, soulless with barely any landscaping left, blighted by boarded-up shops and empty properties as high streets decline at a fairly shocking pace.

The starkest difference now from even 10 years ago and certainly in Nairn’s time is the sharp increase in homelessness as more and more people are forced into poverty by the cruel regime forced upon us since 2010. In any given British city, and increasingly also suburbs and smaller town centres, high street doorways are used to shelter an unforgivingly high homeless population. This is a crisis that shows no sign of abating and the noises made by the latest prime minister indicate that he has no intention of providing any structural solutions. In a country as rich as the UK, this is nothing short of a crime of the government’s making.

Planning departments now have been stripped bare, the only planners left in local authorities are mostly left to handle the consequences of an ineffective and inadequate community consultation process and managing the needs of private developers. The planning system has been deregulated and the idea of a cohesive, European-style state-led overarching planning strategy has been sacrificed to profit gains for private developers leading to fragmentation and competition for profit rather than collaboration over shared social goals. Long gone are the days where the municipal planning teams would count sociologists in their ranks. Nairn would be horrified that the densification and townscape debate have both been well and truly lost. The expanded suburbs, Barrattification, are now are seen as a sanctuary for the middle classes, shielding them in new-build estates with private gardens and a lives moulded around privacy and car use, from the horrors of the social and physical dereliction of provincial inner cities and towns that have been systematically hollowed out and left to rot.

Ian Nairn and Subtopia

After my four-part entry on Jane Jacobs and her magnum opus Death and Life of Great American Cities, it follows that Ian Nairn more than deserves at least an entry or two.

Like Jacobs, Ian Nairn’s writing on architecture and planning emerged from his role as a journalist. Where Jacobs wrote for the American magazine Architectural Forum, Nairn was British-born and based and wrote for the Architectural Review. Unlike Architectural Forum, which ceased publication in 1974, Architectural Review is still alive and well, and continued to be held in high esteem in the industry.

While they both had journalistic backgrounds and were very skilled at storytelling and weaving a compelling narrative, I would say the similarities end there. Nairn, unlike Jacobs, had a technical background. He was the son of a draughtsman for a the R101 airship (zeppelin), a government-backed project to expand civil airships capable of long-distance journeys between London and key routes within the British Empire. While Nairn was not a trained architect, he was a qualified pilot who did extended national service in the RAF and graduated in Mathematics from Birmingham University. Nairn was raised in Surrey, which even by the 1930s was already essentially a wealthy suburban belt of London, and it was here he cultivated his deep-seated hatred of the suburbs. The exploration of his aversion to the suburbs led to his Outrage! project where he coined the term Subtopia.

Nairn’s views of the suburbs, therefore, were inverted to those of Jacobs. While Jacobs seemed to have a positive predisposition towards the suburbs, never really articulating it but implying in her “eyes on the street” concept of neighbourhood surveillance that the one thing cities are lacking is a suburban mindset, and that the conditions that allow big cities to afford the right to anonymity of their inhabitants should be eradicated to as great an extent as possible.

Nairn, on the other hand, sees the suburbs as a scourge. In his view, they spread mediocrity and prevent creative and intelligent thinking, numbing all the senses by their blandness and striving to make life as free as possible of the discomfort and friction city life requires its inhabitants to navigate on a daily basis. One wonders, whether the British sense of apathy and quite frankly, levels of acceptance of abuses inflicted on the ruling class to ordinary citizens that would simply not be tolerated elsewhere, is a cultural trait or one that has been exacerbated by the post-war drive to bland, conflict-averse society organised in neat little suburbs characterised by individual family homes, small private gardens and reliance on private transport.

While they had different attitudes towards the suburbs,  it is fair to say that Nairn and Jacobs had in different ways both had strong views on increasing the density of cities and aiming for as high a density as possible. For Nairn, this was largely to protect the integrity of the countryside, keeping it as wild and free from manmade interference as possible. Jacobs, on the other hand, didn’t make much of a mention of the interaction between city and countryside, instead aiming for a walkable city composed of lots of different neighbourhoods, or mini cities within a bigger city, in which people would live, work, and play without ever needing to venture out into the greater metropolis to which they belong.

In recent years, Jacobs’ concepts has become extremely popular in Europe as a response to climate change and the move to decarbonisation through people-centric urban and residential planning. The walkable city, or 20-minute or 15-minute city, is gaining popularity as a strategy to try to phase out car traffic from city centres and reduce congestion. For example, the Scottish Government has embedded the 20-minute city in its national planning framework, Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo is backing a 15-minute city model, and other cities are following suit, including Barcelona. The Catalonian capital has long been a pioneer and perfect case study in urban planning and testing new human-centric concepts from Cerdà’s superblock plans and design for Eixample in overcrowded 19th century Barcelona still constricted by medieval city walls to the more recent port area redevelopment. From Jacobs’ point of view, her focus on increasing density as a way to make cities “smaller” and more liveable and manageable rather than Nairn’s wish to increase density of cities to protect and conserve the integrity of the countryside was perhaps largely because the US is a vast, expansive territory and land is not exactly in short supply. Britain, on the other hand, as Nairn never fails to remind us, is a small, overcrowded, and at the time of Outrage! still a highly industrial country. Towns, therefore, had a propensity to spill over into the country, even in the remotest rural corners such as the Highlands of Scotland which even in 1955 were still pock-marked with man-made activity. Jacobs realised early the damage planners could make by building cities around the needs of the motorcar (let’s not forget her rise to fame was connected with her role and subsequent arrest in mobilising Manhattanites against the Robert Moses plan to build a highway cutting through dense city areas), Nairn’s view was complementary to this in his early realisation of the extent to which the rise of car ownership could damage the countryside by extending the reach and the spread of the city. In Outrage! he notes that

“Spread is dependent no longer on population increase but on the services a power-equipped society can think up for itself. With radio and supersonic speeds you get the capacity for infinite spread, the limiting factors of time and place having ceased to operate. The city is to-day not so much a growing as a spreading thing, fanning out over the land surface in the shape of suburban sprawl.

However, something even more sinister is at work: applied science is rendering meaningless the old distinction between urban and rural life; the village is becoming as much a commuter as the citizen; the old centres of gravity have been deprived of their pull at both ends and in the middle; no longer geographically tied, the industries which once muscled in on the urban set-up are getting out of the mess they did so much to make, and making a new mess outside.”

In time, both have proven to be correct, and we live in a world where the life of the average city dweller has been so ravaged by the use of the private car that it’s not even questioned anymore but taken as a usual and normal part of living in a city. Whether that’s excess deaths from air pollution, contribution to a changed climate, to appalling city planning, streets crowded with cars (both moving and parked) so all other street users are pushed aside and forced to make themselves as invisible as possible and take up as little space as they can. All of this is barely questioned by urban planners, especially in countries such as UK and the US where the fossil fuel industry have a chokehold over governments and the organisation of daily life. Speed, efficiency, and private consumption are also at the core of our global economy, and the private car is certainly seen as integral to this, especially in Europe where governments will not invest in mass-scale state of the art public transit systems and high speed trains as a great scale.

The UK is currently going through some extreme ideology manifesting in the disintegration of rail infrastructure because of a stubborn refusal to dip into shareholder profits to give it the upgrade it so badly needs. The country’s economic system is currently in what can really only be described as meltdown and this is just one symptom. In the US, it’s criminal that such a large, expansive country has such diabolic rail coverage and no high speed connection to speak of.

Futurism & l’art pour l’art

I have had a very busy stretch recently, writing a lot (for work) and thinking a lot (not for work; mostly about dying hegemons, nuclear warfare and tectonic shifts). Unfortunately this combination of energy and physical fatigue makes for a lot of half-formed, half-baked ideas. I need to get them out somehow – so please don’t judge me for the incoherence.

One of these days I will have a ton of time, energy, rested mind and spirit, no distractions, and I can sit and write something and then perfectly sculpt into orderly, insightful, joyous concepts. One of these days….probably in another life.

But not this one. So here goes.

The world has long been separated into two camps: those who think art should be enjoyed for art’s sake and those who..don’t. Those who don’t instead believe in art as a moral medium, a vehicle in which to convey messages or reflection of the social conditions in which art exists.

Of the first camp, there are commonly two justifications for this:

First is purely aesthetic, whereby art should merely be visually or aurally appealing, it should “spark joy” pure and simple, to steal the highly problematic words of Marie Kondo (and which the other half of the concept, it should spark joy or “throw it away” in my feverishly overactive imagination brings to mind a terrifying vision of society; eugenics and genocide and all of that bad stuff).


Second is little more than a thinly veiled excuse for the first: art should be accessible to be able to convey expression to as wide an audience as possible.

Of the second camp, there is again a further split:

Art should have a moralistic, didactic function and should strive to teach and improve.


Art should be politicised and should be used as a tool for criticising society and mobilising the working class against bourgeoise oppression.

As Bertold Brecht explained: “Art is not a mirror held up to society; but a hammer with which to shape it.”

No prizes for guessing what this little quadrant graph correlates to then! As everything in life, it generally reflects the broad political (class) spectrum.

Of the l’art pour l’art camp:
(apologies for the Anglocentricism – but this is my frame of reference)

1. The bourgeoise (represented by the centre-right, today the neolibs) who hate theory, fear depth and intimacy, enjoy simplicity, prefer to take things at face value which means empty aesthetics above all. Think New Labour soundbites, think advertising industry, think middle-of-the road and unconfrontational blandness that is the hallmark of today’s developer-led urbanism.

2. The socialists or social democrats (centre-left, soft left, Fabians and Orwell, the third way people, in today’s money the Starmerites) who if we are to be generous are comfortable with a sort of pact-like arrangement with the centre-right, and if we are to be cynical are prepared to sprinkle a bit of theory over the moral void of the bourgeoisie to make it a little more palatable. They offer a little social critique if provoked but it is not their modus operandi: they are happy to do whatever it takes to take power, regardless of whether this means abandoning all beliefs or worse, forgetting what they actually believe (spoiler: usually little to nothing) in once they actually get close to power (and here a brief interjection: take heed – don’t trust Starmer’s trumpeting about electoral reform and a national energy company. I’ll believe it when I see it). Hence, art is only fulfilling a role if it reaches a wide audience, regardless of what it has to say or what it stands for.

And of the l’art pour plus que l’art (?? Sorry my French is rusty/nasty)

3. The right and far-right who believe that art should preach, moralise, and should have the sole underlying purpose of self-improvement (think zealots, Hitler, the Futurists – who are the reason I am writing about this today). Nietzche, who did in rare cases have some useful things to say but often not, summarised the vehemently anti art as aesthetic stance in his writings Twilight of the Idols, a piece of work that is centred around the famous aphorism “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” likely today a motto of the incels the world over (including the arch-incel, Vladimir Putin) and the ever-shrinking British working-class electorate in northern seats who continue as an act of self-harm to vote for an alarmingly mouth-foaming and rabid Tory party.

Old Nietsch (sic) said:

When the purpose of moral preaching and of improving man has been excluded from art, it still does not follow by any means that art is altogether purposeless, aimless, senseless — in short, l’art pour l’art, a worm chewing its own tail. “Rather no purpose at all than a moral purpose!” — that is the talk of mere passion. A psychologist, on the other hand, asks: what does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? choose? prefer?

With all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations. Is this merely a “moreover”? an accident? something in which the artist’s instinct had no share? Or is it not the very presupposition of the artist’s ability? Does his basic instinct aim at art, or rather at the sense of art, at life? at a desirability of life?

Art is the great stimulus to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l’art pour l’art?”

4. OK, now we get to the best one. The Marxist take on art is that is primarily a tool for social critique, and as the producer of art is part of the society, then the two simply cannot be detached (see Brecht).

For me, instinctively, the first assessment I make when I contemplate a piece of art is not how it looks but in which context was it produced, and from there it is possible to decipher the message (and, importantly, from and to whom the message is aimed).

The Frankfurt school wrote extensively on art and probably the most important frame of reference is Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. This is a thesis to which I fully can subscribe: the shackles lifted on modern artists leads to a greater responsibility for social critique. Although, I do think he went too sour and his writings on music in Minima Moralia make my blood boil. I would contest rejection of musical innovation and “crimes of pop music.” He lauded high European culture and classical music and rejected jazz, blues. To this I have some strong questions around Eurocentricism and I would ask why he is rejecting so outrightedly culture that is not dominated and led by white well-educated Europeans.

Pop culture, punk, and the aestheticising trap

Use Hearing Protection Exhibition, Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. Marianne Kell, December 2021

One thing that I have often questioned about Anglo-American culture is how readily and deftly with which pop culture vacuums up and absorbs aesthetic influences from outside the Anglosphere without really engaging with the concept its represents. My partner, who was born and raised in Farawayistan (i.e. outside the Anglo world), explained that it’s because British and Americans conceptualise the world in three ways: 1. Colonise; 2. Tourism; 3. Coloniser-tourist.

I had to admit, he has a point. With the caveat that the whiter and richer the Anglophone, the more likely this is to apply. The Anglophone is never an immigrant; always an “ex-pat.” We are at home everywhere (coloniser) and we can survive most places with only a basic grasp of the local language and customs (tourist). My partner also raised the point that the Anglo world is fixated with the “deep dive” (coloniser-tourist). We have a binary relationship to the world around us: either complete disinterest and rejection or full immersion to the point we feverishly consume everything we can find that will bolster us to the much-coveted “expert” status. Hence the raft of hobbyists and collectors (and looters, looking at you, British Museum) that Anglo-America inflicts on the rest of the world.

A case in point. Last winter, I visited Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry – “Use Hearing Protection.” It was about Factory Records, the label that was the main driver of the Manchester scene and also operated the now-defunct Hacienda nightclub which is very much part of the musical lore of the country. The label signed New Order, Joy Division, Happy Mondays, Durutti Column, James, and many others shaping the British (and I’d also say European and even American) post-punk scene. Their influence is still felt today: there are so many British, American, Canadian bands from the past 20 years that are keeping that FAC sound, although by now it sounds rather pastiche and, quite frankly, dull.

The exhibition itself was fairly interesting, although as always these days when reflecting on musical production and cultural scenes in Britain in the 20th century, I mostly feel sad about how our culture and ability for creative minds to produce and reflect has been completely destroyed in the past 10-20 years. Support systems to allow creative types to create AND live have long since withered up and this has had a huge impact on our modern society which, I argue, is characterised by sterility, pastiche, blandness, and an overall aura of anxiety. BUT: that is a long discussion for another time (and I will need to bring in some of Mark Fisher’s thinking, which deserves time and attention of its own. Mark Fisher should never be a footnote).

I digress.

The main takeaway from the exhibition for me was learning that Factory Records took the graphic design inspiration (both logo and font) from the Italian Futurists. You can have a look at the FAC album covers here.


Fortunato Depero Museum, one rainy afternoon in Rovereto, August 2022, Marianne Kell

The Futurist movement was an Italian art, film and architecture and socio-political movement that was essentially a cheerleading club for Mussolini and celebrates speed, violence, and power (surely Le Corbusier was a fan then). It was founded by several mixed medium artists, with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti being the most ardent. They were an odd bunch, clearly influenced by the Swiss Dadaist surrealism, with strange puppetry and experimental, kind of proto-industrial music embedded within their movement. In the manifesto, Marinetti writes that we need to keep knocking down buildings each generation, and building new ones, which is obviously a bit mad, especially in a country that celebrates its ancient Roman heritage. Marinetti was really an early hipster who supported a death cult. Really a Proud Boy ahead of his time.  

One of the Futurist artists, not a contributor to the manifesto and stayed silent on support for Mussolini’s fascist regime (in a sort-of tacit support, it is understood), is Fortunato Depero. It turns out Depero was born in my boyfriend’s hometown (a small town in Trentino). One rainy day this summer, we visited the museum and I have to say that visually speaking, Depero’s art is lovely, but there are racist under(over)tones which are impossible to ignore. Great designer, but terrible beliefs.

The form and function is clearly influenced by cubism and I could see some Joan Miro in there in the formation of shapes and also colour palette. His Campari adverts pop up here and there (I think there are even posters hanging in some lefty pub in my hometown). There’s clearly also a reflection of socialist movements such as Bauhaus and the parallel communist Russian Futurism, both of which (it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me) I very much enjoy.

Futurist Roof, MART, Rovereto (Museum of Modern Art). Marianne Kell, August 2022

However, my point now is that I do sympathise with Peter Saville and the FAC creative team – it must be said that Depero’s art is visually appealing. And then, I felt a dissonance between l’art pour l’art and experiencing aesthetic pleasure and my moral conscience, which understands that the Futurists were terrible fascists who supported widespread civil violence and killing communists.

The second point of this, is that we need to be careful about the provenance of things we “borrow.” The New Order cover, taken directly from Depero’s illustration of the 1932 Futurist exhibition in Trentino (possibly Rovereto, L’s hometown?), is a step too far. I wouldn’t want to see an Arctic Monkeys album cover influenced by Mein Kampf – just because Futurism looks nice, still doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to recycle it without question.  It is difficult to swallow that an ostensibly left-wing, anti-Thatcher wave would take its look and feel from overtly fascist art movement. It’s as if, I dunno, Rough Trade would suddenly start producing the artwork of their signed bands in font Fraktur, entering sponsorship deals with Hugo Boss and depicting Wagnerian scenes.

Although, looking back again retrospectively at the apolitical, culturally illiterate, pointlessly hedonistic and self-congratulory, overwhelmingly white and male music scene of the UK in the late 90s and early 00s, probably the signs of the cultural landscape of the preceding decade(s) should have been clearer. Also, one of the mainstream figures to come out of that, Morrissey, has turned out to be horribly racist and right-wing so it does seem that the picture is coming into focus.

Usually, when something states to be “neither right nor left,” it means it is to be treated with suspicion, and, more often than not, silence speaks volumes. Nothing is ever apolitical; to be apolitical is in itself a political act. This certainly doesn’t mean that anything that has ever touched a Factory Record label should be “cancelled”; that is not how the world should work. The message is simply sort-of: don’t judge a book by its cover — the cover might look nice but what’s inside could well be alarming. Read it first and then decide.

Jane Jacobs Part IV: What did she get wrong?

Jane Jacobs got some things right, albeit often for the wrong reasons as I mentioned previously. However sometimes she did get things wrong, plain and simple. Despite not having any technical training in architecture, planning, or urban design, she rejected fundamental urban planning ideals related to scale, density, urban grain, use of space (parks and sidewalks) and zoning. Some of these are good challenges certainly, although I don’t agree with all of them. My issue isn’t that she rejected these ideals outright, rather she didn’t delve deeper into the reasons behind why these ideals may exist, and her reactions against them felt somewhat knee-jerk.

As an anti-communist and something of a small-state libertarian, she tended to place a lot of emphasis on the responsibility of small business owners, shopkeepers, and homeowners for building a solid community. From this, she creates her famous “ballet of the street,” which feels like something of a magical universe, a kind of Disney-esque utopia which I struggle to believe really existed in the way she described it:

“The ballet of the city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations. The stretch of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet. I make my own first entrance into it a little after eight when I put out the garbage can, surely a prosaic occupation, but I enjoy my part, my little clang, as the droves of junior high school students walk by the centre of the stage dropping candy wrappers […].

While I sweep up the wrappers I watch the other rituals of the morning: Mr Halpert unlocking the laundry’s handcart from its mooring to a cellar door, Joe Cornacchia’s son-in-law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber brining out his sidewalk folding chair, Mr Goldstein arranging the coils of wire which proclaim the hardware store is open, the wife of the tenement’s superintendent depositing her chunky three-year-old with a toy mandolin on the stoop, the vantage point from which he is learning the English his mother cannot speak. […]

The heart-of-the-day ballet I seldom see, because of the nature of it is that working people who live there, like me, are mostly gone, filling the roles of strangers on other sidewalks. But from days off, I know enough of it to know that it becomes more and more intricate. Longshoremen who are not working that day gather at the White Horse or the Ideal or the International for beer and conversation. The executives and business lunchers from the industries just to the west throng the Dorgene restaurant and the Lion’s Head coffee-house; meat-market workers and communications scientists fill the bakery lunchroom. Character dancers come on, a strange old man with strings of old shoes over his shoulders, motor-scooter riders with big beards and girl friends who bounce on the back of the scooters and wear their hair long in front of their faces as well as behind, drunks who follow the advice of the Hat Council and are always turned out in hats, but not hats the Council would approve of. […]

When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo. This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lea of the stoop with bottle tops and plastic cowboys; this is the time of bundles and packages, zigzagging from the drugstore to the fruit stand and back over to the butcher’s, this is the time when teenagers, all dressed up, are pausing to ask if their slips show or their collars look right; this is the time when beautiful girls get out of M.G.s; this is the time when fire engines go through; this is the time when anybody you know around Hudson Street will go by. […]

I know the deep night ballet and its seasons best from waking long after midnight to tend to a baby and, sitting in the dark, seeing the shadows and hearing the sounds of the sidewalk. Mostly it is a sound like infinitely pattering snatches of party conversation and, about three in the morning, singing, very good singing. Sometimes there is a sharpness and anger or sad, sad, weeping, or a flurry of search for a string of beads broken. One night a young man came roaring along, bellowing terrible language at two girls whom he had apparently picked up and who were disappointing him. Doors opened, a way semi-circle formed around him, not too close, until the police came. Out came the heads too, along Hudson Street, offering opinion..’Drunk…Crazy…A wild kid from the suburbs” (pp. 60-63).

She then describes a scene where a bagpiper comes out in the middle of the night, and the neighbours come out on to the street to crowd around him and dance a highland fling. Beautiful though these descriptions are, I can’t help but feel these are perhaps journalistic embellishments for the sake of entertainment.

Jacobs does indeed recognise this, an adds that “I have made the daily ballet of Hudson Street sound more frenetic than it is, because writing it telescopes it. In real life, it is not that way. In real life, to be sure, something is always going on, the ballet is never at a halt, but the general effect is peaceful and the general tenor even leisurely. People who know well such animated city streets will know how it is. I am afraid people who do not will always have it a little wrong in their heads – like the old prints of rhinoceroses made from travellers’ description of rhinoceroses” (pg. 64).

1. Centrality of small businesses

Central to Jacobs’ vision of a utopian city is one that is bustling full of small businesses and niche shops, and where the shopkeepers act as informal “guardians” of the city. This might include reprimanding misbehaving youth, to holding spare keys for neighbours, and from watching over the children of the neighbourhood to matchmaking customers to each other. Her rainbow-tinted vision could be that of a hipster before her time: “Cities, however, are the natural homes or supermarkets and standard movie houses plus delicatessens, Viennese bakeries, foreign groceries, art movies, and so on, all of which can be found co-existing, the standard with the strange, the large with the small (pg 158).”

The centrality she places on small businesses seems rather nostalgic and romanticised, and like the description of the sidewalk ballet above, I find it difficult to believe it was rooted in reality. Her view was the street itself as a socially embedded support system or infrastructure for security and safety where the streets are busy round the clock.

Small business owners, however, tend by their very nature to be advocates of low tax and small-state ideology. This seems to feed into Jacobs’ views that the role of the state should be limited. She also believed that impersonal streets are not related to “mystical” values of architectural scale, but related to what businesses are on the streets. This I disagree with, and there’s a lot of well-researched thinking on the notion of scale in architecture (I particularly like of the Danish architect Jan Gehl and his work around Human Scale), which Jacobs broadly dismisses.

2. ‘Eyes on the Street’
The importance that Jacobs placed on central businesses was related to her fixation with surveillance and keeping the streets safe. She sees deterring crime as a central need for improving city living. She recognises that a police state would only lead to dysfunction, so instead her solution is to ensure “eyes on the street” where residents and shopkeepers will keep calm and order naturally if the streets are always buzzing with activity. She also believes that cities should be designed to stop crime, which seems in essence to mean widening sidewalks, packing them full with shops, building densely, and removing parks and empty spaces.

One example she uses of business owners maintaining a sense of security in the street is that of Joe Cornacchia, the deli owner on her block in Hudson Street. She explains that: “The incident that attracted my attention was a suppressed struggle going on between a man and a little girl of eight or nine years old. The man seemed to be trying to get the girl to go with him. By turns she was directing a cajoling attention to her, and then assuming an air of nonchalance. The girl was making herself rigid, as children do when they resist, against the wall of the tenements across the street.”

She then goes on: “Joe Cornacchia, who with his sons-in-law keeps the delicatessen, emerged about the same moment and stood solidly to the other side. Several heads poked out of the tenement windows above, one was withdrawn quickly and its owner reappeared a moment later in the doorway behind the man. Two men from the bar next to the butcher shop came to the doorway and waiting. On my side of the street, I saw that the locksmith, the fruit man, and the laundry proprietor had all come out of their shops and that the scene was also being surveyed from a number of windows besides ours. That man did not know it, but he was surrounded. Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was.

I am sorry – sorry purely for dramatic purposes – to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man’s daughter.” (pp. 48-49).

Her fixation with surveillance translates into a primacy of sidewalks above everything else: while it seems sensible to prioritise pedestrians over cars, she also ranks sidewalks higher in priority than parks. In terms of biodiversity, reducing air pollution, city cooling, water management, and health benefits of nature, this preference to wide sidewalks over accessible green spaces and parks seems a bit misplaced. In this Jacobs is oddly conservative. She expresses a strong dislike for areas that aren’t under surveillance by the street and those that border and/or connect areas with transient, high-turnover population. She considers good areas to be “[those] where a strong tone of civilized public sidewalk life prevails” (p. 89).  

In the US, crime diffused by neighbourhoods and the unofficial “Guardians of the Street” seems to be imbued with racial discrimination. There have been countless reports, highlighted especially in the summer of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, of suburban white women who feel unease at the activities of their black neighbours, and react to benign activities with force and quickness on calling the cops. This includes innocent men relaxing in Starbucks, children with lemonade stands, and fatally and tragically, joggers such as George Floyd.

The Karens of the world unite is one example about why the “eyes on the street” could backfire horribly. The other example is Oscar Newman’s ideas around Defensible Space, which as Richard Sennett points out in Designing Disorder, is the dark side of Jacobs’ Eyes on the Street.

Defensible space theory centres on the idea of urban design for prevention of crime, which the UK has embraced recently in Secured by Design, which I think is dreadful and I’ll write more on that another time.

3. Dislikes water and parks

Contrary to research on the importance of parks (green space), and water (blue space) in cities on public health, Jacobs’ has a strong aversion to both. This is perhaps her railing against Robert Moses, who was NYC’s Parks Commissioner at the time and her arch-enemy.

She does make a good point that badly managed parks can be dangerous, and I certainly would never pass through any city park alone late at night regardless of whether the threat may be perceived or real. During the day, if the park in question is well-used by a wide variety of people then it feels safe and secure; the problem is parks that are not used or are used only by rough sleepers, alcohols and drug users with poor lighting and lack of visibility that is the problem. This links back to a need for some state intervention however: my experience of city parks is that if they are accessible, in good order, have decent lighting and are kept clean, they will be well-used. If they are overgrown, poorly lit and have a lot of nooks and crannies with no specific play areas or sports facilities, they will tend not to be used by those who have wider options on what to do with the time and where to go. I disagree with Jacobs in that parks should never be an obstacle: they should be nurtured and encouraged and used by a broad cross-section of society.

Similarly, water should be treated as a positive asset to a city. Water has a tendency to calm and especially in a world facing climate catastrophe, has an important cooling effect on our warming cities. One of my major bugbears is how poorly waterfronts are developed in the UK: in my city, the waterfront area is filled with shitty chain restaurants, or empty boarded up properties, or tacky pubs. It has well proportioned buildings at human scale, wide pavements, yet the space is poorly organised and misused.

4. Early advocate of gentrification
Jacobs never uses the word gentrification, which was coined by Ruth Glass a little after the publication of Death and Life. However, what she describes is a sort of community-led, gentle gentrification where decent, young and early professional but yet not-yet- well-off folk from provincial New England (like her) buy up dilapidated properties (left abandoned after the exodus of the well-to-do for the suburbs after the Great Depression until the 1990s) for cheap prices, and then pour their heart and soul into bringing them up to date.

In her mind, these good folk then bring their strong morals and smalltown mentality to ensure that the city streets are kept safe and orderly. While the 1960s only saw the beginning of the gentrification process and the violent mechanisms used today by property developers, such as “decanting” of residents of lower socio-economic status to smaller and less fortunately located homes, Jacobs is a clear advocate of a system that has caused harm and misery to millions and millions of city inhabitants.

Her middle-class Pennsylvanian ideals fail to take into consideration that the pull of big city life for many people is not about orderly, community-oriented, tight-knit neighbourhoods. In fact, many move to New York or Chicago or San Francisco or London or Paris or Berlin (and so on) not only for the economic opportunities but for the anonymity big cities provide. Indeed, many people move to big cities to get away from exactly the smalltown mentality that Jacobs wishes to see replicated in big cities. In all, her vision seems to lack flexibility and she cannot seem to consider other points of view that may contradict with her own.


There’s a lot of good in Death and Life but also, I feel, quite a few fundamentals that Jane Jacobs gets wrong. The work was published in 1961 and the parts that have aged well versus the parts that have not are telling.  Her evidence is largely anecdotal (either her own or second-hand) rather than rooted in empirics, and she challenges many of the basic principles of urban planning. Some of these, such as er criticism of zoning, are fair challenges; others seem rather kneejerk, such as her fixation with sidewalks over parks.

There is also more than a smattering of moral righteousness, and she tends to slip rather easily into a barbarism versus civility narrative. While she had a progressive mindset in some ways, she was mostly weirdly conservative. Her politics seemed to be influenced by conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke, in that she did not believe in the role of the state and seemed to support a laissez-faire economic system. She writes extensively about the damage cultural institutions built in the wrong place can inflict on a community, and she has a strong aversion to underused resource and inefficiency in cities. Strangely, the main role she envisages that the state should play is simply a broker for organising cultural institutions and ensuring they are used correctly; well-maintained and networked. She was clear on her stance against communism, although she did back unions and supported grassroots community organising.

In short, her ideas seem to hark back to a Victorian New York or London, where there are no cars, horse and carriage is king, and the streets are bustling at all hours of the day with servicemen, the help, tradesmen, industries, shopkeepers, and people going about their business. This is a very specific and rigid idea of a city, rooted in a particular point of time which cannot hold while material conditions have changed around them. She also makes little mention of socio-economic circumstances, race relations and tensions, inequality, and other big city challenges which certainly existed in the 1960s too.

She is largely sympathetic to homeless people, or “people of leisure” as she refers to them. However, she does not delve into the reasons as to why they might be homeless and a wider social critique around that. I do wonder, though, what she might make of today’s US with record levels of homelessness with complex needs, collapsed industries, a state long in retreat, failing empire status and a hegemon in retreat in a troubled world. I do suspect that she may not recognise her New York; and that there is rather more death than life in the Great American cities of today.

Jane Jacobs Part III: What did she get right?

Jane Jacobs has little in the way of formal plan in architecture, urban design or planning, rather her background was in journalism. This comes to the fore in the fact the book is, while fairly long at 450-ish pages, is immensely readable (I managed to plough through it in just over a week and I’m hardly the fastest reader on the planet). This is probably the merit of her journalistic background and her style which is not exactly concise, as well as the lack of technical detail and instead her accounts are largely rooted in personal and second-hand anecdotes. Her call to action was not a technical one, but captures the imagination on how to re-imagine how cities are planned, designed, and used.

This is probably both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand she lays down a perceptive and rigorous analysis of how mid-20th century American cities work which as a comprehensive written account is probably unparalleled by anything else at that time. Where it falls down perhaps is the lack of rigour in understanding on the one hand the wider socio-economic conditions beyond the hyperlocal and especially racial dynamics of the US at the time, but also the technical processes of city building.

While I do not agree with her thesis that good surveillance is central to a well-functioning city, she was a perceptive observer and did get one or two things right for the right reasons (and three or four things right for the wrong reasons).  Death and Life as an ethnographic project is also unequivocally impressive, and her style of narration is certainly unique. She is good a weaving a yarn, although sometimes the main point does tend to get lost in the story arc and I also wonder whether there was quite a bit of poetic licence sprinkled on a subject matter that ought to be reasonably empirical and scientific. But anyway. Let’s give Jacobs her due.

1. Cities are complex creatures; there are no easy fixes

Jacobs does have a sensitive understand of the complexity of cities. Their social challenges are very complicated and cannot simply be solved by architecture, planning and urban design in physical form. While she is clear that she does not want a police state and her idea is not for police to keep order and control on the streets, she is however strangely fixated with safety and security. Her vision seems to tend towards making cities into basically denser suburbs, which I think she gets wrong and this misunderstands the role and function of cities and their appeal.

2. Four principles for good urban planning

Jane Jacobs centred her thinking on four principles for urban planning (“Four generators of diversity”) that must be in place to ensure a successful city. Most of her anecdotes, first-and-second hand accounts, stem from these principles. While empirical evidence is hard to come by in Death and Life, on several counts it’s hard to say she was wrong. The basic ideas behind her four principles I do agree with, although the consequences of getting them in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong order need to be spelled out; as does why the principles should matter.

With these four cornerstones, the city will fail as a project:

1. Mixed primary uses

One of Jacobs’ major bugbears is that monocultural districts are a recipe for disaster. For example, a financial district, a docking area, a residential only district will kill off any vibrancy. She uses the example of the Wall Street area in New York, which hums with activity during the day but with a lack of amenities or leisure facilities beyond offices and the odd sandwich shop to serve office workers at lunch, the area is dead after a certain time in the evening and at the weekends.

Jacobs saw monocultures as the death of city life and wanted to see different uses all mixed together – butchers and bakers mixed with office blocks, mixed with cinemas and theatres, mixed with restaurants and so forth: “Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another” (Pg 177).

One example she draws on is an area where nightlife dominates. This is certainly something I have thought about in terms of my own city today: there are areas that can feel quite intimidating for people who are not familiar with our ridiculous culture of binging on alcohol, elderly people and those with mobility impairments, children, lone women etc. because they are full of drink-and increasingly coke-fuelled purple faced, ‘roided up, ill-tempered, heart-attacks-waiting-to-happen packs of men in 1-size-too-small polo shirts and cheap cologne, screeching hen parties and not much else (Collingwood Street, Westgate Road for example). I often wonder: does it really have to be like this? Could better planning make it more pleasant and accessible at night for people who do not want to be part of that scene?

“Night spots are today overwhelming the street, and are also overwhelming the very life of the area. Into a district excellent at handling and protecting strangers they have concentrated too many strangers, all in too irresponsible a mood, for any conceivable city society to handle naturally. The duplication of the most profitable use is undermining the case of its own attraction, as disproportionate duplication and exaggeration of some single use always does in cities.” (p. 259)

She mentions that docking areas are dead zones most of the time outside of industry hours:

(From page 171)
“The waterfront itself is the first wasted asset capable of drawing people at leisure. Part of the district’s waterfront should become a great marine museum – the permanent anchorage of specimen and curiosity ships, the best collection to be seen and boarded anywhere. This would bring tourists into the district in the afternoon, tourists and people of the city on week-ends and holidays, and in summertime it should be a great thing for the evening. Other features of the shore-line should be the embarkation points for pleasure voyages in the harbour and around the island; these embarkation points should be as glamourous and salty as art can make them. If new sea-food restaurants and much else would not start up near by, I will eat my lobster shell.”

 Jacobs would probably today be overjoyed at the gentrification and transformation of waterfronts throughout the world as prime real estate and site of leisure areas and centres of restaurants and nightlife. It would be far too generous to credit Jacobs’ for this development of the leisure city since deindustrialisation in the 1980s, which David Harvey deems urban entrepreneurialism from a political economy perspective, but she did recognise early on while waterfronts were still centres of industry, their potential to be transformed into generators of capital.

2. Small blocks
Cerdà’s Barcelona wasn’t referenced, but her description evoked his design of superblocks, where self-contained blocks are evenly spaced out with gaps between each to ensure both dense city living with spaces between to allow city dwellers to interact with each and allow a society to flourish.

(Insert pic)

Jacobs explains that the enormous, unbroken blocks in Manhattan kill off citylife. She wants to see short blocks with breaks between, to allow people to move between the blocks diagonally (insert pics).

3. Aged buildings
Jacobs outlined how there should be a mixture of buildings of different ages. She was partially right about this, but perhaps for quite obtuse reasons. Firstly, she seems old buildings as integral to housing small businesses which can then offer a sort of “steward” role towards their communities. This is a central thesis of Death and Life and one I disagree with quite strongly (which I will cover in more detail in the next entry). “[…H]undreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighbourhoods, and appreciated to their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings {…]” (pg. 201).

Her rationale is that old buildings should be cheaper than other newer builds (which today hasn’t aged very well). So, really her point is more about mixed economic groups than mixed primary uses. Jacobs was pro-gentrification of sorts, before the term gentrification even came into use (Ruth Glass first coined the term a year or two later).

Perhaps she does make a good point in that building an entire neighbourhood at once is a bad idea since they will all decay at the same rate. However, this is a bit of an off-beat observation and I’m not sure it holds true – surely it depends on who occupies the buildings and how they are used.

4. Concentration
I do agree with her demands for densification and need for things to happen at street level. However, I think she is a bit conflicted in some ways: she wants dense cities, but also low-rise. I think she is partially right and buildings that are too tall do provide an alienating atmosphere. The trick is to balance density with a human-scale. I think European cities built in the Hausmann style (Rome, Paris, Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, for example) do this very well: maximise the height without needs to go deeper structurally (so around 7-8 storeys). Beyond this, you need a deeper structure and therefore might as well go up higher (say 20+ storeys to make it worthwhile) as there’s no point in building deeper foundations for just one or two additional floors. Then, using Jan Gehl’s Human Scale theory, anchor the 7/8-storey to street level by adding in businesses with outdoor space on the ground floor, kiosks, trees, small squares. This is largely how mainland European cities are organised and it works very well. It’s also something we have got badly wrong in the Anglo-American world. Jacobs diagnoses this well without digging deeper into the theories behind it.

3. Cars do more harm than good

Jacobs references Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City ideal and its 20th century follow-up in Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. She rejects Howard’s Victorian-era Garden City idea, which advocates networks of green cities circled by greenbelt land and connected to each other by railway. Le Corbusier follows up on this by densifying the green city cores into sky-high tower blocks, which wealthier people living highest above ground, and connecting these dense but dispersed city hubs by super-fast motorways and highways for cars.

Jacobs’ main criticism of Howard’s Garden City is that densification patterns should not mean leaving large dead green space between housing, as these will kill any notion of life and create soulless vacuums. With Le Corbusier she was much more harshly critical (and I’m inclined to agree with her on this), in that dividing cities up around car usage is a recipe for disaster. While she is most concerned by the car posing a threat to safety and changing the use of streets for pedestrians, she was also ahead of the curve in terms of the pressing need now to clean up our act in terms of air quality.

This seems fairly obvious to say now in an era where more than a century of intense fossil fuel use is finally catching up with us and I think it’s fair to say now that the planet is in the grips of climate catastrophe. However, in the 1960s the automobile was a major source of US wealth: the Ford factory in Detroit, MI and automobile industry in other motorcities across the Midwest such as Cleveland, OH were seen as sacred. To the extent that Japanese cars, as the rival automobile nation, would be regularly smashed up if they were seen parked in American motorcities. Mass distribution of the private car was both a symptom and a cause of the suburbanisation of the US in the 1950s onwards. Suburbs were therefore planned around the assumption of private car use.

 Jacobs was therefore quite ahead of the curve in condemning the elevated status of the suburbs, and she was quite right about not expanding roadspace in cities to absorb the primacy of cars. She warned early on that planners should be making cities more hostile to cars, not making them more accommodating to ever-increasing volumes of traffic.

This may have been part of her polemic against Robert Moses and Le Corb – both of whom loved cars and wanted to create cities for cars. However, she has to be credited with her early grasp of in understanding that people will always default to cars if they can, and widening roads will just lead to more cars. This problem now is that cities in US are designed for cars and it would be near impossible now to re-organise the society without a major upheaval. In summary, Jacobs was right, but now it’s too late.

4.The role of planners

Jacobs was quite clever in her understand of the work of planners as striving to avoid negative feedback loops and balancing out so there’s not too much of one thing in one area. While her stance towards the state was on the more libertarian side, she did seem to realise that you cannot stop growth but there does need to be some sort of intervention to ensure that it is balanced. While she (perhaps rightly) felt that planners were too technocratic and lacked a human connection, she did recognise that their role was needed. Although, that’s not to say she was particularly sympathetic towards planners and probably wanted to see their roles re-imagined somewhat.

She often draws on Los Angeles as an example of really bad planning. From what I have read and heard (although I need to delve into Mike Davis’ City of Quartz to gain a greater understanding), LA is essentially a city-sized suburb and faces a complex set of mega-city sized challenges squeezed into disjoined and disconnected suburbs.

5. Zoning is bad

In the US, unlike in the UK where we use discretionary planning systems, they use fixed zoning systems. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, it’s hard to say one system is better than the other. The series Show Me a Hero illustrates how zoning systems can be weaponised in power struggles between classes, and the UK discretionary system is certainly not more equitable; the question is power is certainly a feature of our planning system, too.

Jacobs quickly shoots down zoning system too. While she does not provide an alternative, she does make a good point in that “Indeed, the notion that reek or fumes are to be combated by zoning and land-sorting classifications at all is ridiculous. The air doesn’t know about zoning boundaries” (pp. 244-245).

6. Anti-suburbanification; pro-densification

One of Jacobs main theses is a rejection of American suburbs which expanded rapidly in mid-20th century America and a car-centric all-American lifestyle, and a call back to small city-centre cores where people live, socialise, educate, and work in or close by their neighbourhood. This has definitely come back into vogue with the new 15-minute city model and has influenced models of New Urbanism.

While I agree with densification and the spectre of the suburbs makes my blood run cold, Jacobs did not, or perhaps could not, quite grasp the trajectory of the 1960s US into the horrorshow it is today. Today’s discussion has long shifted from making places “liveable” to actually being able to survive, whether through climate change or a collapse in the standard of living due to the withdrawal of the state.

She devotes most of a chapter on explaining the dynamics behind the suburbanisation of the US which peaked in the 1950s, how it was financed, and then a broad sketch on its consequences in the short and medium term. Certainly, white America does seem to have an obsession with the suburbs and as a child growing up in the 1990s and when US cultural hegemony was at a peak, the white picket fences and white wooden houses were ubiquitous depictions of American life in films and tv series. [Add pics from movies in – white picket fence, wooden houses etc].

It has only been since Trump really, that realisation dawned on the average European that the US is nothing like the giant monocultural suburb which radiated out of Hollywood and is in fact far more complex (and quite frankly, terrifying). Common among Brits of my generation and the post-1968 generations before me of a leftist persuasion, I took an extreme anti-American stance. I realise now I was incredibly ignorant about the inner workings of a complex and inherently violent settler-colonial society. I had always assumed the US was just a giant version of the UK with more extreme weather and an equally but more recently shady history, and the Hollywood depictions certainly reinforced this grave misunderstanding.

Jacobs explains that populations in city centres peaked just after WWI, and then declined from then on all the way until the until 1990s. During this time, what was deemed “white flight,” as more affluent, overwhelmingly white families left city centres for the suburbs while poorer, mainly black populations remained in the city centres. Although one thing that Jacobs misses is any recognition of the racial dynamic on the US and there is no mention of the story from a black perspective.

As inner city slums were cleared after the two world wars, the suburbs grew. A similar pattern was followed in London, arguably the most “American” of British cities. The New Towns of the 1950s and 1960s were born in the commuter belt around London as the UK too embraced the car-centric, suburban life enshrined in the attitudes and town planning of towns such as Stevenage, Watford, Basildon.

In the Anglo world, inner cities became run down spaces marked by urban poverty, decline and decay. Density and living shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow humans of mixed classes was shunned in favour of the privacy of the suburbs. This is where Anglo-American cities starkly depart from Continental European counterparts, where inner cities areas are the preserve of the rich (on average) and cities largely follow a doughnut pattern where the richer you are, the more central you live. In Anglo-American cities, as a broad-brush pattern the inverse is true.

Jane Jacobs part II: urban anarchist or rampant freemarketeer?

Jane Jacobs was born in 1916 as Jane Butzner, in Scranton Pennsylvania (sidenote: yes, that is indeed the same birthtown as Joe Biden). Her parents were fairly bourgeoise protestants, in a town heavily dominated by Catholics of Irish and Italian provenance mostly. She explains in Death and Life that she moved to New York City in the era the Great Depression. There she became a freelance journalist, working first for women’s magazines and then writing in architectural and planning magazines about the working districts in the city. This really was the beginning of her interest in architecture and planning, and in some regards it was the full extent of her technical training. She did study at Columbia University for a couple of years, jumping between courses in political science, zoology, law, geology, and economics, although she dropped out before finishing her studies. While she certainly had a flexible mind and a broad generalist training, in Death and Life it becomes apparent that her lack of theoretical rigour does have its drawbacks.

During her time in New York, Jacobs became quite the activist. Her causes of choice seemed largely to oppose the projects peddled by Robert Moses, the New York public official du jour (he held a mass of titles throughout his career) responsible for driving a number of urban renewal projects and re-moulding New York City into its iconic contemporary skyline spanning his decades-long career from the late 1920s all the way through to the 1960s. To be fair to Jacobs, Moses did seem to get a multitude of things wrong. The more I read about him, the more he seems like an archetypal macho urban developer who just wanted to plough through and build big buildings and cars while marginalising the city for the people. There are too many of these types around today, but they seem largely faceless, ensconced behind multinationals and shadowy global real estate development companies.

The documentary Citizen Jane provides quite a good entry-route into the rosy world of Jane Jacobs. Based on historical footage, it captures her fight in the 1960s to oppose Moses’ planned Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX). The plans would connect Manhattan Bridge with Williamsburg, ploughing through dense neighbourhoods to make way for a busy expressway. Opposition to the plans grew, and the documentary shows how Jacobs worked with community groups such as the Italian diaspora in Little Italy to oppose to plans throughout the 1960s. She chaired the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway and was elevated to status of local hero for her tireless campaigning work.

The battle culminated with her arrest in 1968, where she was charged with disorderly conduct (quite a step down from the initial accusations of inciting riots, criminal damage, obstruction of public administration). Following this, Jane moved to Toronto to take distance from NYC, albeit commuting in to work in New York occasionally.

The documentary Citizen Jane provides a good context before reading Death and Life, and gives rise to the question: Was Death and Life little more than a polemic? She certainly takes to task Moses – everything he stands for, she invariably stands against.

She doesn’t like:

  • parks (Moses was New York City Parks Commissions for a stint in his long career);
  • centrality of cars (Moses was very much pro-automobile).

Her issues with parks I do not fully agree with – we will get to this later. Her stance on cars however has aged quite well and in my opinion time has proved her right.

The second character she condemns in Death and Life is Le Corbusier. This is perhaps a proxy for railing against Moses, since he seemed to draw most of his inspiration from Le Corb’s ideas. Big macho buildings, car-centric cities built for speed, prowess, efficiency and large-scale was the order of the day. I do indeed agree with Jacobs on this, and I am certainly not a particular fan of Le Corb’s thinking nor his design (both of which to me scream fragile masculinity).

Despite a strangely contradictory political outlook which often borders on naivety and a lack of technical detail, Death and Life is immensely readable and certainly Jacobs journalistic background comes through loud and clear. It is near impossible to read the book without hearing that unmistakable transatlantic newsreader accent that was popular in the US in the 1950s and 60s. It’s hard to say whether Jacobs was a proto-hipster or just a tenacious campaigner, a radical centrist or urban anarchist, an insightful observer or a good storyteller; or also all of these things rolled together. But it does have to be said: she was right about many things, albeit often for the wrong reasons.

JANE JACOBS: Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs crops up in almost every piece of literature related to planning and urban design. Despite not having any formal training, her magnus opus, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is integral to the urban planning canon.

I have to confess, that more than a year deep into my urban planning studies I still hadn’t read the entire book. She crops up in countless secondary sources and she is cited at some point in many books on the subject matter written after the 1960s, and so I was intrigued to read her account of urban planning direct from the source.

From bumping into her work in other sources, her work seems to be fairly well-liked or at least respected by contemporary urbanists across the political spectrum. Richard Sennett’s Uses of Disorder, published just a decade after Death and Life, is clearly influenced strongly by Jacobs’ conceptualisation of cities and her celebration of street life as ordered chaos. In Sennett and architect Pablo Sendra’s collection of essays Designing Disorder: Experimentations and Disruptions in the city, both authors clearly continue to hold Jacobs in high regard. This is despite Sennett’s clear New Left roots and Sendra’s post-2008 Podemos politics and participation in Right to the City type movements, while Jacobs’ thinking is clearly quite a long way from that. Sennett goes so far as to describe her as an “anarchist urbanist.”

The only two urbanists and writers I have encountered (and I am sure there are more, but these are the only ones in my readings so far) who are critical of Jacobs’ work and thinking are one of my favourite writers ever ever ever Owen Hatherley, as well as the great Mike Davis. I was pleased especially to stumble across Owen Hatherley’s chapter on Jane Jacobs’ Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances after finishing Death and Life, as it confirmed quite a few suspicions about Jacobs’ thinking that I had formed while reading her tome.

It would be a disservice so summarise her opus in one go, so to do it the justice it deserves I will present Jane as an act in three parts: An introduction to her (for the uninitiated), followed by what she gets right and then what she gets wrong in Death and Life.

Spatial Planning in England: Act III

Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill: Final judgements

Levelling Up, i.e. bridging the gap between the economic performance of the north and south of the country, was always a vague, ambiguous aim. While I do indeed agree that the northern question must be tackled, thus far I haven’t seen anything to convince me that it’s little more than political appeasement and a potential bargaining chip to dangle in front of northern Tory voters in the so-called imaginary “Red Wall” when election time rolls round. Even as a tool of political manipulation, I haven’t even seen any cash on the table so as far as I’m concerned, it exists in rhetoric and nothing else and I hope that voters see that whenever our next election may be (could be much sooner than we think).

Now that this iteration of Government has collapsed, what happens to Levelling Up remains to be seen but likely it will be shelved once and for all, at least in its current guise. I could write angrily and bitterly about Levelling Up funds being used to fund housing in the stockbroker-infested greenbelts of Surrey instead of improving lives in the most forlorn and impoverished corners of post-industry, but I will desist for now.

But let’s look at what the long-awaited Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill actually means for planning in practice.

1. What does beauty actually mean?

Apparently the new planning system will be based on the principles of “beauty, infrastructure, democracy, environment, and neighbourhood engagement.”

Not sure if this is a citation of the Roman architect Vitruvius, who wrote to Augustus Caesar that good architecture must include “utilitas, firmitas, and venustas” – utility, strength, and beauty – but indeed I have no idea what to a Tory mind, beauty might look like.

Some people (popular among fascists…) think rationalism is beautiful. Others see beauty in brutalism (normally the same British leftists who worship Orwell). Personally I love Bauhaus and some types of modernism but many would argue against it on the grounds of pretentiousness (and they would have a point). Pomo could be beautiful to some. Baroque, especially of the English and German variants make me want to puke but I don’t think that opinion is shared across the board. Beaux-arts, Art Deco, Gothic, English Renaissance all have their merits. And the list goes on.

What I’m trying to say is this: beauty is wholly subjective. How can that be a principle upon which to base a modern planning system? How do we measure beauty? And will National Design Codes actually hamper aesthetically pleasing towns and cities?

2. No mention of the climate crisis
This is particularly astonishing. A government in 2022 should absolutely NOT be allowed to publish something as central to climate change mitigation as planning of the built environment without a clear, and detailed plan about how it aims to phase out fossil fuels and transition to carbon neutrality. What is their problem? The science is there. Other countries around the world are making at least token gestures (very slow and still we face a huge existential threat). But no mention. We should be making massive changes to our cities to reduce manifold public health crises and climate change induced problems with increased flooding events, biodiversity loss, and in the south extreme heating events. Where is the renewables plan? Where are the savings from the construction industry, one of the biggest contributors to the UK’s carbon emissions? Any ideas around biophiic design and expansion of green spaces? Carbon sinks? The time for imaginative ideas and learning from others around the world is now.

But here we just get a wilful radio silence.
These are not serious people.

3. No mention of cost of living crisis.
A toxic combination of Brexit and the war in Ukraine has had a terrifying upward spiral on prices in the UK. Food and heating in particular are impacting households across the country, but also the spiking costs of building materials will lead to a deflation of the building boom soon. The White Paper was published after both of these factors became the top headlines of the day. And still, nothing.

How do we address affordable housing?
How can we combine tackling climate change with the cost of living crisis?
Can we develop land to start cultivate land for urban farming?
How will we feed our people as the crisis deepens?
So many huge and life-threatening questions. So little imagination.

4. Roman Emperor-style dictatorial clauses disguised as “democratic decision-making;”
Street votes?
Nomenclature of streets and statues?
Granting the Secretary of State more centralised powers over seemingly trivial but local-level affairs while pushing fairly major and significant tasks to resource-strapped local authorities seems a bit backwards. Also, this government have shown time and again that they are out-of-touch and cannot be trusted to implement things effectively and competently so expanding their powers in areas where they really have little to no knowledge is a major risk in my book.

5. Less democratic
No realistic plan for community involvement or participatory planning.

It’s not rocket science. Participatory planning practices have been well implemented in major cities around the world, from Barcelona to
While partipatory planning hasn’t always been perfect and can also present as tokenistic (in Madrid, for example, it’s simply a portal where residents can vote “yes” or “no” on decisions without putting forward any qualitative suggestion.

However the LURB makes no mention of a shift to the post-2010 world. It feels outdated, uncreative and ineffective. One of the few elements of the current planning system that allows the public to make their voices heard is in planning consultations, and these are notoriously ineffective. With a bit of focus and attention, their format could easily be improved, upgraded, and better resourced to allow proper and effective community engagement.

All of this is ignored.

6. Quick-wins galore without addressing structural problems.
Which is indeed this government in a nutshell. This is largely what the design codes and new powers to auction leases for vacant properties on high streets is all about. As always, they prefer to address the symptom than the root cause and then wonders why everything continues to go to hell.

7. Where’s the money?
What I find most staggering is how the austerity agenda continues to permeate.
The new Bill puts so much additional pressure on council planning departments, who have already been decimated and stripped off much of their autonomy. There’s no mention of increasing resource, or training, or funding other than a bit of the new Infrastructure Levy fund which replaces CIL and S106. This is likely to be a tiny drop in the ocean in comparison with 1). The deep cuts and violently suppressed budgets of the past 12 years; 2). Scale and complexity of social, economic, political, and environmental crises facing the country; 3). Levels of responsibility and additional tasks forced on to local authorities.

Without properly taxing the rich and improving public spending to restore some form of adequate state (which currently functions as an outsourcing platform for a wild and unregulated profiteering private sector), we will sink deeper and deeper into the mire.


TL:DR final words: Too shallow, too light, too vague and more undemocratic than ever before to make any real difference and certainly no antidote to our aged, anachronistic, fragmented and stretched planning system unfit for a modern state.

Spatial Planning in England: Act II

In terms of housing and planning, the hallmarks of the 12-year austere and increasingly blindly ideological Tory regime is a deep housing crisis, the removal of the right to a home as a basic human right, and a lack of mass, state-subsidised housing that has caused inequality to spiral in the UK. This is most visible in drastic increases in homelessness, but there is also a problem at the majority of people under 40, even with relatively decent (by post-2008 UK standards, so already lagging quite a bit behind those of France and Germany) salaries cannot afford to buy a home and are trapped in an unregulated and parasitic rental market with zero protection.

Undoubtedly this has got worse under Tory rule, but as discussed previously the problems began under Thatcher in her mass sell-off of Council-owned homes and the project was certainly exacerbated and continued under New Labour.

As outlined in my previous post, one thing I agree with the Tories, albeit for entirely different reasons, is that the UK planning system is broken. I radically disagree, however, with their proposed remedies for all the UK’s planning ailments. These are presented in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. As a side note, given our most recent governmental collapse I do imagine this will be shelved anyhow, and the Levelling Up agenda (and what little impact it has made so far) will be abandoned. But that’s a different story.

I’ll present the proposed planning solutions outlined in the LUR Bill, and then let’s take each one piece by piece.

1. New central powers implemented at the local level
Local Beauty
A nod towards vernacular architecture, whereby all local authorities would be required to have a design code in place covering their planning jurisdiction.

“The area-wide codes will act as a framework, for which subsequent detailed design codes can come forward, prepared for specific areas or sites and led either by the local planning authority, neighbourhood planning groups or by developers as part of planning applications. This will help ensure good design is considered at all spatial scales, down to development sites and individual plots.”

More streamlined decision-making
Local plans would be limited to locally specific matters, and key issues would be covered by national policies. I think this flies in the face of the whole decentralisation thing that is ostensibly at the heart of levelling up, but in principle I’m not against it. Certain things, like a real green energy policy, or net zero transition, or mass social housing require a national-level plan.

The problem is, our national level policymaking is inherently broken and policies are no longer made in the public interest. In practice then, this simply will not work to the benefit of the population.

Regional and local autonomy in decision making

The above seems to contradict other parts of the Bill, which stipulates that more weight will be given to neighbourhood plans and spatial development strategies proposed by Combined Authorities and Mayors. So, how does that play into key issues being covered only at national level? We need to understand then, what the Bill means by “key issues.”

Local authorities will also be allowed to quickly create supplementary plans for their areas (or part thereof). This means that local authorities will be able to quickly produce policies and designs for sites or whole areas rapidly.

New combined authorities created

Personally I think that the entire governance structure of the UK should not be relegated to a footnote in a planning bill but should be given its own entire department. But still, at least it recognises that the Combined Authority structure is designed for urban areas. The new Bill allows “upper tier” councils to combine (i.e. county level, often used for large but sparsely populated rural areas). Or as the Bill puts it:

“main difference between combined county authorities and combined authorities is the membership: a combined county authority must include one two-tier county council and at least one other upper tier county council or upper tier unitary authority (i.e. district councils cannot be members and do not consent to the forming of a combined county authority), whereas a combined authority has to include all the local authorities within the area it is to cover (i.e. in a two-tier area, the county council and all district councils must be members, and consent to the forming of the combined authority)”.


2. More community

Street Votes
Under the new bill, there is a placeholder to add a clause to allow residents on a street would be allowed to propose developments on their street and hold a vote as to whether a proposed development should take place or not.

That might be a good suggestion in theory, but I would dread to think how it would actually play out IRL in bitter Britain of 2022….

Neighbourhood creation
The Bill introduces something called “a neighbourhood priorities statement” which provides communities with a “simpler and more accessible way to set out their key priorities and preferences for their local areas. Local authorities will need to take these into account, where relevant, when preparing their local plans for the areas concerned, enabling more communities to better engage in the local plan-making process”.

I’m not really sure what this means other than modernise local authorities planning portals. So far, I haven’t seen much evidence of this but there is a definite need for an upgrade to the 21st century.

Although, not entirely sure how this alone is supposed to magic up a cosy neighbourhood, community feel. I wonder if the Government simply do not understand the scale of the crisis the country, and especially the northern portion, is facing. It certainly feels like that.

Improved high streets
Local authorities could be granted new powers to instigate auctions to take leases on vacant high street properties.

It is certainly undeniable that our high streets are ailing, especially in Northern cities and outside of affluent areas. While leafy Surrey and Kent and Hampstead Garden Suburb etc. may be full of cutsey little boutiques and artisan bakeries, that is not the reality of much of the country. Even the betting shops, money lenders, pawnshops, poundlands, outdated newsagents and Greggs so ubiquitous on high streets in the immediate post-crash years, now even those are becoming scarce and replaced increasingly by empty, boarded up lots.

However, this is a quick and shallow fix to a much, much deeper problem. It’s no coincidence that high streets are dying in areas of the country where people can barely afford milk, bread, and cheese. They aren’t going to be buying cutsey little loaves, organic produce or handmade patisserie. The country has become poor and that is the fault of austerity politics peddled by this increasingly criminal and corrupt bunch and a total failure to address structural economic issues in our deindustrialised country by this dim-witted, greedy and unimaginative political class.

Council tax premium on second homes
“local authorities may levy a premium of up to an additional 100 per cent on council tax bills for second homes and for empty homes after one year (as opposed to two years which is the current requirement).”

In principle, fair enough. However, like closing loopholes or actually mapping out transparent land ownership structures, this pays lip service and I doubt the Tories would actually instigate anything. Also, there needs to be much more tightly regulated second home market and the Airbnbification of beauty spots, crippling local communities for example in the Lake District, is barely discussed in the UK (unlike, for example in Barcelona or Berlin). In the UK I would argue this is mainly a rural issue, and rural communities are facing dire consequences.

2. Improve transparency of land ownership and land use

Land control in England and Wales

Land control in all four corners of the United Kingdom is extraordinarily complicated. We never had a Napoleon to reform the land and standardise our system of governance. I would argue that the Domesday book, the first land census conducted in post-1066 (i.e after the Norman Conquest and the last time we were invaded, which has done all sorts of strange things to the British psyche and is one of the common explanations as to why our establishment are so weird and incompetent) was the last time any major attempt was made to map land ownership and understand how land is the wretched place is parcelled. We missed a trick with Cromwell in 1652, the English revolution more than a full century before the French Revolution and two before the Russian. It was a world first but we were too soon to be relevant, and to paraphrase a bunch of innovation-y motivational speaker-y type entrepreneurs (James Allworth and Howard Marks Google tells me), potentially stolen from an Italian politician (was it D’Alema?) and parroted by Ivanka Trump: too early is the same as being wrong.

So yes. Agreed. The United Kingdom is thirsty for land control.

But. The new bill is super vague and doesn’t stipulate how such a Herculean task would be undertaken:
The bill simply “includes measures that will facilitate a better understanding of who ultimately owns or controls land in England and Wales.” This supports a 2017 Housing White Paper commitment by “collecting and publishing data on contractual arrangements used by developers to control land, such as rights of pre-emption, options, and conditional contracts”.

Close Planning Loopholes
The Bill allegedly strengthens powers available to local authorities to enforce planning rules and laws. I am sceptical however: since when does this government do anything to close loopholes that ultimately benefit the propertied classes?

And: this country barely seems to have any laws, just recommendations and policies. Good luck enforcing those.

Amending the Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) system.
CPO allows local authorities to purchase parcels of land that may belong to private owner(s) to develop new infrastructure. This will be extended to include CPOs for regeneration, especially of brownfield land.

In theory, again, a welcome change, but very vague as to how it might be implemented beyond “changes to     publicity requirements around CPOs and how their inquiries are held.”

3. Nomenclature

Centralised government oversight of street names

Again, in a perfect world with a nice, benevolent state this could not be a bad thing. Seemingly, it stemmed from the BLM movement in 2020 and could be used to remove monuments, street names, and plaques which could be deemed offensive. All local authorities would need to follow the same process to change names in consultation with residents. So far, so good.

But based on the current government’s track record, it could be a bit scary. Do we really want Thatcher Avenues, von Hayek Streets and Ayn Rand Roads to pop up all over our cities? Removal of everything related to anything remotely left or anti-Tory, such as the move in Manchester to rid Manchester of its statue of Fredriech Engels?

Sounds to me like another strand of the concocted culture war of the right wing. Remove the slave owners, racists and colonisers, and be done with it.

4. Heritage

Listed parks and gardens
Registered parks and gardens would get the same planning protection as Listed Buildings. A bit Victorian, but fine by me. Increasing the amount of public space and making it more inclusive and democratic would help, but that’s another battle for another day.

5. Replacing EIA and SEA

A new post-Brexit “Environmental Outcomes Report.”
Since Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) are EU processes, we will need to create our own. Given this government’s track record on the environment, and the fact that our rivers have gone from one of the cleanest in Europe to open sewers in a mere 12 years, I’m not holding my breath on what this might entail.

The bill states that it will “[…] for the first time, allow the government to reflect its environmental priorities directly in the decision-making process.”

Under this government, this scares me since their only consistent priority is…cutting corners and making money?

6. Cross-boundary working

Combined Authorities and Mayoralties working together

Groups of CAs could voluntarily coordinate spatial strategies across borders on specific cross-boundary issues. This might include net zero plans, or transport for example. This imbues the CAs with more decision-making and executive power than they have (which, let’s face it, is currently minimal).

Creation of Local-Led Urban Development Corporations

The UK Planning system, as mentioned previously, is notoriously patchy and contains relics of planning theories past (many of which have been since wholly discredited, particularly the 1960s fixation with building cities to accommodate cars and not much else). Accordingly, there are currently four types of development corporation:

               • New Town Development Corporation
               • Urban Development Corporation
               • Mayoral Development Corporation
               • local-led New Town Development Corporation.

Being the UK, as everything here all of these have different levels of power, cover different remits, and have differing priorities (Napoleon please come and save us!!)

This bill focuses on locally-led Urban Development Corporations, with the aim of regenerating the local area and accountable to local authorities rather than the central state.

This is welcome, but only on two conditions: firstly, if it replaces the fragmentary and piecemeal current status (which there’s no indication it will, unless I interpreted it incorrectly it seems the bill just introduces a new strand to the existing hotchpotch); and secondly, local authorities are given more money, resource, and expertise to adequately oversee the activities of the Urban Development Corporation. If it’s just yet another thing tagged on to councils already stretched to breaking point, forget it. 

7. Replacement of S106 and CIL with a new Infrastructure Levy.

Section 106 merits an entry in its own rite, and it has been abused supremely over the years especially by super rich developers. CIL, which is similar to S106 but includes an expanded range of infrastructure, is similar in nature. Developers are expert at dodging their responsibilities and giving back to society.

Therefore, I don’t think a new Infrastructure Levy will hold much water. The wording is worrying vague, as per usual: “There will also be “a process to require developers to deliver some forms of infrastructure that are integral to the design and delivery of a site”.

So, that summarises what the Bill contains. The next task it to work out what each of these proposals actually mean in practice. More to follow.

Spatial Planning in England: Act I

The modern planning system in England is rooted in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act This established two important elements:

(i). a legal framework for development, where land ownership alone was not the sole condition required for development and planning permission needed to be sought and certain criteria met; and

(ii) institutional re-structuring to grant county and borough councils ownership of planning processes, based on local development plans aligned to a national strategic planning framework.

From its progressive roots, the English planning system since the late 1970s has undergone a significant paradigm shift. The state has taken an increasingly diminished role, making way for the market to lead, creating a tendency to sideline social and environmental outcomes.

A fundamental criticism of the English planning system is that it is cumbersome and opaque based around local development plans which are slow to prepare and even slower to implement. Lack of coherence and slow speed of implementation of Local Development Plans makes for a spatial planning system ill-equipped to respond to the challenges of the 21st century.

Legal standing

The spatial planning system in England today is guided top-down by the National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF), but local development plans, which are part of the Local Development Schemes which are a legal requirement for local authorities to produce following the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act, remain the cornerstone of implementation, albeit with plans for phase them out.

Local plans tend to be long, complex documents. For example, the Newcastle Local Plan consists of:
 1. 360-page Core Strategy and Urban Core Plan (CSUCP) for Gateshead and Newcastle 2010-2030.
2.147-page Development and Allocations Plan 2015-2030 (DAP).
3. 172-page appendices.

The overall result is a diluted and complex document from which it is difficult to obtain a tangible sense of what the spatial vision for the area seeks to achieve beyond economic prosperity.

Successive planning reforms (e.g. 1990, 1991, 2004, 2011, 2015, 2018, 2020) indicate that there is cross-party consensus that the spatial planning system, the NPPF and, by design, Local Development Plans is flawed. However, so far, planning reforms have been at best, incremental, and at worst, entrench existing issues.

The deeply fragmented, incoherent system means that English planners are tasked with achieving too many policy objectives with little resource in a flawed institutional system that is the highly centralised political system of England.  

The housing crisis rages on

The affordable housing crisis at the centre of the critique of the English planning system. The housing issue is structural and partially related to land ownership models in England, and partially due to the structure of the housing market which is over-dominated by large private developers with little interest beyond economic gain in the places in which they secure development rights.  

The failure to address the housing crisis is symptomatic of the incoherent, fragmented nature of English spatial planning. Planning and housing sectors would be well placed to work closely together to tackle the deep inequalities in English society and their impacts, as well as developing deliverable strategies to tackling climate change.

Until the affordable housing crisis is tackled through a radical redistribution of property-based wealth, the spatial planning system is unable to deliver meaningful impact in terms of integrating with other sector to address inequalities in cities.

Skeffington Report (1969)

The 1969 People and Planning (Skeffington Report) continues to provide the benchmark for engaging the British public in earlier on in the process of developing local development plans. In response to the highly centralised planning system framed by the 1947 TPCA, the 1968 amendment mandated that planning authorities must share local development plans with the public, provide an opportunity for affected residents respond. In line with the discretionary, common-law system which shapes public life in Britain, the new recommendations provided no legal grounds or details in how they could be implemented. It was therefore the responsibility of local authorities to interpret the public participation amendment how they saw fit, leading to uneven results.

While the Skeffington Report did make mention of increasing engagement with the planning system by people from underrepresented groups, it did not mention exactly who, or how (Community Planning Toolkit, 2016). This continues to be vital for the modern planning system to overcome, given that the majority of public engagement is with people over 55 and 56% of people in England have never engaged with the planning system at all.

While available data lacks granularity of ethnicity of those engaged in the planning system in England, an ethnographic data shows that even in a London borough where 54% of the population are not white, planning consultation meetings were almost entirely white, the planners and developers themselves were white, and all of the people in the rendering of proposed developments were white. When this is placed in the context of 37% of black people in England having no access to a garden, balcony, or outdoor space (ONS, 2020), it makes the failure of the planning to engage those who are most likely to rely on public parks and green spaces for their leisure time even more startling.

While local politicians have the right to vote on new planning developments, as in the current system, the planning system in England will remain highly politicised. Planning committees are responsible for passing local planning decisions, but they are constituted of elected councillors who often have limited knowledge of planning systems.

Impact of austerity on planning

Spatial planning preparations and development delivery and implementation at local level have been constrained by local authorities a decade of austerity measures, which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated for planning departments by 2015 was around a cumulative average of 45%. With such limited resources for a time-consuming and resource intensive activity as community engagement, it is of little surprise then that Local Development Plan formulation is estimated by the RTPI to have a 1% public rate of engagement, and the participation in the individual planning process is estimated to be at 3%. These figures, coupled with inability of councillors to genuinely represent a cross-section of interests in their local constituencies, highlight a serious problem of democracy and participation in the England planning system.

Discretionary planning systems

Discretionary planning means that central government sets guidance, policies, and visions for how planning will be implemented by regional and local tiers of government, but local authorities have a large degree of discretion on how these translate into reality through formulation of local development plans.

Discretionary systems are characterised by overlapping planning and policy systems often involving different processes or aims, and it is the role of planning departments to interpret these aims to inform negotiations over final planning decisions. This contrasts with the codification of statutory systems.

An effective spatial planning system should be able to merge the benefits of a discretionary system, where flexibility allows the planning system to respond to changes in circumstances and place-specific conditions, with the consistency and predictability of the planning outcomes of a regulatory planning system. The Planning for the Future Reforms published in 2020 recognise that the English discretionary planning system in its current guise is flawed, and opened the prospect of implementing a zoning system of sorts in the English planning system.

Section 106

Progressive aims of the TCPA 1947 manifested in nationalised development rights for land use. Consecutive reforms since 1979 have increasingly returned to the pre-1947 system of land ownership concentrated in the hands of a minority of private individuals. The concept of “planning gains,” an ostensibly mitigating factor, was introduced by the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 under Section 106, where local authorities could exercise the right to benefit from selling land to developers by capturing the difference between land value and its uplift as a developable site. The logic was that this gain could then be used to fund public infrastructure (libraries, parks, social housing). However, while this initially appears to be a progressive amendment, it does not always achieve socially progressive outcomes. In a recent example, the Nine Elms developers in London used the S106 clause to fund a new tube station under the guise of constructing a new station as a public good. Whether a new tube station is needed in an area of London that mostly consists of luxury apartments during an ongoing and chronic housing affordability crisis remains highly dubious.


Permitted Development rights (PDs) are a feature of the English planning system where planning proposals meeting specific criteria do not require planning permission. The logic is to ease the pressure on the housing market by making it easier to “flip” buildings to residential usage with minimal bureaucracy. However, this unfettered approach to planning continues to place pressure on local authorities who are required to spend limited time and resource in verifying whether developments met the criteria for PDs, and producing certification to prove their status. It has not reduced the burden on planning departments. This is one example of unsustainable solutions to avoid what is really required to address the housing crisis: rent controls and adequate state intervention, i.e. a significant spend to increase the mass supply of affordable housing as those seen in the 1950s-70s.


The English spatial planning system is deeply flawed. While it does reflect a flawed and difficult wider political context, there are some measures that can be taken to improve the situation. While the Planning for the Future White Paper set out by the Government in 2020 recognises these flaws, there has been no mention of preventing misuse of S106 agreements and the remedies it does put forward, particularly pertaining to improving public participation and tackling spatial inequality provoked by English land use laws, are inadequate.

Spatial Planning: Introduction

This is the introduction to an Act in Three Parts about Planning-related drama in England. These are the last in the series of dry, policy-related commentary and legal stuff. I just need to store them here for future reference.

Then – back to fun urbanist stuff!

Spatial planning sits at the intersection of a broad range of future-oriented policies which determine social, economic, and environmental outcomes for a given area. A successful planning system will seek to harmonise as many of competing actions as possible. So, the main objective of any planning system is therefore to uncover social processes, values, and power relations associated with patterns of land use. A good planning system should act as a counterweight to level power imbalances by providing a framework to manage trade-offs between competing factors.

There are two key strands to an effective spatial planning system:
 i). A decision-making framework for handling factors that cannot be treated in isolation and are independent on other factors to contribute towards public good (e.g clear air, reduced noise pollution, green spaces)

ii). Decisions that should seek to maximise collective social good for the greatest number possible (a la Bentham).

Cities in the UK (and this country is far from unique in this) are becoming increasingly complicated: the way they are conceptualised and governed has changed dramatically in recent decades. It was evolved from a more “managerial” system led by the state to an increasingly fragmented array of institutions and organisations by social actors, private sector developers, designers, architects, consultants, planners, third sector and non-government agencies which eclipse the tasks previously undertaken by the state  

This fragmented system of urban governance coupled with economic, political, and environmental global instability demands an agility in spatial planning systems not seen anytime since 1945.

Key criteria for an effective spatial planning system

In her 1958 paper, Ruth Glass stated that ideological flexibility was one of the main factors behind the pragmatism of the 1947 system and the cross-party consensus generated by the UK’s Town and Country Planning Act. Planning has to reflect social policy for it to become meaningful.

  1. Integrated, systems-based planning

If spatial planning is a mechanism for shaping urban environments, then planning policy must interact with other policy sectors. The hallmark of an effective integrated spatial planning system should be one that can cross-pollinate with policies that protect the lives of future generations and facilitate equal access.  It should provide the conditions for intersectional and just usage of land for everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, health, or class.

2 Inclusive, accessible and democratic

Spatial planning systems involve many actors and stakeholders. So, power structures between different actors must be clear and there must be a mechanism in place to level off power imbalances. This means that a robust, well-resourced, and well-designed stakeholder engagement process is required to ensure that the views of all stakeholders are weighted equally.

An accessible spatial planning system is one that is straightforward to engage with. This might include easily accessible online consultation processes, and well-organised digital resources. If decisions are taken behind closed doors and without any opportunity for public engagement, this is likely to erode trust in public institutions and undermine democratic principles, produce planning outcomes that benefit a small minority and that are unlikely to achieve outcomes for the common good.

3. Proportional, balanced, unbiased

A strong spatial planning system is one which is flexible enough to respond to regional and urban challenges through strong capacity to work across, within, and between policy sectors at both vertical and horizontal levels. This refers to a planning system that works from local scale to global, or national to regional (horizontal) on different policy sectors (for example, national scale climate change mitigation policy with local level transport policy). The more integrated regional or local spatial planning systems are with other policy sectors, the more nuanced and effective the responses to macro challenges at the local level.

4. Agile (within reason)

While there is an argument for a planning system that can rapidly produce results, speed alone is not necessarily an advantage. In terms of hierarchy, striving for an inclusive, democratic and participatory system is more likely to produce high-quality outcomes. Facilitating discussion and creating spaces for as many stakeholder groups as possible to provide their input and shape planning outcomes is a time-consuming process. A speedy planning process would simply not be able to capture in-depth stakeholder perspectives. 

5. Progressive  

Progressive refers to the political willingness of leaders and owners of the planning process (e.g. local authorities, politicians, national/regional governments) to draw on Hegelian ideas of redistributive wealth to prevent economic inequality from stifling social development.  

6. Sustainable

The neoliberal political system places economic development and growth as the driving force of every sectoral policy, and planning has been no exception. The emphasis on GDP as the universal comparator is not really fit for purpose anymore. In light of the climate crisis, there is an opportunity growing for spatial planning system to implement new universal set of metrics related to wellbeing and environmental impact over GDP. There is some talk around wellbeing indicators, but they are not being implemented universally across the country and GDP is still the go-to metric for measuring the health of a country. Which is ridiculous, when it has been demonstrated time and time again that there is obviously no correlation between GDP and social health (the US is the richest country in the world for example, and it’s falling apart at the seams).

Housing reforms: First as tragedy, then as farce

Note: I wrote this on 9th June, but I only post it now due to time pressure etc etc. So, our idiotic PM has finally resigned (albeit with twisted arms, allegedly). I don’t think there’s much to celebrate as what will follow is hardly going to be the saviour this burning pyre of a country needs, but anyway.

A small warning: Here come a few extremely dry entries on planning, housing, policy reforms and the looming shitstorm post-Brexit, Covid, and Russian war. They are massive topics upon which I can only scratch the surface so I will canter through them at great speed. They are also boring as hell but I need to document them somehow for future reference. Part of this project is to document a state taking a nosedive into perpetual crisis and if we ever have to do a post-mortem, it’s good to document things as they happen in real time.

I’ll write about some fun projects soon. I promise.

The Ubiquitous New Build.

I can barely bring myself to type his name these days. Every time I see his face in the media I feel my stomach churning. It goes beyond the visceral hatred of the man I felt a year ago, no longer can he evoke such strong negative emotions. Now I just feel sad. What a pathetic, odious, sad little man. An absolute non-entity. He’s too lazy and narcissistic to be anything really, just a hollow vessel channelling whatever he believes will save his skin and surrounding himself with equally weak, spineless acolytes, stupid yes-(wo)men who cannot stitch together a thought of their own. His party has been transformed from the old British Conservatives in the Burkian tradition or even from the ideologically-charged Hayekian Thatcherite party of the turbo neoliberals we are all suffering (or reaping if you happen to be one of the lucky few) the consequences into nothing more than a bunch of self-serving crooks. Probably at least half of them would be in jail if they didn’t have the Met Police eating from the palms of their hands.

Having alienated most of his own party, it seems our broken and crippled country is united in one thing only: hatred of our Prime Minister. Big business hates him. Small business hates him. Royalists hate him. Constitutionalists hate him. The Gaelic parties most definitely hate him. Most of the media, except the far-right Daily Mail and Daily Express, hate him – and even they have days when they turn against him. The centre-right, centre-left, centre, and left finally have one thing in common: they hate him too. He’s open game: celebrities and pundits can talk about how much they hate him live on BBC. Footballers, musicians, sports commentators, the big mainstream cultural heavyweights are openly contemptuous of him.

Labour seem to have taken largely a backseat and are letting the rest of the country do the Opposition work for them. Starmer is largely MIA on the pile-on against Johnson: instead of hammering in the final nails to the coffin, aside from his famously “forensic” (as the liberal press never tire of reminding us) PMQs, Starmer seems to be sitting back and focusing the ongoing witch-hunt against Leftists and obsessively reminding the world of the pariah status of Corbyn, while cranking up the pro-war rhetoric as we seemingly inch closer and closer to a full-scale global conflict.

I suppose, it’s a good thing that we still live in enough of a democratic society that crowds can boo the Prime Minister as he arrives to attend an event of national and historical significance of the (capital E) Establishment without getting thrown into jail or disappeared, but even so.

And this brings me to the actions of a sad and desperate man: Johnson’s announcement last week on Housing Reform for the UK.

Housing reforms: the tragic background
The background to all of this is certainly the vote of no-confidence, which he won so narrowly that it can hardly count as a victory. It has also put the Tory party in a difficult situation: with Johnson at the helm the chances of them losing the general election in 2024, a mere two years from now, is high. Johnson has managed to surround himself with as many sycophants as it takes to keep him in power, with the added bonus that most of those sycophants are on the Government payroll so the stakes are higher for them if they vote against their boss.

The country is plummeting headlong into disaster. Actually, more like a slow-motion train wreck – many of these catastrophes were openly discussed and debated in 2016 ahead of the Brexit referendum. So war in Ukraine affecting food supplies combined with a global pandemic happened exogenously but it does not take a genius to understand that something major was about to happen in the world and build in some resilience. The feeling of reaching breaking point, whether climate related, food supply related, breach of peace, or even pandemics have been discussed in scientific, economic, policymaking, health, tech and other fields for a long time now, and especially since 2008 financial crisis. Now all of these things seem to be coming to a head. Cost-of-living crisis has hit after a 12-year run of austerity where public services are largely derelict, and wages have stagnated while living costs (especially related to housing initially, and now food will be hit too) have soared.

Food costs, energy prices? External factors and not the fault of our government.
Low wages not matching cost of living, artificially inflated housing costs, housing market entirely tipped in favour of owners and landlords? The fault of the government.
Lack of real and progressive taxation to protect the poorest in society and ensure our public services can function properly? Most definitely the fault of the government.
Insufficient investment in renewable energy and interventions to secure cheap and reliable supply and divest from fossil fuels? Again, definitely the fault of the government.
Cheap, affordable public transport so people do not need to own cars and pay for extortionate and harmful petrol? Fault of the government bound by the fossil fuel lobby.
Proper food strategy to protect against price hikes (as in France) and shortages? Very much the fault of the government.

There seems to be a deep-seated fear among the right of a “wage-price spiral” à la the 1970s after the 1973 oil shocks and subsequent economic turmoil. However, this seems largely to be a knee-jerk reaction and not grounded in material economic reality. For a start, the unions were in a strong position to negotiate pay to match and exceed the soaring rates of inflation, which topped 24.24% in 1975 while pay rose by 35% in some sectors. Today, with unions significantly castrated since then, we could see inflation of up to 20% with zero wage increases (or maybe a token 1 or 2% to give us some scraps). This is a scary prospect. Grace Blakeley wrote a fantastic piece about this in the latest edition of Tribune, see here for further theoretical grounding and summary of the current predicament.

So, to sum up thus far:

The UK is ploughing headlong into a deep, long-term crisis. Not only economic as the costs of Brexit stack up, but also a crisis of legitimacy. The aftermath of having such a farcical government can only create monsters or at least a greatly diminished status globally. The breakup of the British Isles as Scottish independence and N. Irish loom large and near-certain break-up of the Commonwealth as New Zealand, Australia, Canada hold referenda after the Queen dies and clear statements to remove the Monarchy as Head of State by Antigua and Barbuda, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Belize, and Jamaica and surely others will follow. Barbados has already taken the step and become a fully-fledged republic, announcing in 2020 that it would remove the Queen as head of state (Rihanna for President! Just sayin’). In short, the terms of British imperialism are long overdue a negotiation, both globally and domestically within the British Isles.

Our PM, isolated and disliked by all except his closest acolytes, most of whom he has either bribed or blackmailed (possibly both), is clutching for straws.

So what does he do? Reach for the Thatcher songbook.

Except, the UK economy, political circumstance, unity, and society is on far shakier ground than it was in 1979 when Thatcher pushed through monumental social and economic reform. In no small part is the situation today in fact directly consequential to these sweeping reforms and the country has never really recovered from the shock.

The other major difference is that Thatcher was riding the winds of change at the time; she understood the Zeitgeist, grasped it, and helped to re-cast and re-mould how global capitalism is imagined in the UK. In Gramscian terms, she built hegemony. Things that nowadays appear to be just the way things are are in fact implementation of the neoliberal hegemony, the logic that pervades how we think, act, rationalise, exist.

Post-2008, this doctrine has largely lost legitimacy yet is still the dominant force shaping our lives. This has manifested itself through a legitimacy crisis of the entire political class. Boris Johnson, far less skilled, less intelligent, and lacking the imagination and vision that Thatcher had, is simply clutching at ideas that have already been translated into our everyday lives and have made them better for a select few, at the expense of the many. And the demos realise this.

Boris Johnson’s latest announcement is decades too late to impress anyone except rich professional landlords, too pathetic, too lazy. Worn and thin. Recalling Hegel’s first as tragedy, and then as farce. Or the late and great Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, where he poses that nothing new has happened since the 1990s in pop culture but also I suppose this translates to political thought, too. His core thesis is that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. I have to say, I tend to agree, and more forcefully by the day. Here is an excellent lecture of him talking about how everything today is a weak and diluted copy.

What exactly is he proposing to do?
In his speech on 9th June, he laid out that he wants to bring back the Right to Buy scheme. As outlined in my review below of John Boughton’s Municipal Dreams, this was without a shadow of doubt one of Thatcher’s most damaging policies with far-reaching effects that we are facing today. It is why I, and so many others who do not have family capital or a huge income, cannot get on the housing ladder.

1. Right to Buy

To recap, Right to Buy was a massive reform to privatise social housing stock and ensured that state-owned housing stock managed by local councils was sold off a rock-bottom prices to tenants. Of course, this created a whole new swathe of landlord class, and saw the private rental market boom and the numbers of private landlords soar. Rents, which had previously been set and controlled by local authorities, were now in the hands of the “market” – i.e no upwards cap, and guess what? They spiralled. No more affordable rent in this country.

In effect, this was a direct transfer of wealth from those who were on the housing ladder, from those who are not. This is a combination of generation (so, being born at the right time and getting lucky), and social class (those who already have family capital would be able to get on the housing ladder anyway). Cynically, this created an entire new class of Tory voters and staunch advocates of Thatcherism, among those who never would have dreamed of voting Tory (the party of landowners and aristocrats) previously. It moved a vast strata of the population from working-class to property-owning petty bourgeoisie. The downside of this was locking the class system more tightly and reducing opportunities for social mobility by tipping the previously somewhat level playing field.

2. Using Universal Credit to save for a deposit

OK. OK, OK, OK. Let’s tackle this one then. So, fair enough, it is a bit weird that housing benefit can only be used to pay rent and the cheque pretty much goes direct to the landlord.

However. It is well documented that Universal Credit is punitive and stingy, especially following the austerity reforms in 2017. It barely covers enough for absolute bare minimum of essentials. How in the good lord’s name will there be any left over for saving? If I can barely save because of the general costs of existing, student debt, cost of rent, running a car (old and battered one by the way, and I barely drive it nowadays), paying for my own professional development so I can stay relevant and employable in a fast-changing and stressful job market and I have a salary well above average in a city that is fairly low in terms of cost of living by UK standards, how on God’s green earth should someone on stingy scrappy Universal Benefits have anything left to put away? Are you going to put UC allowance up by 500% then Boris? No? Didn’t think so.

This is obviously pie-in-the-sky nonsense. Clearly, back to the old Thatcher playbook of personal responsibility. Not able to save money? That’s because you’re living an excessive lifestyle (if bread, milk, a roof over the head, a warm house, a car to be able to get to work to pay for the aforementioned things is excessive, then……yes? But otherwise, no, definitely no).

Certainly not a structural problem and a basic equation of shit wages and massive housing prices and (now) soaring living costs. Surely not.

And before we even discuss securing a mortgage, let’s talk about how big deposits need to be. Average property price now in the UK is, according to the PM’s speech, £278,000 (which is £24,000 higher than this time last year). To raise a 10% deposit, which is the absolute minimum for first-time buyers now and more and more frequently 15% deposit is required, you need to save around £28,000. Add to this solicitor fees, surveying costs and so on, to give a cautious estimate let’s say around £10-15K for that. In total then, a first time buyer in the UK is going to need savings of £40K to own their first home. Average (median) salary in the UK for all workers is currently £25,971. Let’s be generous and say £31,285 as the median for full-time workers only. Before tax obviously. So, in order to save a deposit, you basically need to put a way you ENTIRE salary for two full years straight. That means not buying food, paying for shelter, or living at all basically. Impossible. THIS is the real problem we have. It is not just down to supply and demand availabilities, but how houses are distributed and the link between this and housing prices.

3. Increase supply

Increase of flatpack buying, despite the fact that spiralling costs of materials and labour are causing offsite supplier to go bust at an alarming rate. While Covid created a backlog, the real culprit is surely Brexit with import tariffs on timber from Finland, Germany, Austria and Sweden causing an upward pressure on prices that was not there a couple of years ago.

As more suppliers file bankruptcy, the already stretched supply chain is pulled even further as demand by far outstrips supply. Costs, soaring due to inflation and material issues, are set to spiral.

Why is it a terrible idea?
1. We aren’t going to be building more
Boris Johnson wants housing authorities to replace houses they sell off. Not gonna happen. (Unlike Thatcher, who banned housing authorities from replacing them).
Cash flow issues – sell them at a discount, and with spiralling material and labour costs, aren’t going to be able to afford to replace them. Exacerbate housing crisis and even more housing shortages.

Also, with a recession looming, everyone knows the first thing to happen is construction companies down tools. I’m expecting a herd of white elephants galore between now and 2030.

2. Clear lack of consultation with enablers and actors
Apparently, mortgage lenders have not been consulted about using UC to contribute towards deposits.
Lenders not on board with using Universal Credit and nor are Housing Associations.
How hard is it to get a mortgage?! Need a permanent contract, taking relationship status into account etc etc.

3. Obsession with home ownership.
In Britain, under successive governments, there are only two options. Option one is tying a millstone around your neck and taking out a massive mortgage on a (likely) poor quality house (as most houses are in this country, new and old).
Option two is being extorted by landlords to live a (mostly) badly maintained and energy inefficient home with insecure tenancy agreements, constant reminders that the home is not yours, next to zero legal rights and paying a massive chunk of your monthly salary for the pleasure.  

Society has changed drastically since 1980s. For me, as for most in my generation. Work is increasingly insecure regardless of sector and we are expected to be increasingly flexible and mobile. Also, some of us want to be flexible and mobile. I likely won’t live in a nuclear family formation – housing policy of the UK is designed for. I still wake up every morning, as for the past xx many years, dreaming about leaving the UK for somewhere with a better climate, less deranged government (if such a place exists) and less stifling and claustrophobic class system. Less inward-looking and less booze-addicted (which I firmly believe is partially a product of the class system and masks the fact that everyone here is miserable to some degree). I don’t want the housing situation to define and force my hand when it comes to romantic relationships either. I do not want to feel or want anyone else to feel bound together by a shitty building.

Do I want to sacrifice my one life on this earth for several years and do nothing but work and save, in order to pay a massive amount of money for a crappy house that will cost a fortune to maintain and heat, will likely be outside the city centre so I’m forced to drive around to maintain any form of social life, and I will be saddled with for the rest of my life? No thanks.

What we need is rent reform, protection, and control. Landlords need to be held to account and renters need protection. Funny that the PM’s speech measures home ownership as success. He states that home ownership for 25-34 year olds in Britain fell since 2008 whereas it has risen in almost all other European countries. Although, he smugly points out, Britain is still ahead of France and Germany in terms of home ownership. BUT IT’S NOT A LEAGUE TABLE! France and Germany have laws in place to protect their rents. In Germany at least, as in the Nordic countries and possibly also France, it’s normal to rent long-term, for life even. Homeownership is NOT the be-all-and-end-all. The UK needs to get over this fixation and introduce other options that match the needs of a modern society.

4. The reforms do not actually address any salient issues
It seems to me that this announcement is just a dogwhistle to what’s left of the Tory supporters among the electorate and the most ardent of Thatcherites. Or, a distraction from a government sinking in its own shit, mired in scandal after scandal after scandal.

Should we worry?
My hunch is no, we should not. Or, we should continue to worry about the lack of intervention in a failing economic system, but the laissez-faire attitude is the real cause for concern, not these nothing-policies. The reforms will have exactly zero impact on a system that failed a long time ago.

Tolyatti: the “poster child” of the Soviet Union.

Michele Cera and Guido Sechi’s ethnographic and photographic study of Tolyatti. Published by the Velvet Cell (2019)

This is a hastily scribbled post covering some massive topics so apologies for the lack of depth and meandering in places. There are a few things that I would like to re-visit in a more focused way later, so consider this an introduction to parts of a wider series of:

1. Lessons from Soviet Union’s experimental urban planning;
2. Deindustrialisation and what happens next;
3. Decarbonising the global economy: we need to do it and it is going to hurt like hell.

Rise and rise of motordom

Detroit. Coventry. Turin. Barcelona. Stuttgart & Wolfsburg. Sochaux. In the Western World, these are all obvious examples of “motor cities,” where the automotive industry employs a significant proportion of the population and forms the backbone of local (or, regional, or even national) economies and organisation of public and social life.

Stuttgart was the original birthplace of the car (late 1800s) where two rival engineers, Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler both raced to nail the design of the first horseless carriage. Following WWI, a key engineer at Daimler, Ferdinand Porsche, joined Volkswagen and right after WWII, produced his own design for the first ever Porsche. Although Stuttgart was a key centre of production, from an urban planning point of view Wolfsburg is more interesting. Wolfsburg, home of the Autostadt museum, is one of Germany’s very few new planned towns (unlike in the UK where new towns such as Stevenage, Basildon, Milton Keynes, are a separate genre unto themselves, especially in the South East to mop up overspill in the 1950s from war-ravaged London). It was designed by Viennese-born architect and urban planner Peter Koller, who designed a town to house 90,000 to support the Volkswagen factory. The plan strictly segregated the housing quarters in the south from the factory in the north.

While Detroit is widely recognised as the first Motorcity (Motown), the original concept was exported from Europe. Combined with booming American industrialisation and the post-WWII expansion of global capitalism and American hegemony, in the mid-20th century the US became a global flagship for the automobile industry. This was to the extent that even for us growing up in the 1990s, American culture was synonymous with the car. One of the first things we Europeans learn about the US is that you need a car to get around and Americans drive absolutely everywhere regardless of how short or long the distance.

In other words, urbanisation in the US is inextricably intertwined with the motor industry. The UK, especially the suburban areas which expanded rapidly from 1945 – 1970s at the time when private car ownership exploded, is similarly shaped by access to private car. Luckily for us, we are geographically a much smaller country, so we have ended up like the US in miniature form.

Although, as Canadian urbanist and journalist Charles Montgomery outlines in his book Happy City, there is a big chunk of North American history that has been lost. Dubbed “Motordom” by the writer Peter D. Norton, author of Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, the pro-car lobby in the US was not always the de facto voice. In the 1920s, there was a strong anti-car movement, due to the noise, speed, and danger they produced. The re-arranging of the use of the street, where people could no longer use roads for walking, was an unpopular move. In Cincinnati in 1923, there was a petition to force all cars to install devices to prevent them from exceeding 25mph. As the exact opposite from today, the pro-car group were those who saw the car as progress, while the reactionaries were against expanding the use of the private car. Today, the same demographic of people who were against the car are likely those now who most fiercely advocate the freedom to use their private car and progressives are much more likely to want to see car use reduced in cities, if not abolished all together in favour of public or active transport solutions. At the time, the response of the car industry was to re-frame the priority of the street: the issue was not cars running over pedestrians, but pedestrians walking into cars. This is a very telling response from industry, and the longevity and deep entrenching of this belief in the American (and to be fair, British too) national psyche is astounding.

While Detroit was not the first motor town, it was the first to make a major contribution to the global political economy as the birthplace of Fordism after WWI. The Henry Ford’s factory, producing the Ford car was the first example of technological techniques used for mass production and standardisation, acting as the blueprint for the mass consumption that has defined us as a species for the past half century. At the other side, an important element of Fordism was ensuring that workers were paid enough to consume the products they were producing, the creation of the “aspirational worker.”

The story of Detroit, as we all know, is not a happy one and technological advancements put an end to the neatly organised system of labour from the first half of the 20th century in the 1970s. The 1978 film, Blue Collar, which L and I watched during lockdown last year was a cutting portrayal of a Detroit, and a labour market, and race relations, that had gone completely off-the-rails and was slipping into ruin as a direct consequence of the demise of Fordism. In short, Japan’s rise was the American car industry’s fall, combined with the emergence of neoliberal thought in the 1970s marking the last almost 50 years of assault on workers.

Tolyatti! The background story.

Cera & Sechi, pp. 12 – illustration of the vision for a Soviet Motor-city.

So! How does all of this relate to Tolyatti? As Owen Hatherley beautifully details in Landscapes of Communism his meticulous account outlining the key ingredients of Soviet Union urban planning, city design, and architecture, in the USSR the collective was the main point of everything. Therefore the idea of the private car flew in the face of this. Public transport (the clue is in the name) was excellent, dense networks and well-designed before we even reach the levels of aestheticism afforded to Soviet metro systems (the Moscow Metro, MCM as the flagship which provided a blueprint for other Soviet cities and indeed some of the ideas and engineering expertise were also exported to the West). Much of which was built by prison labour I hasten to add, but that is a different story.

After Stalin’s death and the consequent decline of Stalinism which happened to coincide with the boom of the car industry in the West, there was a period of relative relaxation (the Khruschev Thaw) of the strictest Soviet principles, and demand for private transport rose. This was also the beginning of the mass housebuilding project across the USSR (which is detailed in the Sotsogorod film I’ve referred to in previous entries – I will get to this at a later date).

Demand for car ownership, combined with an economy devastated by war and chronic housing shortages for similar reasons, all came together as a counterpoint for one solution: the construction of the USSR’s very own automotive centre of production.

Company towns built around centres of production, as also seen in the US, the UK, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere in the West, were certainly not novel in the USSR either. Many

of these, as in my home region in the North East of England, were centred around extractive industries (in my region’s case, coal), copper, lead, coal, and mining for other minerals and metals. However, a car industry and a Soviet version of Detroit-style Fordism was a new concept. As the article on Tolyatti in Jacobin “What a Communist City Can Teach Us About Urban Planning” highlights, this pragmatism of learning from the West to support the modernisation of the USSR was indeed typical of the Soviet Union in terms of applying international technological, architectural, and design trends to their own ends.

While it certainly would have been a jarring move to take pages directly from the USA’s book, to support development of an automobile centre of production in the Soviet Union, Khruschev enlisted the help of Italy’s trusted PCI (Communist Party of Italy)’s leader, Luigi Longo. The chosen city in the Samara region of Western Russia, was a small settlement of barely a couple of thousand inhabitants on the Volga river, Stavropol-na-Volge. With Longo’s support, FIAT factory workers, engineers, and technicians were sent over from Turin to support with training up Soviet counterparts. In 1966, the town was to be renamed Togliatti, or Tolyatti, after Palmiro Togliatti, Il migliore, the great Italian Communist leader who had died a couple of years previously.

The starting point of the urbanisation project was a hydroelectric dam and power plant, and a workers’ district (rayon) was constructed to house the construction workers. Once this was completed, work started to construct the automobile plant AvtoVAZ, the national automotive company which is still the main production plant for Lada cars. Although, with the Russian economy sinking under international sanctions, it is fairly likely that this won’t be much longer. A second rayon was constructed (Komsomol and Tsentralnyy respectively) to house workers. Foreign experts were enlisted mostly from Italy and Germany, and FIAT was in charge of the entire project. In 1967, a housing district around the new factory site was rapidly completed and still stands today (Avtozavodskyy rayon, or the auto-factory district). This was so large and ambitious that it was originally planned as a new town in its own right, and is still celebrated as the most ambitious urban planning project in the entire history of the USSR.

Avtozavodsky rayon – the car factory workers’ living district and seen by many in the USSR as a model Soviet town. Notice the well-spaced blocks of housing interspersed with ample green space and sporting facilities.

What (if anything) can we learn from Soviet experimental urban planning? Two Italian academic urbanists, sociologists and researchers, Michele Cera and Guido Sechi both from Bari undertook an incredible project to document the story of Tolyatti, its history and the aftermath of the demise of AvtoVAZ following the fall of the USSR.

One of the most striking changes after the transition to capitalism was surely the loss of public spaces. In the Microrayon, the workers’ districts, there were spaces for workers to socialise and relax while women could share the burden of domestic labour. There were chess clubs and cultural centres (dry ones as well as ones with bars) for both men and women. Shared kitchens where communal meals would be served were also a feature of the standard microrayon.

Similar things existed in the West of course. L explained to me the system of Italian cultural associations, Arci, which were founded by the Italian Communist Party in Florence and are nowadays linked to the main Italian Trade Unions and is the biggest non-profit organisation not linked to the Catholic Church. In the UK, Working Men’s Clubs were, and to an extent still are, ubiquitous and formed a similar function. In the UK however, they were largely spaces for men to gather and drink outside of work, while women would be expected to stay at home and tend to domestic duties.

One of the most striking changes after the transition to capitalism was surely the loss of public spaces. In the Microrayon, the workers’ districts, there were spaces for workers to socialise and relax while women could share the burden of domestic labour. There were chess clubs and cultural centres (dry ones as well as ones with bars) for both men and women. Shared kitchens where communal meals would be served were also a feature of the standard microrayon.

Cera & Sechi, pp.62-63. Playing chess in the Microrayon

Similar things existed in the West of course. L explained to me the system of Italian cultural associations, Arci, which were founded by the Italian Communist Party in Florence and are nowadays linked to the main Italian Trade Unions and is the biggest non-profit organisation not linked to the Catholic Church. In the UK, Working Men’s Clubs were, and to an extent still are, ubiquitous and formed a similar function. In the UK however, they were largely spaces for men to gather and drink outside of work, while women would be expected to stay at home and tend to domestic duties.

Nowadays, the Working Men’s Clubs are mostly used by old men who have been retired (or unemployed after the 1980s never to find work again) for decades and have lost their primary function.

In capitalist system there is a lack of public space to meet for the purpose of socialising. We do famously have pubs, or public houses in the UK, but they are increasingly alienating places, riddled with class conflict and increasingly prohibitively expensive for many who would traditionally fall under the banner of working-class. Moreover, they are completely exclusionary for those who do not drink alcohol.

In general, imaginative urban planning system that afforded places to socialise and organise domestic work has long since disappeared. In the UK, urban planning has traditionally felt fearful and defensive, even in the heyday of social democracy in the 1960s. There has always been the sense that workers cannot fully be trusted not to conspire against the ruling classes. Thus, collective space has always been limited and the private sphere and nuclear family has always been emphasised over everything else. The Garden City idea itself was borne out of the ruling class’ fear of the Bolshevism sweeping Europe: give them a garden and a decent place to live and they won’t revolt. Most key to this, make sure they cannot fraternise with each other easily. An Englishman’s home is his castle. We have long been a nation of tiny fortresses.

I think the attitude of our ruling elite has been extremely detrimental and our class system is nothing short of devastating. Our lonely, ageing, alienated society is riddled with social problems that are direct consequences of poor political choices, lack of imagination and understanding of public good, and short-term and uninformed decisions over the past decades is a manifestation of that.

The birth and death of company towns

Mono-industrial towns are clearly a bad idea and the examples around the world of failures following deindustrialisation are far, far too many. Detroit is not unique, for example, in basing almost its entire economy around a handful of companies (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler) in one particular industry. The demise of motor cities in the Anglo-American world (Coventry and Detroit have both seen better days, to put it mildly) are a perfect illustration of what a fragile economic model this is and we should be frantically taking notes as the imperative to decarbonise economies becomes ever more pressing.

The devastation wrought by the Anglo-American model deindustrialisation more broadly has been so deep and so violent that it has been, in the crudest possible way, the root cause of the destabilisation the entire political systems of the Anglo-American world and weakened their democracies. Beyond the Anglo-American world, the marks of mono-industry are rampant across the former Soviet Union, too. Tolyatti is one example but there are countless other shipbuilding, mining, and timber towns that face precisely the same causes of misery as their counterparts in the west. Lack of work leading to breakdown of families, widespread substance misuse, mental health issues, and all of the other symptoms stemming from hopelessness, poverty, and lack of meaning and social coherence and relevance in a brutal world.

From this, there are a few messy questions emerging in my brain to be more clearly defined at a later date. Nobody knows where we are going as a species and to be honest, I don’t see an easy route out of the corner our civilisation is backed into (as usual, all roads lead back to the Mark Fisher thesis then).

1. Are we going backwards, regressing? Did we reach the peak of civilisation in the Global north in the 1960s? We hadn’t yet burned the planet (industrialising countries today cannot boom in prosperity in the environmentally damaged planet and broken economies they cannot inherit) and there was a general understand that society should be collective and there was a broad political agreement and understanding of acting in the public good. Now both the planet and any chance of collective social forms have been hollowed and burned.

2.What extreme event will it take to make things better? Will a transition to a decarbonised economy afford is a new way of organising our lives? Having lived through a global pandemic where there was a lot of talk around glimpses of a better world, but most of that has not materialised and we’ve gone back to precisely how things were before, just sadder, crueller, more brutal and massively destabilised. If something as huge as a global pandemic does not provide an impetus to change, then what will it take? And in a changed world, how do we ensure that the Global North and the Global South benefit equally? If lives in the Global North are organised around utopian ideals but the Global South are still working in dangerous factories producing our goods for starvation wages and near-bonded labour, then is that really freedom?

3. How will we organise and fair, social condensed and decarbonised economy? Will we ever be able to organise society around coherent collective principles again? What would be the catalyst? Organising lives around economic productivity cannot easily be translated to our technologically advanced world. It also begs questions around gender roles – what worked in a heteronormative world perhaps cannot be easily translated today. The nature of the work at the centre of collectively organised societies around economic principles also left much to be desired in terms of public health. Or will we continue to fragment, drift apart in jobs that actually have very little function beyond upholding the principles of late capitalist society.

The Left in the US are looking to Detroit to show us a glimpse of what something better might look like – sure, there are many grassroots initiatives and social organisation to try to build something from the ashes of wrecked capital. However, for me, without real robust structures in place to support real and widespread change, while they are fantastic to see and it’s great that something good is happening, for me it’s not enough. There are hundreds of thousands of Detroits across the world now, and there will be more before this year is out. The problems are structural. While Detroit was indeed an extreme example, it exists on a spectrum.

Personally, I’m more on the Mark Fisher side of things and I cannot imagine a full-scale radical overhaul of economic and social organisation and new logics and hegemony without going through a major catastrophe first (from which we might not even come out the other end as a species intact) but especially during these grim days it’s healthy to dream of better things.

EUR and the Fascist Colosseum

Palace of Italian Civilisation (c) Marianne Kell, 2022

A second and final entry on Rome before we move on to other things. I might squeeze one out at a later date on Italian urban planning more generally, but for now I think this is enough.

Hipster boyfriend long had a quest in mind to track down the abbey which produces the only Italian trappiste beer. He mentioned it a few years back, and we found it online, via a webshop called Holy Art selling among other things priest robes and statues of Mary. We dabbled with the idea of placing an order, but the shipping costs were extortionate, and we felt it would be overly decadent to have them ship from Italy a few bottles of beer since we can easily buy perfectly good Belgian or English trappistes within a 3 mile radius of our house.

When we decided that we must go to Rome, it dawned on us that we could visit the abbey, Tre Fontane, and buy the beer from their shop to bring home. Luckily for us, Tre Fontane is well-connected to Rome city and located close to the blue metro line (Linea B). To get there, we simply had to jump on the metro at Termini and then pass through the EUR district on foot.

We got off the metro at EUR Fermi, the third of the three EUR metro stops (EUR Palasport and EUR Magliana the other two). It was a fairly long walk around administrative buildings, post office and bank headquarters that seem to characterise EUR Fermi, around a somewhat creepy near-deserted funfair, uphill through a surprisingly luscious and verdant park (given it was wedged between dual carriageways) and then back down toward the road. We crossed the busy dual carriageway, and then noticed a brown sign directing us to Tre Fontane behind a high wall.  The moment we entered the gates, we found a long, tree-lined avenue leading to the abbey. Although the dual carriageway was right alongside us, the high stone wall and the trees prove surprisingly effective at blocking out traffic noise and it felt strangely still and quiet.

Tre Fontane abbey, Rome. (c) Marianne Kell, 2022

We entered the abbey grounds and the feeling of calm and tranquillity prevailed. The monastery consisted quite simply of a church and crypt, a chapel, and not one but two shops (clearly these monks have their house in order) arranged around a courtyard. Inside one of the shops was a room for chocolate tasting, as well as a small café-bakery and an impressively stocked bar. We succeeded in buying our trappistes, a eucalyptus-flavoured one and a selection of others. After debating whether or not to buy chocolate too (we decided against it as it was already hot outside and we didn’t fancy carrying a dripping bag of melted chocolate around), we boxed up our haul of trappistes and left the calm little oasis to head back up the hill to EUR.

What is EUR?

The architecture of EUR is quite striking, I have to say. It feels imposing, somewhat Orwellian (to use a stereotypically British adjective) and I would imagine it would be the perfect backdrop for a re-make of the film adaptation of 1984.

EUR itself is a rather odd suburb of Rome city. The acronymn EUR stands for Esposizione Universale Roma, and its construction was originally intended for a special Expo in 1940 (in the same vein as the World Expos still taking place now, such as Dubai Expo 2020 and Milan Expo 2015). Obviously, as Italy entered World War II in 1942, this did not turn out as planned and the exhibition never took place.

The concept of the suburb was concocted by Mussolini to celebrate 20 years of fascism. The suburb itself is the biggest example of urban planning and architecture from the fascist period in Italy ,and it is as austere and pompous as one might expect from a projection of fascist vision. The style is highly rationalist, all straight lines, colonnades, marble, and travertine cladding and the idea underpinning the design was to heavily draw upon classical Roman city planning.  Piazza Guglielmo Marconi for example is centred around an obelisk typical of the Roman ones you find dotted around the squares of Rome historical city centre. The chief architect and urban planner for EUR was Marcello Piacentini, the official architect of the fascist regime in the typical stripped-down neoclassical style which was also prevalent in Nazi Germany.

Palace of Italian Civilisation, (c) Marianne Kell, 2022

The Palace of Italian Civilisation (pictured above), or Squared Colosseum (or as L called it, the Fascist Colosseum) is the marble centrepiece of the district and looks like a mash-up of Roman temples and various administrative buildings from the Roman age. Designed by three architects of the fascist era, Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto La Padula, and Mario Romano, it was supposed to represent Italian history from Roman times and, in true fascist style, connecting this with the superiority of the Italian race. L explained that the inscription at the top was taken from a speech by Mussolini, and referred to Italy as a nation of thinkers, poets, artists, scientists, heroes, and so on. The sculptures on podiums around the structure itself represent these qualities, cared from Carrara marble.

The actual Roman colosseum. (c) Marianne Kell, 2022

Knowing very little about the period of fascism in Italy beyond the basics, I was unsure whether Mussolini drew upon myths of origin as the Nazi Party used as the basis of their disgusting and scary race laws. L explained that there was a weird picking-and-choosing of elements drawn from Roman history, and weaving in elements of Roman culture to justify or strengthen their horrible fascist beliefs. The symbolism and iconography around EUR was in many ways a reflection of this.

The Palace of Civilisation itself I found horrifying and fascinating in equal measure. It was so unbelievably stark, placed atop a hill overlooking the entire district. The white marble juxtaposes sharply with the green treelined avenues and parks dotted around EUR, which despite the austere rationalist architecture, leaves a weirdly pleasant feeling of coolness and airiness in a city that gets extraordinarily hot and humid in summer.

EURPalas was also architecturally intriguing. The Palasport is a stadium that was completed later, in 1960 for the Rome Olympics. It has a pleasingly 1960s style aesthetic, spaceship-like and a bit Buckminster Fuller-esque. Although it underwent major renovations in the early 2000s and is nowadays still used as a basketball arena and concert venue, it still retains the typical 1960s form. The artificial lake, also constructed for the 1960 Olympics, is still intact.

In general, the EUR district was a surprising contrast to the historical city centre of Rome. We went there on a Thursday morning, and the area was extremely quiet so we had plenty of time and space to wander around the district. Definitely worth doing, if only to enjoy the contrast with the rest of the city which is absolutely stuffed full of ancient Roman ruins.

Rome: MAXXI and Archiboobs

Photo by Pepe Nero at Unsplash

Spring in Rome. A city for which I already had high expectations, and still it managed to surpass every single one of them. After having had Covid for a couple of weeks right before we flew and receiving the all clear just 48 hours before our flight was due to take off, it was not a certainty that we would make it. But, Covid clear albeit with tight lungs (both) and a mild cough (me), we landed in Roma Ciampino as planned.

We packed it in high, we did. L, that super smart Italian communist who also happens to be my lover, put together an incredible and stimulating itinerary planned out and for seven days straight we walked, and walked and walked around this mesmerising city. Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Basilica, EUR, Tre Fontana Monastery, Pyramide of Cestius, Gramsci’s grave, the Forii and Colosseum, Campidoglio, Piazza del Popolo, the Jewish quarter and main Synagogue of Rome and attached fascinating museum Tempio Maggiore (I knew very little about the ancient and sizeable Jewish community of Rome), exploring Tiber island, the belvedere at Gianicolo and Piazzale di Garibaldi, San Lorenzo and a walk around Roma La Sapienza (the biggest university campus I’ve ever seen, and it took us almost half a day to walk around its perimeter as we got off at the wrong metro stop), evening strolls around Travestere neighbourhood, and a very pleasant evening with a comrade of L in the formerly working-class (historically housing mostly factory workers by the look of it) Pigneto neighbourhood, popping into feminist bookshops and super chill café-bars for aperitivo.

Not to mention stuffing our faces with the most delicious Roman food, which was entirely thanks to L’s meticulous research in his Gambero Rosso guide and recommendations from his friends with Roman connections. We did not manage to eat the classic Lazio carbonara or amatriciana, but we did eat lots of both Roman and Romano-Jewish artichoke dishes (including a pasta with lamb and artichoke that I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life), fried courgette flowers, cheese from Lazio region, bona fide porchetta, and a beautifully simple but mindblowing pasta with cherry tomato and toasted almonds which L has since been trying to crack at home. And it goes without saying, incredible street food including Roman pizza by the slice mile and suppli (both al telefono and romano). L almost cried with delight about being in his homeland of filled croissant for breakfast (impossible to find in the UK generally which is an ongoing source of disappointment and frustration for him – although we recently discovered their ubiquity in Glasgow which incidentally has a huge and dynamic Italian diaspora going back several generations), so naturally he insisted that we eat cornetti alla crema every morning from the Sicilian bakery next door to our accommodation.

Overall it was a good thing we covered over 20km on foot each day, otherwise I would have definitely turned into a cornetto alla crema myself.

Anyway. This is not intended to be a travel blog nor a food blog, and I am not particularly skilled about writing about either of these things. So, back to the point: MAXXI, Rome’s museum of contemporary art. We saw GOOD NEWS: Women in Architecture – the fascinating and extremely well-curated exhibition tracing the trajectory of women in architecture throughout the ages, key achievements and their struggle in a (still) highly male dominated profession. Certainly, the recent Guardian exposé about the culture of misogyny, sexism, racism, sexual misconduct, bullying and an overall toxic culture at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture going back decades paints a depressing picture of this world. I would highly doubt that Bartlett is the exception.

While, as L pointed out, the GOOD NEWS: Women In Architecture exhibition did begin with an introductory atrium filled with the photographs and display models of Italian male architects which was a bit of an odd choice given that the whole point was celebrating 85 greatly overshadowed female designers, urban planners, academics, and architects, the exhibition itself was brilliantly curated.

Important to note though: while I’ve referred to the exhibition centred on female architects to highlight what the exhibition is about, a central question posed by the exhibition is why do we collectively still feel the need to attach “female-“ to architect / design etc? We would never refer to a “male architect” in such a way: “MAXXI was designed by female architect Zara Hadid but the Reichstag was designed by the architect Norman Foster.” As the Danish architect Dorte Mandrup was quoted in the exhibition: “I am not a female architect, I am an architect.”


Overall, the exhibition, which also lightly touched on intersectionality as well and highlighted the work of Norma Merrick Sklarek, the first Black woman to be officially commissioned as an architect by New York City, had an positive and optimistic tone. However, to me it shows that while we have come a long way in terms of gender equality in the urbanism field, we still have a hell of a way to go.

So yes, while it is maybe a depressing reflection of how the world around us is configured still requires such an exhibition to highlight the important contribution of women in the field, at the same time I suppose somehow the profile needs to be raised and the point needs to be made that we should really go beyond treating the contribution of women as a parallel, and inferred lesser, than that of male counterparts.

And, as L pointed out, the English translations were actually a lot better than the Italian original. To avoid making architect in the female form, which to an immature mind reads “architette” i.e. “archiboob,” they had translated it in weird and long ways, something like architectrice. All the more reason just to use one common form, right?

Municipal Dreams (Review, part 2)

Reading the book was a genuine pleasure and a fully absorbing experience, not least due to Boughton’s engaging style and the well-structured approach which strikes the perfect balance between empirics, anecdotal evidence, and historical account. Throughout the journey from Victorian filth to Grenfell, I was struck by six key observations:

1. The paternalistic approach to organising society.
Despite noble origins, from the inception of council housing in Britain to the current prevailing neo-Victorian attitudes of what the working class need to do to improve their living conditions in the face of such things as economic stagnation, lack of significant government spending for the best part of half a century, a shrinking economy, 30 years of flat-lining wages, out-of-control house prices and lack of any regulation in the private rental market leading to high rents and poor quality, a top-down approach from the political establishment has pervaded. Often, without having done any background work to engage with those who will live in the homes to identify their real needs, even the most well-meaning ideological designs have back-fired spectacularly.

For example, the Garden City movement and New Towns of the 1950s were designed to give the working classes access to green spaces and reduced urban density which was considered to promise a healthier way of live. The work of Frederick Gibberd, the master planner of the new town Harlow, in Essex, was informed by the idea that “[…] English urbanism prefers segregation of home and work, which enjoys open-air exercise, which has an innate love of nature” (p.82). However, had Gibberd and other master planners and chief city architects consulted with the prospective housing tenants, they would have discovered that in the new two-storey dwellings with large green spaces between, the new inhabitants “instead of feeling themselves secure within an environment devoted to their convenience and pleasure, find themselves marooned in a desert of grass verges and concrete roadways.” (p.83).

Although today following the Localism Act 2011, Section 122 introduces a legal requirement to consult with local communities before submitting planning applications for specific developments, this comes with its own set of failings and inadequacies. Consultation is a totally different beast to co-design, and there are ways and means to dilute the consultation process. While introducing an act to include communities in decision-making, it falls way short of the mark in terms of designing cities to meet the real needs of communities, not developers or landowners.

2. Does it need to be so complicated?
The management of supply, use, and distribution of social housing is a complex undertaking regardless of parliamentary system, local context, or political ideology. Social housing programmes in the UK were as complex to manage as successful social housing programmes in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s, 1980s Vienna or the Million Project in Sweden of the 1965-74.

However, from the 1980s onwards the legal structure for managing social housing in the UK became far more complex than anything ever seen before elsewhere in Europe. For all the neoliberal ideology of “rolling back the state,” governance structures and creating clear lines of responsibility for specific matters became far more complex than that of the various state-managed institutions and bodies.  

While the Right to Buy scheme was expanded in 1980, councils and local authorities faced harsh restrictions on their powers to build new social housing. It took only 3 years for this to have an impact, and between 1980 to 1983 the volume of social housing built in the UK had halved. Meanwhile, powers that previously belonged solely to local authorities to manage the pipeline of social housing as well as existing stock were transferred to a myriad of housing associations and Arms’ Length Management Organisations (ALMOs), backed up by private finance rather than state budget. This was codified in the 1988 Housing Act.

The introduction of new layers of governance and lack of uniformity across the country created a diffuse network and fragmented landscape. This system of complex interplay between state and private sector in a non-uniform way, often through incredibly dense networks, makes it almost impossible to discern interrelations between different actors.

Creating complexity in this way is a means to spread out accountability and makes it impossible to pinpoint blame for any failures on one specific actors. The Grenfell fiasco is a living example of how such a fragmented landscape can lead to tragedy without any real political consequences.

3. The public and private sphere and how space is conceptualised
The most striking element of social housing in Britain compared with the European mainland is how quickly urban planners, architects, city councillors and others with decision-making powers over housing jumped on the vision of the ideal dwelling as a private space secluded from others. Building vertically would create compact housing arrangements with greater possibility of using shared spaces and building communities and the potential for spaces of solidarity. Instead, however, British urban designers preferred cottage estates with one or two-storey houses or low-rise blocks, each with private gardens.

Whether this is a reaction to the horror and misery of the slums which were part and parcel of British industrial cities until the mass slum clearances of the 1930s remains to be seen. Ensuring that space is divided up into private sections comes with a price. The cottage estates and single-family semi-detached houses were unaffordable for many working-class families, and the sprawling nature of building dwellings in this way meant that quantities were limited due to spatial factors. Therefore, the more affluent working classes moved out to the suburbs, while the poorer remained in inner city areas creating a class-based social segregation.

4. The role of youth in shaping modern London.
The experimental and sociologically-minded period of re-building Britain in the mid 20th century was driven by proponents of an incredibly tender age, often recently graduated from design schools. From the perspective of someone aged 35 flailing around in a career that has not really started yet after a number of false starts and interludes of further education, this is a fascinating discovery. Today, even the greased wheels of nepotism and the most connected individual is still not trusted to do much more than make coffee and take charge of the proverbial photocopying until at least age 30. Countless internships, paid and unpaid, stints overseas getting “international experience,” and various post-graduate career development moves are part and parcel of those born in the 1980s onwards. While this may sound a development in the right direction, a meritocratic approach based on experience and “earning your stripes”, it should of course be heavily caveated. The playing field today is certainly not level: those with social and economic capital will advance up the career ladder further and quicker than those starting at the very bottom.

In 1960s Camden, the Whittington Estate was conceptualised and planned by Peter Tábori, at the time a student in his mid-twenties at Regent Street Polytechnic. The estate, which was his final-year project, was carefully designed to meet the needs of its inhabitants: play areas for children, pedestrian decks, areas to meet with neighbours, estate shopping centres. It was criticised at the time for being too ideological, which reflected not so much on the design of the estate itself but a social criticism of the estate as a concept (p.61).

In the London Borough of Camden of the 1960s a full third of the Labour council were under 40 years old (p 59). It also had a young team of urban planners and designers under Borough Architect Sydney Cook. One of his team, Neave Brown, was commissioned in 1969 to design the Alexandra Road Estate aged just 40 years old.

South of the river, the story was similar. The London Borough of Lambeth’s Chief Architect, Ted Hollamby, was just 40 when he was appointed Chief Architect of the London Borough of Hammersmith and a few years later, moved to the equivalent role in Lambeth. By his mid-30s, he had already delivered the Brandon Estate, once the tallest point in the capital (p. 155).

London Borough of Southwark’s Dawson’s Heights, East Dulwich, was designed by Kate Macintosh in 1972, when she was just 26 years old (p.147). The imposing double-ziggurat style structure, following a few modifications throughout the years to improve safety measures according to various ideologies and zeitgeists, still stands today and is considered to be a fine structure when compared with other large-scale social housing built around the same time.

On the one hand, it could be easy to dismiss some of the less successful examples of mass social housing projects, poorly designed system-builds and failed urban design initiatives developed in the post-war period by young architects as examples of inexperience and the naivety of youth. At the same time, however, perhaps the youthfulness brought an ideological breath of fresh air in a time of rapid social change. The perspectives of middle-class, middle-aged Oxbridge educated, white, male architects and planners perhaps do not always reflect the needs of wider society. Does this sound familiar?

5. The role of progressive politics in shaping modern London.
There is (or was, I think it was shattered once and for all following the 2019 general election) a misconception in the UK that northern areas vote red and the south votes blue. This completely overlooks the role and legacy of radical politics and the labour movement in London. While it is assumed that Newcastle, or Liverpool, or Manchester will remain steadfastly Labour, London rarely comes to mind in the national imaginary as the country’s bastion of red. However successive general and local election results from Tower Hamlets, Camden, Islington, Lewisham, Newham and other inner London boroughs show a long line of unbroken red.

In the 1950s and 1960s, one could find card-carrying communists such as Ted Hollamby having decision-making authority in significant positions of power over the urban environment. This is unthinkable today: recall the viciousness with which Corbyn was treated by the media and his own party alike, and the purge of the left from the Labour party continues to advance under Starmer’s watch.

In 2021, unless you have the interests of capital at heart, it’s very difficult to get close to the levers of power. Boughton brings us a glimpse of the past to show that it was not always thus, and this brings a glimmer of hope for the future as well.  

6. The human cost of gentrification.
The term gentrification, coined by Ruth Glass in her 1964 work London: Aspects of change is applied to the process of transformation of a poor neighbourhood in cities by the process of middle- and upper-middle income groups buying properties in such neighbourhoods and upgrading them.

Today, the term is no longer confined the realms of urban sociology and is widely used and understood across a broad spectrum. However, the modern usage has somewhat diluted the violence with which the gentrification (and its ugly sister regeneration) process takes place: it often conjures up images of independent eateries and craft beer micropubs in newly vibrant neighbourhoods that were once stagnant. It glosses over the displacement process in practical terms: unable to meet rising rents, families or elderly residents are often forced out from the place they call home, where they are part of networks that has often formed over years and even decades.

These connections and networks, the fragile social fabric that provide the building blocks of a community, are destroyed practically overnight by the gentrification process. Boughton points to the Hendon Waterside scheme in North London (p. 275), where secure council housing tenants from the West Hendon estate have been “decanted” to alternative tower blocks elsewhere. Neighbours and friends have been forcibly moved away from each other, to a new block of inferior quality to the tenants’ original homes. Leaseholders have been given compensation that does not match the cost of renting in the area in today’s rental rates. Many of the original inhabitants of the estate have simply moved away, worn out by the physical and emotional upheaval of the process.

A similar story is outlined in other cases all over London: Carpenter’s Estate in Newham, West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates in Hammersmith, the New Era Estate in Hoxton, and Northwold Estate in Hackney for example. While London is the site of conflict for most of the displacement processes, due to a combination of population growth and the value of land a property, other cities in the UK are not immune. Most recently, Manchester is in the throes of a massive property boom which has displaced thousands of the city’s poorest.

While these examples all have their own specific features and character, they all have one thing in common: tenants, once supported by the state, are now being aggressively pushed aside to create space for private companies to extract more rent and increase their capital. Through these case studies, Boughton illustrates clearly how the gentrification process, and the housing crisis more generally, is down to a political choice rather than an economic necessity. Final chapter brings us to Grenfell, and starkly brings together everything that has failed in the – hackneyed though this phrase is – neoliberal political project (I cringe now as I write this) in the UK over the past 30 years. The mass privatisation of national assets since the late 1970s onwards has ensured accountability and responsibilities are diffuse and intangible. Most chillingly has been the total absence of redistributed wealth and the clear focus on leveraging profit for a tiny minority over absolutely everything else, including – and especially, human lives.

Boughton shows us that good-quality housing as a social good was an obvious and rational pursuit at the dawn of the first council estate in 1900. Tracing the journey through a socialist-led national effort to raise the standard of living to today, where making humane and socially-oriented choices is no longer seen as a viable option by our increasingly flailing political system. A radical overhaul is once again required to solve the housing crisis in any meaningful way and this requires levelling the playing field in all aspects of society, not only housing.

Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing (review, part 1)

Given the centrality of housing as the centrepiece of British socio-political reality, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing is far more than a simple audit and historical account of the trajectory of social housing spanning over a century. Viewed through the lens of social housing, John Boughton provides a detailed and nuanced analysis of housing as a response to the changing social and political conditions of Britain. The big questions of the day are often reflected in the government’s responses to the challenge of housing its people. The Municipal Dreams journey departs from the early Victorian-era disease-ridden slums where life, for most, was, to quote Hobbes’ Leviathan “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” through to the golden age of socialist thought rising from the ashes of two brutal world wars, to the late 20th century project of “rolling back the state,” privatisation of state assets, financial deregulation and push to the free market and its somewhat tragic consequences, the embodiment of which are reflected in the charred remains of Grenfell Tower.

This fascinating project to trace the noble origins and development of social housing in Britain stemmed from four years of blogging, which is in fact still very much alive and well at Municipal Dreams. Much of the material in the book derives from ethnographic sources, which affords Boughton a level of intimacy not seen (to my limited knowledge) in any other literature spanning such a broad range of council estates. It also allows Boughton to encompass an insider’s perspective and avoids the lack of objectivity that befalls many accounts of working-class culture using a more distant, participatory observation approach.

The book is organised chronologically, with three discernible phases:

1. Philanthropy, morality and Victorian values: Britain’s first council estate, the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch which was completed in 1900, was constructed as a direct response from the appalling conditions of the slum quarter in London’s East End. Multiple accounts, from novels such as Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago referenced in the first chapter of Municipal Dreams, Charles’ Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, to historical accounts and ethnographies including Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, also referred to in Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, and Friedrich Engels’ The Great Towns offered stark descriptions of the criminality, abject poverty, death, and disease in these miserable human rookeries. This misery was the downside of the first ever Industrial Revolution. The work of empiricists such as Engels, and later Thomas Carlyle, informed embryonic ideas for developing the welfare state. These ideas were brought forward by philanthropic individuals and loosely bound “corporations” which would later crystallise and formalise into local councils embedded within the institutional architecture of the British state.

2. The impact of war: The first world war gave rise, both directly and indirectly, to the world’s first mass council housing building programme. In 1919, Lloyd George promised “homes for heroes” and following the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act, over the next two decades, 1.1 million council homes were built (pg 31). This gained support from both left and right wing of the political spectrum, albeit on differing grounds. The right, especially, feared the revolutions and Bolshevism sweeping across mainland Europe and believed that providing council housing would sweeten and disarm would-be revolutionaries. Following the war, it was tacitly agreed that a fit, healthy, and strong population was desirable and providing good-quality housing seemed one logical way to do this. The interwar period and the Great Depression saw large-scale slum clearances, where for the first time the poorer working class were brought into council housing.

From 1945, under Clement Attlee there was a concerted effort to rebuild and rebirth the nation following a catastrophic first half of the twentieth century. The welfare state was born, and housing was a large part of this. At this time, socialist thought defined post-war Britain. The NHS was created, access to education expanded, and the dominant ideology gave rise to the idea that council housing was for a prosperous, economically active, and aspirational working class (pg 256).

3. Demonisation and privatisation: From 1979 onwards, Britain was remodelled once again. The post-1945 consensus was replaced with free market ideals of shrinking the state and selling off state-owned assets. This included council housing. While national companies were being sold off at an alarming rate, council housing stock was transferred from state ownership to private hands or to third-party public-private entities and housing associations for ideological reasons. This included the expanded Right to Buy introduced in 1980. Meanwhile, rhetoric and discourse peddled by government, the national press and free-market think tanks such as Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute ensured that council estates and their inhabitants were stigmatised. Social housing is today the preferred term for those working in the housing sector, due not in small part to the negative connotations attached to the term “council housing” and “council estate.” Municipal dreams is not party political work, but it certainly seeks to bring to the fore the social origins of council housing and the critical role the Labour movement played in ensuring access to decent and affordable housing. These principles have been very much eroded in recent decades, but not all hope is lost. We may reach a turning point once again. Or then, things might become ever more entrenched.

I will elaborate further on these musings a bit later.

Putin is not a Marxist-Leninist; Russia is not the Soviet Union.

I need to steer the topic a little off course here as, since February 2022, it would be remiss to overlook a pretty major global event. So, it is here I express unwavering solidarity with the Ukrainian people, and of course condemn the sheer terror inflicted on the Ukrainian people by Russian soldiers under the orders of Vladimir Putin.

Separate to this, I also condemn the actions of the disgusting British media and our rotten establishment. Britain has been a laundry for Putin’s unhinged, turbo-capitalism and harboured his thieving, criminal gang of crimelords. There has been a thoroughly sanctioned revolving door between the Kremlin and Westminster since the days of Yeltsin, and nobody is more complicit than the Tory party. After 1991, oligarchs essentially stole Russia, the ashes of the Soviet Union off the Russian people and these people pass their dirty money through London to hide their ill-gotten gains offshore.

Cosmetically there have been sanctions on Russians, but this rotten and corrupt system of propping up oligarchs (from all around the world, not only Russia and including our own) is unlikely to change anytime soon. Whether Russian-owned media being allowed to publish propaganda (Lebdev brothers and PM’s insistence of Evgeny’s lordship), to property, energy, financial sectors and massive donations to the Tory party from Russian and satellite states.

And yet, still somehow our crazed media have managed to blame the Left for this and smear Corbyn (?). Thanks guys, that’s flattering and all, but this is problem that by far overshadows the sorry state of socialism in the UK currently.

Oliver Bullough, the investigative journalist and author of Dirty Money has written extensively about how Russian money is embedded within the UK. The UK, and to an extend as the birthplace of capitalism has always had a role in this, has become noting but a hollow vessel for rich people to come to hide their wealth. There is always a British role in money laundering and hiding money – whether Russian, Ukrainian, (Panama and Pandora Papers, Paradise Papers), or Angolan oil money and beyond. Nicholas Shaxon’s excellent Treasure Islands traces oil money in tax havens from Gabon and through the oil and petrochemical industry and beyond.

This sordid little island has become a nice and convenient regulation free space in heart of Europe, and undermined entire global financial system which is draining money from economies, leaving behind derelict public services and people literally starving, relying on foodbanks in the world’s richest economics. Successive governments and mayors of London, especially since 2008, are responsible for destroying democratic control over finance. London created offshore capital, and now look what a sorry state we are in.

Bullough makes an excellent point that Britain used to be one of a few global oligarchs, that was what our role in the world was as a colonial power. When our empire crumbled and especially after WWII we couldn’t afford to be an oligarch, so we become a footsoldier to oligarchs from elsewhere, including Russia. Our political class not only turned a blind eye to the dirty money passing through the City of London, but they actively encouraged it.

An entire class in London have flourished doing bad things in London. Politicians, property lobbyists, people working in finance, real estate vendors – all of these have blood on their hands (sometimes, actually, literally) sale of the city to the wealthy and encourage flows of finance into the city. These are all responsible for dirty money. This is what helped create Putin and the oligarchic class. Not Corbyn, not Marx, not Lenin.

What next?
Our shambolic excuse for a government have announced some tiny measures regarding transparency to our banking and property sectors. However, the UK economy suckles off dirty money and especially this current government is unlikely to have any political will to give that up.

The PM announced laws regarding money laundering. Problem is  we already have had laws in place for that for a while it’s just they were never enforced (at least, not for the superrich). In Tory Britain today, with a billionaire Chancellor and his non-dom wife, there seems to be little political appetite to enforce then. Any measures we will see regarding sanctions against Russian oligarchs are likely to be tokenistic and to save face on the global stage.

This is not just about the Tories by the way, but Starmer’s Labour will be the same too possibly with a bit more lip service to getting the rich and superrich to pay their fair share, but it is important to note that an entire political class are wedded to this. Blair was not shy of being seen with Putin in the same way as Cameron or Johnson. This is really what the whole burning Corbyn at the stake amounts to really.

Corbyn called for a much overdue an entire restructuring and re-arranging of the British economy. Dissolve the infected pustule that is the City of London in acid. Until that happens, we will continue to face an erosion of democracy, instability, and perpetually sinking standards of living not only on the domestic sphere but globally as well. Unfortunately, I don’t see this changing anytime soon as we lost our chance of a generation (or two) with Corbyn. I fear that much, much worse is yet to come.

Alpha City: How London Was Captured By the Super-Rich (review)

Rowland Atkinson, Verso Books, 2021

Atkinson takes us on a fascinating tour around London and illustrates how the city is carved up into different strata of the superrich according to the significance and development history of each domain. In the West End one can find the patrician heartlands which have historically been and are still a haven for old money (which includes the 1066 land grabbers, and the aristocrats fat from a millennium of assets yet have never worked a day in their life). To the north, which includes bits of Camden and Islington boroughs, settled newer old money, mostly those who became rich off the back of slavery, colonial activities, war and the industrial revolution. In and around the more recently developed riverbank, Hyde Park and Mayfair, Chelsea, Kensington, and farther afield bear the hallmarks of new money (bankers and hedge fund managers, gamblers, launderers, criminal networks). In the liminal spaces across the city there are substantial zones where new and old meet.

The rich exurbs consisting of stockbroker belts and rural gated communities in Surrey), such as St George’s Hill are popular among Russian oligarchs. Only last week St George’s Hill was in the spotlight following Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine which led to protests and calls to expel the secretive owners of billionaire mansions harbouring Russian dirty money. St George’s Hill was ironically where the socialist agrarian Diggers first broke ground in 1649 but that history is long lost. Atkinson highlights its 20th century history as the home of celebrities including rockstars, F1 champions and supermodels (John Lennon lived there in the early 1960s, as well as Ringo Starr, and also Elton John, Tom Jones, Jenson Button, Kate Moss and countless more). Until recently it was considered one of the most desirable gated communities in Europe.

While once the celebrities and buzzy rich community would wander around the gated community in relative freedom and enjoy a sense of elite community spirit, this way of elite public life has largely been replaced by secretive oligarchs seeking privacy and invisibility. Most of the activity is limited to the staffers of the oligarchs running errands and chores for their largely absent employers, who may be in London only one or two days per year.

The pattern of superrich zones inhabiting formerly active communities which have been hollowed out and replaced with largely deserted and heavily surveilled dead zones is a recurring theme of the book. This is just one way in which the super rich instilling a sterile, resentful and distrustful atmosphere into a city once known for its vibrancy and dynamism.

Parasites and their hosts

Alpha City elegantly captures the parasitic nature of the super-rich and how their essences sucks all of the nutrients out of cities. Atkinson explains how London is a particularly unique case owing to a combination of factors including history, location, topography, leading to particular patterns of socio-political and economic development. London is certainly unique in Europe and globally there are perhaps with only a handful of cities on a similar level (New York, perhaps Shanghai, Moscow). The heavy financialisation has created a city which is fully geared towards serving the needs of the super rich, at the expense of everyone else.

The financialisation of the city was certainly accelerated after the 2008 crisis and the end of the post-war consensus, but the wheels had already been set in motion prior to that. Finance has been the fundamental element of the city’s development programme since the Thatcherite period throughout the 1980s and expanded under Blair’s New Labour from 1997 until the 2008 financial crisis. The biggest different today is that the neoliberals have lost all legitimacy and no longer need to pretend they believe in social benefit for the many.

The rhetoric around trickle-down wealth creation, already a thinly veiled lie, ceased to bear any weight after the 2008 crisis and the redistribution of global financial capital after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will see and end to the neoliberal order and will usher in a very dangerous era. The main output of the neoliberal project has been incredible, intense levels of inequality which are now extraordinarily visible in London, the Alpha City of mind-boggling contrasts.

Everyone loses, nobody wins

Alpha City captures very well the anxious, fearful lives the super-rich lead. They are obsessed with control over every single aspect of living their lives and require squadrons of staff to ensure no detail, no matter how small, is overlooked. Their aim seems to be to ensure their surroundings are constant at all times and no matter where they are. Same temperature in their air-conditioned rooms. Same décor, same food, same types of people on hand to serve their every need. The much-acclaimed HBO TV series Succession encapsulates very well the paranoia, anxiety, fear, and downright unhappiness that characterise the lives led by the superrich.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in London most people are struggling. The displacement of the poor through various means of gentrification: sometimes forcibly, other times stealthily, and too often tragically (such as the appalling aftermath of the Grenfell disaster whereby many of the surviving families are, almost 5 years later, still displaced) breaks and re-moulds less affluent areas and destroys communities to fuel the rampant property market and speculation on land.

The undercurrent running through London is that of violence: the violence of a dysfunctional economy led by property developers, the stress and struggle of the majority of inhabitants, and the hatred and fear of the superrich towards everyone else creates an aggregated effect of unhappiness across the spectrum.

Future vision

Having just finished reading Alpha City a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine and while the west are, justly, piling an increasing number of sanctions on Russia feels eerie in its timeliness. What we learn in Alpha City is that London, and the British Government, have played no small part in the Russian oligarchy. For almost all of Putin’s reign the City of London has been actively propping up a Russian mafioso state, ushered in by the policies of successive governments (Blair, Cameron/Clegg, Cameron, now Johnson). Theresa May to a lesser extent, instead she made a brief pivot towards Indian capital.

Oligarchs, not only Russian but from around the world, and their dirty money are embedded within the UK economy and disentangling from that is going to take a clear vision and a ton of political will. To date I have seen no evidence of either of these things. Johnson’s sabre-rattling so far has proved to be largely tokenistic, particularly when shining a torch on the measures he has taken so far in comparison with other western governments. But: this deserves an entry in its own rite.

Alpha City neatly highlights the burgeoning class of “enablers”:  those who themselves are wealthy but not superrich (millionaires rather than billionaires) and whose livelihoods largely depend on the superrich and therefore they have an interest in ensuring the superrich continue to feel welcome in London. Unfortunately, this class includes our lawmakers, political class, and property development sector.

The political class are culpable for allowing money laundering and criminal networks to thrive. Not only have they turned a blind eye to it, but they have positively encouraged it with their policies and exclusive property marketing campaigns targeting the money of oligarchs directly. The super-rich with their appalling social attitudes have been encouraged to settle in London as a safe haven, a welcoming and secure place to expand their networks and clean up their money.

This has come with a high price for those who are not part of the elite class nor their enablers. The skyline in London, a historically horizontal city, has been scarred by developments built for the wealthy, with appalling abuse of Section 106 (e.g. Nine Elms, for which I will provide a separate entry at some point).  The psychosocial impacts of the super rich on the city have been dreadful: who cares about a fantastic skyline when you can’t afford bread or a roof over your head?

Alpha City offers a bleak view for the future, made even bleaker by a pandemic and yet another violent war (let us not forget Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria) subsequent to the publication of the book. Atkinson suggests capping profits on housing developments, and the conclusion points to the fact that social housing must be a component, rather than a feature to eradicate, of a functioning city.

However, with no political will to implement either of these things and cross-party appetite to continue to appease the super wealthy, the prognosis for the Alpha City in the post-pandemic, European war 2022 does not look good at all.