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.

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: 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.

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.

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.

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.