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January 27, 2016 / Leo Hollis

The Fall of London: Enclosure, Privatization, Expulsion

In a series of 3 short articles, I want to look at what I see as the current dynamic happening in London: Enclosure, Privatization and Expulsion. These three processes combine together. It is a system of circumscription, transformation and then violation. Often this is done in the name of social benefit, as a way of preserving or regenerating the nature of ‘place’ or neighbourhood’. In effect, it is not different from the process of enclosure that haunted the 18th century.

I fear that we are starting to lose the things that make our cities such extraordinary places, places that bring out the best in ourselves and each other. London serves as one of the most observable test beds of the dilemmas in 21st century urbanism. 

It does not have to be this way. An unfair metropolis is not the price we have to pay for urban living. We must have the confidence to believe that change is possible, and it is in our hands.


At the beginning of the new millennium the chief planner of the City of London, Peter Wynne Rees, claimed that we were living through ‘a second Great Fire of London’. With this comment, he foresaw the transformation of the financial centre from a historical jumble of offices to a vertical city of skyscrapers. When the Gherkin topped out in 2004, London was still a low lying skyline; today there are plans for over 250 towers stretching from Greenwich to Croydon. Yet what kind of city is this? What have we gained as a world city, and what have we lost? This chapter looks at how London has become a city within a city: an enclave for the 1% who wish to enclose and privatize the metropolis around them.

One afternoon, for example, walking into Paternoster Square, a popular tourist spot next to St Paul’s Cathedral with cafes and shops, as well as the offices of the London Stock Exchange and Goldman Sachs, I encountered a placard that read:


This is nothing new. In the early nineteenth century the Northamptonshire poet John Clare, son of a farm labourer, wrote a series of elegies ‘On the Enclosure of the Commons’, which mourned the damage by enclosure that had be done to the countryside as well as to the labouring poor:

These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall is

laid upon them and destroyed them all

Each little tyrant with his little sign

Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine

But paths to freedom and to childhood dear

A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’.

We are currently seeing a full-scale enclosure of the twenty-first century city, with an impact as calamitous as that suffered by the eighteenth-century countryside. This new enclosure redefines not just the places that are privatised but also the behaviours that are and are not allowed there. This can be seen most obviously in the development of gated communities, ‘secured-by-design’ housing, and the rise of privatised public spaces.

This process of enclosure has a history that goes back to the office building boom of the 1960s, when developers were given rights on the ground around their buildings as a means to protect their investments. But this mechanism spread from plazas and ornamental flower beds linking the street to the foyer to whole sections of the city. The writer Anna Minton has identified the intentional silences in recent planning law that has lead to the enclosure of central parts of our city: streets, squares and now whole neighbourhoods. [see:]
 What happens when we are no longer allowed to be in our own cities? Last year the British parliament passed an Act that made Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO) law, allowing local councils to designate certain areas under certain rules and regulations. Since the law was passed, for example, Dover council has enforced a rule that all dogs should be on a lead; in Oxford, anyone under twenty-one is banned from entering a specific tower block in Forest Hill. It is no longer possible to protest in the public square outside Croydon Town Hall. There were even recent attempts to ban all homeless people from the public areas of Hackney.

I recently argued this question in public of what makes public space with a group of leading developers, and feel strongly that this is a topic that is not being discussed enough. While one must acknowledge the developer’s consideration for the public realm: a commitment to community building and developing open spaces, and environmentally sound designs. Often, this vision is flawed, and short sighted. In a business where the long term is measured as between 5-7 years, we cannot hope to rely on the current status quo to provide good public spaces.

This raises the problems of ‘Place-making’, which has become the dominant mantra of contemporary urban design. The loss of public space threatens our abilities to be citizens and to engage with the city as a political space. The alternative is only too clear to see: The Garden Bridge (sponsored by notorious polluting company, Glencore), the Cable Car (Emirate Air), the new Crystal Palace (Zongrong Group) – and even the Olympics (Coca Cola, VISA, ArcelorMittel, etc) – are eye catching additions to the city, but offer little social nutrition. The development of these seemingly public projects have been conducted hand in hand with the enclosure of the city.

We must find new ways of building open spaces for all that doe not have to involve the process of enclosure, and in this we must be aware of who these spaces are for. In this, the process of how these places are created is as important as finished space itself. The question of ownership can only be developed through a rethinking of the value of use. 




January 8, 2016 / Leo Hollis

Introduction to the Russian edition



The first time I visited Moscow was in September 2013, at the kind invitation of the Strelka Institute. [ the talk can be seen here:] It was my first encounter with a city that had loomed large in my imagination for many years. I was invited in order to talk about Jane Jacobs, a figure that has become central to my thinking about cities and what makes a good place. Therefore as I left my hotel and made my first steps into the urban realm, I was hoping to encounter the city on a number of levels.

The central plaza and streets of Moscow seemed very far from the more intimate neighbourhood spaces of 1960s Greenwich Village, Manhattan. As I explore in this book, Jacobs saw something of the deep flows of the city and explores what we might lose when we concentrate on making the city more efficient, more smooth. The well rehearsed image of the ‘street ballet’ of Jacob’s own home, Hudson Street, is a paradigm that should be nurtured wherever one goes. Yet this was very far from the vision that I encountered in central Moscow.

As I wandered along the streets that run alongside the Moskva, I found that I was weaving my way through cars that had been parked along the pavement area. Further along, as I attempted to cross one of the main roads, I discovered that I had to navigate a complicated sequence of manouvres in order to get back to where I was. I felt, as a pedestrian, the city was not revealing itself to me. The city had been taken over by the cars that now filled the arteries and flows of the city, reducing the pace of the city to a halting, grinding standstill. Many of the qualities of the city that make it so creative, human, surprising were being lost, and even those who wanted to encounter the city in other ways had to negotiate their routes around this dominant form of traffic.

In this, Moscow is no different from many of the major cities of the world. But what is the solution? In its 9,000-year history, the city has been the place where strangers have come together for multifarious reasons; but in that coming together, the city has become greater than the sum of its parts. This is what Jane Jacobs was describing when she talked about the ‘Ballet of Hudson Street.’ In an unforgettable description of what she saw and heard on an ordinary day standing outside 555 Hudson Street, Jacobs followed the traces of the complex city as it interwove in front of her doorway. What she discovered in is the genius of the city: connections and networks.

In the weeks before my arrival in Moscow, I was told, the Danish architect Jan Gehl had visited. Gehl had first explored his ideas of the life between buildings in his home city of Copenhagen. When he pedestrianised the central section of the city, Strogets, as recounted later this in the book, the locals felt that he was mad, and endangering the normal running of the city: how things ran. But it was within months that the success of the project was acknowledged: people came to this neighbourhood and made it the public forum of the city, if not the nation. This was a public space that people wanted to be in.

When Gehl went back and investigated why Strogets ‘worked’ as a public space, he watched as the locals wandered around the place, how they interacted and what they observed. He discovered that despite the general good spirit of the place, people undoubtedly stopped at the cinema to see what was on, sat in cafes and met their friends, window shopped and hung out: but the thing that interested people the most were other other. The key to a good public space is the understanding that we are hard wired to be together, and that something special happens when we gather: we become more than the sum of our parts. There are plenty of examples of this.

Charm Offensive, a 2011 study by the Young Foundation, recorded levels of civility in three different parts of the UK: a market place in one of the poorest boroughs of London, a new town in Cambridgeshire, and a selection of villages in rural Wiltshire. The study found that politeness is not a question of wealth or homogeneity, but of proximity and interaction. The marketplace in the East End of London, despite being a place of huge diversity, was also the place where everyone was willing to muddle along. There was equality amongst stallholders and shoppers to make this a good public space.

This seems to align with Richard Sennett’s mantra that we need good public spaces in order to learn the rules of coming together. For despite our deep desire to be together, we are not equipped at birth with the necessary tools for being the true social animals that our instincts tell us we are.

As an architect, Gehl sees that this is a design solution: if we design good public spaces, then people will come together. In Gehl’s study on Moscow ‘Towards a Great City for People’ that was published the same month as my trip [] placed the dominance of the car as the main problem of the city, estimating that the automobile took over 91% of Tverskaya space, and elsewhere in the city this proportion rarely rose above 20% of space given over to the human and social life of the metropolis. The report then goes on to develop ways in which to enhance the existing qualities of the city: historical heritage, quality of green spaces, while also developing strategies of how to deliver parts of the city back to the ordinary citizen, not stuck behind the wheel, cut off from the joys of street life. Gehl proposes a ways of ‘unlocking’ the treasure of Moscow, as if they are there already and need to be released.

But design is not the answer alone. The architect can not cure the ills of the city just by manipulating the structures and objects of the urban fabric. Everything about the city is political – this is unavoidable. It is often the attempts to de-politicise the city –  to offer solutions without understanding the diversity and uneven landscape that makes up the city  – that cause more problems than they cure. In ‘Cities Are Good For You’ I highlight the importance of the debates on inequality, trust and sustainability as central to the argument of what makes a fair city, a place that I believe that we all deserve.

By politics, I do mean the daily goings-on of City Hall that is essential to the good running of the metropolis and in the following chapters I explore some of the ways these can be improved, but I also mean a more personal, everyday form: the politics of everyday life.

An unfair metropolis is not the price we have to pay for urban living. We must have the confidence to believe that change is possible, and it is in our hands. This is why we must return to the politics of everyday life in order to find a way forward.  It is this that Jacobs identified as the spirit of the city, it is also what the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre sees as the raw material from which transformative change can occur. Here, in our ordinary moments, we live a life in connection with others: neighbours, strangers, co-workers, corporations, government. We must rediscover the truth that these connections are what makes up our lives, and therefore everything that happens in the city is political. As Lefebvre notes:

‘true politics involves a knowledge of everyday life and a critique of its requirements. . . Everyday life is profoundly related to all activities, and encompasses them with all their differences and their conflicts; it is their meeting place, their bond, their common ground. And it is in everyday life that the sum of relations which make the human – and every human being – a whole, takes it shape and its form.’

The only way we can learn to be together and live together is by coming together. Yet this simple truth is increasingly under threat in our modern city.

I was reminded of the importance of social urbanism last summer when I heard the story of Erdem Gunduz, the young protester who, on the evening of Monday, June 17, 2013, walked onto Taksim Square, put down his rucksack, and turned to face the Ataturk Cultural Centre at the end of the square. There he stayed for the next eight hours, saying and doing nothing except occupying the space where he stood. In that moment he reclaimed not just the power of that public place–which was contested at that time–but also his right to be there, to be a citizen.

There is something important that occurs when we occupy public space. Not only does the action itself reclaim the urban place for the benefit of all, but it creates citizens, like Erdem Gunduz. Thus the idea of a truly social urbanism is one that combines place, action, and citizenship. The space can only be public because it has been reclaimed.

This calls for constant vigilance, as well as a new set of values that rewires the way we think about the city. These values might include trust, equality, and the right to the city for all. The relationship between trust and equality is indelibly interlinked. There can be no trust when there is “us and them,” the “haves and the have-nots”; trust is the glue that brings the city together and allows the nurture of civility.

As ‘Cities Are Good For You’ shows, these benefits of urban living are for all, but they are often hard won gains that need to be protected from the constant tides  and demands of those who see the city as a place of exchange alone, and not a place that can make us better people. What breaks this trust is inequality, the loss of empathy, which we can see all around us in the contemporary city—and it is getting worse. Today, cities around the world display unprecedented levels of inequality in parallel to some of most stricken developing nations. By addressing these dangerous divisions, the steps we need to take to revive and rediscover the power of public spaces, and reclaim the city for all will become clear. For if the city is not for everyone, it benefits no one.

The books starts with questions: how do we organise ourselves when the institutions that once held us together no longer connect us? What are the rules that allow us to be together? And most importantly, who is the city for? These questions allow us to think about the city anew. This thirst for a fairer city must influence policy, design, social enterprises, urbanism and business. They inform the debate on the boundaries between private and the public space. They show the interwoven relationship between trust and equality in creating places and neighbourhoods. They are at the heart of the search for spaces that can be places of nurture, learning and creativity. It is only a democratic turn that can propose what makes a robust community, a place where people look out for each other.
It takes a city to prepare for an uncertain future, not only to survive but to flourish.

January 7, 2016 / Leo Hollis

The forgotten casualties and hidden health problems of gentrification

Do we really understand the impact of gentrification? The term was first used in the 1950s by sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the regeneration of post-war Bethnal Green in east London – today, gentrification can be found in the regeneration of poor neighbourhoods by middle-class families and businesses moving into the cheaper, traditionally working-class areas of the city. The inner city is made available to the young, the educated and the creative at the expense of those who had called it home.

Some commentators note that gentrification might be a good thing: a process that improves a neighbourhood over time. For others, it’s a natural process that happens as cities evolve. But more critical observers point out that displacement causes problems for health and community cohesion as existing neighbours are forced out, dispersed across a large area, often into places with worse conditions, poorer housing, bad transport links and massive demands on an already straining health service.

A report by the Centre for London, Inside out: the new geography of wealth and poverty in London, outlines how poverty rates have fallen since 2001 in many inner London neighbourhoods, such as Hackney, Haringey and Newham. The suburbs in England’s capital, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly impoverished and disconnected from the rest of the city.

However, the impact of gentrification on inner-city communities is not as straightforward as it sounds. Most studies have concentrated on the process of displacement and health specialists have long been aware of the dangers of this regime of expulsion. But, as recent reports indicate, displacement is not always as fast as we have assumed – and often overlooked is the fate of the vulnerable who remain, or are left behind.
Paris heatwave

Take, for example, the heatwave of August 2003, one of the hottest on record for Europe, which caused the 14,800 deaths in France. In particular the heat affected the very old and infirm, especially in Paris.

As well as age, there were other unexpected parallels between many of those that died. Many lived alone and during summertime – when most families are away for the holidays – without help. They also lived in buildings that had been built before 1975, often inhabiting small flats in the upper floors of the building. In this case, gentrification did not drive the old and infirm out, but up, into the poorly insulated garrets and worst grades of housing where there was no one to look out for them.

While studies often chart the impact of gentrification on health in a borough or neighbourhood, the process itself often happens street by street. This creates unequal places on a very intimate level, where huge disparities can be felt just walking down the road. The social and economic gaps between new neighbours are palpable, as privately owning “haves” crowd into the spaces of predominantly renting “have-nots”. Rents are raised, while landlords look for ways to push out those who cannot afford the new rates. This has long-term consequences for the future health of a city, creating places that reduce opportunities and promote exclusion. It demands an urgent rethink of health, education and housing services, especially in an era of increasing austerity.

One of the most dramatic examples of the inequality created by gentrification on a very local level can be found in the re-emergence of tuberculosis in cities. The most recent UK government report (pdf) on combatting the disease found fewer instances of TB over the past three years, following a peak in 2012 – partly due to better screening of non-UK born patients as they enter the country. However, the rates of TB among UK born patients has remained steady.

As the report notes: “TB continues to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people in society, and the most vulnerable patients with TB continue to have the poorest outcomes … This highlights the crucial importance of tackling TB in the most under-served populations through systematic joined-up care between health and social services, the third sector, public health and housing.”

What’s particularly striking is that the highest density of TB victims are found in many of the more rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods of UK cities, such as Hackney. Housing is key; the TB team at Homerton University Hospital notes: “Although Hackney has undergone rapid gentrification recently, there are still significant numbers of people living in deprivation and poverty, and the borough still acts as a magnet to migrants both legal and undocumented, many of whom join hard to reach, socially excluded groups.” The team is to be lauded for its efforts to find housing for TB patients, but it is likely to become increasingly difficult.

When we look at the effects of gentrification on health and wellbeing, we might be searching in the wrong place, or missing vital symptoms because we are not expecting them. The battle against poverty and inequality is being played out on urban streets. Gentrification creates poverty not only through displacement but also on our doorsteps, hiding poverty as it appears to regenerate a neighbourhood. But the poor and vulnerable do not disappear.

September 28, 2015 / Leo Hollis

Russian edition of CITIES ARE GOOD FOR YOU

Here is a Google translate version of the review of my books that I found here:


In September, the publishing house Strelka Press published a book by the British historian and urbanist Leo Hollis “Cities Are Good for You The genius of the metropolis. ” What more is said about the benefits and harms of cities, why simple models work everywhere except in Russia, and why citizens better to just leave it alone, in his review of the book said Stanislav Lviv.

In 2011, residents of cities in the world has become more than the others. You can probably say “more rural”, but the very meaning of the word “rural”, especially in Russian, so blur by 2011, which is not very clear how they now operate. This means that starting a completely new life, in which we, the citizens, are in a winning position. In the book, Leo Hollis, of which today we cited the report of the United Nations Population Fund 2007, which clearly states that “the best recipe for a life without sound needs are still – to grow up in the city.”

The main occupation of the author of the book “Cities in your favor” in the world is called the “urban history» (urbanhistory), and in Russia, where this discipline somehow did not work out – of “historical urban issues.” Hollis has written two books about London – “The Stones of London: The Story of twelve buildings” and “Phoenix: the people who created the modern London”, one of Paris and one for children – about England. “Cities Are Good For You,” which finally came out in Russian, is an attempt to summarize the extensive body of information on the city, which the author had to revise, and share the result with the reader.

The resulting book is a pleasant exception to the general background of popular science books about cities, published in the last ten years some preposterous amounts. Firstly, Hollis – a historian and he, unlike some urban planners really familiar with the subject. Second, he writes well – despite the fact that the book has high density of information, it does not seem difficult, even a person who does not familiar with the subject. Along the way, Hollis explains complicated things fairly simple language.

Third, this whole book. Modern urban studies is a difficult relationship with politics, critical theory, the ideology of one kind or another. And for this reason, many contemporary works on the city is a patchwork quilt: the authors or try to assume a more or less utilitarian considerations and combine poorly combined with each other recommendations or construct large areas of silence. Hollis is extremely consistent. At the heart of the book is a set of ideas known to us from the famous book by Jane Jacobs: authoritarian practices like Le Corbusier and the “high modernism” – a road to nowhere. A living city, where people like to live, grow and develop organically, much like biocenosis. It is the fruit of joint efforts by people who live in it for generations, not government measures, or even architects.

Hollis, in fact, speaks of spontaneous order, but never uses this term, preferring “self-organized complexity.” He sees the confirmation of the ideas of Jacobs in the later works of Mathematics and Physics Warren Weaver Jeffrey West, found that “if the city increased tenfold, it is certain indicators are rising compared with the starting level in seventeen times.” According to scientists, this refers to the economic strength of the city, its energy efficiency, even in the crime rate and morbidity. Oddly enough, the same law and subject to a creative activity: “Wages, income, domestic product, the volume of bank deposits, the degree of innovation, estimated the number of new patents and employment in the creative sectors – all this shows superlinear increase with an increase in the size of the city.”

All this – the effect of increasing the complexity of the system, rather than simply scaling it. It seems to be a simple position should be a lot of conclusions, sometimes unexpected, sometimes optimistic, sometimes – not. For example, the well-known comparison of Moscow with a vacuum cleaner, pulling people from the province and economic resources, it becomes clear: it is a process with positive feedback, colloquially formulated by how “money likes money.” If there is one country in the conurbation, substantially exceeds the size and level of complexity of the others, redistribute flows in favor of the other becomes more difficult. In addition, it is obvious that this kind of urbanization increases property and other inequalities. City all presently working as an amplifier, but enhances it all: good and bad.

However, things are not so bad: if people do not get in the way they arrange their lives so that they were good, not bad. Therefore, the author says, “the city is able to cure their own sores, but it can happen only from below.” In other words, we look really liberal in the truest sense of the word. Hollis believes that the key to solving social problems lies within society, and that such a solution can not be imposed upon him by those who know the right recipe of prosperity or happiness. Quite a large part of the book takes the criticism of the authoritarian approach – and to society in general, and to the cities. The object of this criticism are a variety of projects – from the “Radiant City” by Le Corbusier to Dubai and Beijing.

“Creativity – says Hollis – does not arise from a vacuum, of the official photo of the collective and state initiatives. No project was a success if he went contrary to the features of this place. The idea that economic revolution is taking place as soon build a business park and a good road to the airport, naive and fell into that trap a lot of cities that have embarked on the path of “creative” re-branding “.

The same approach allows Hollis see the potential hidden in the project Scott Burnham related to “economic sharing”, as well as the informal economy, which Hollis, quoting the journalist Robert Neuwirth writes that it is “the economy ingenuity, improvisation and relying on its own power economics “do it yourself” or DIY (Do It Yourself), without accounting, registration and regulation, with payment in cash and often evasion of income tax. ” Hollis says that in this economy today “employs 1.8 billion people around the world, and by 2020 it will cover two-thirds of all workers.”

In fact, when a couple of years ago, the vice-premier of the Russian government’s Olga Golodets told us that in Russia 38 million people of the 86 million “is not clear where the busy than busy as busy,” it was a question about what he says Hollis. From the point of view of the Russian government, these people say, “pose a threat to society.” But generally speaking, Hollis is right: the current situation in this economy dampens the burden on the social security system, and even if its participants do not pay taxes, they create a public good – goods and services, not to mention the effective demand. In the book, the story understands now taking place in relation to the scale of urbanization in the Third World: the informal economy creates a transition zone, which allows new citizens to adapt to a new lifestyle. It is important that Hollis optimism has its limits: we can not say that he sees reality in pink. In the book he provides details and examples of London, and the slums of Mumbai, and that happens very rarely, he does not shy away from discussing issues traditionally left part of the agenda: income inequality, lefevrovskoe “right to the city” and the need for public spaces.

However, in this book, it is conceptually coherent detected a certain flaw. For work that Hollis calls the self-organizing complexity, requires a very high level of trust in society, it is called social capital. It is clear that the condition is not running anywhere, and at some point, the author asks: “Are we able to design a trust, how to build and simulate other forms of behavior in the city?” Hollis is not that does not see the problematic nature of this “we”. The book begins by describing several architectural projects like the Reichstag and London City Hall, designed to reduce the distance between citizens and government, the author expresses reasonable doubts that the spatial forms created new social dispositions. “The spirit of the city – he writes – is not extravagant public buildings or architectural innovations designed to act as intermediaries in the inner relations. Personality and character of the city formed a plurality of communication and relationships of people gathered on its territory. ”

Hollis offers not “build models of behavior,” and give them a place, assuming that the appropriate model in the community are already present. And it is to some extent of the rights, but we all know a fantastic company with a low level of mutual trust, in which the model described in the book, and if work is not so good. And quite a significant increase in the number of public spaces as if Moscow does not yet led to increased levels of self-organization and solidarity. The question arises: how exactly all of what Hollis says, should appear in the annex to Russia? Almost at the very beginning of the book it states that “almost all the cities of the world arose not by the will of kings founding or capricious gods, and thanks to the geographical and other circumstances.” But even this is not about us. As he wrote more Klyuchevskii Basil, “the majority of new cities and towns of the Moscow State did not arise as a result of the economic needs of the country, but due to reasons of State, by order of the Government.” Hollis makes the assumption that the crystallization process can encourage mutual trust, and then due to natural human inclinations, he will go by itself, you only need to create the conditions. It would be nice to see how these considerations apply to the reality in which we live – Russian readers of this book.

In the “city of good for you,” a lot of entertaining and instructive stories, one of which I want to bring the end. Hollis tells the story of the artist Stefan Sagmeister installation established in Amsterdam – one of the most liberal cities in the world. We are talking about a street collage of 250,000 coins laid out across the street in the form of the inscription “Obsession spoils my life, but it helps to work.” Artist and curator of the “intention to ensure free access to the collage that people interact with it on your own, – if some coin disappear, then so be it. The police, however, looked at the situation differently, and within 12 hours after the opening of the exhibition was declared the theft. By early morning the police had swept cents bags, organizers said that by doing so they “provide security” installation. ” The moral here is that the proposed Hollis approach would require, in addition to localization, more and answer the question: how to teach the police – to start at least in Amsterdam – to distinguish spontaneous order from disorder. There is no sense that there exists a right answer here and so, at times.

Let us hope that we – in the city, and the city “helps us to show our best qualities: in it we begin to trust each other and to think not only about themselves, become part of a large and complex whole.” Well, at least partly.

September 21, 2015 / Leo Hollis

Dear Saddiq Khan: an Open Letter


Dear Saddiq Khan

Congratulations on gaining the Labour nomination for the London Mayor. It couldn’t be a more important time to rethink the role of Mayor of London as well as the nature and identity of the city itself. London is undoubtedly one of the greatest cities in the world – on this we can agree with Boris Johnson – but despite this being MY city, the place where I was born, and the city in which I wish to raise my own children, London is cruel, brutish and unequal place.

On the one hand the city is named by estate agents and banks as an alpha plus plus city, second only to New York. This is a magnet for foreign investment, place to make healthy profits without too many questions and then have unenviable choice of ways of spending it. There are plenty of statistics that show that London is a honey trap for the world’s 1%, and that this is transforming the form and the everyday running of the city.

The recently published map by Private Eye that showed every leasehold and freehold deal done in the UK by offshore company between 2005 and 2014: makes for chastening exploration.   

For Boris, like Mayor Bloomberg in New York, attracting the rich was considered the best way to raise up the rest of the city. The metropolis would help itself from the top down. But this has been a failure – and you must not repeat the same urban myth-making. Instead of city making, this process has created an unfair and fragile city. In the last decade or so our home has become closed off, thus increasingly uncivil and – perhaps most dangerous – less sustainable.

London is certainly a great world city, but it is currently not great for everyone. Walk around this place we both call home and you can find the dreams of the city are transcribed across the constructors’ hoardings that encircle London’s building sites. These words turn the bricks, steel and glass that are emerging out from the guts of the earth, into unobtainable aspirations. They foretell of a home that shuts away all the travails of the metropolis, enveloped in luxurious comfort (because you are worth it); or a new office space that promises to be a crucible of Midas-like fortunes. They picture a future un-teathered from the complexities of the present.  

Where Kingsway meets Holborn, we are told to ‘Dream the Impossible Dream’. On Bishopsgate, on the east side of the financial centre, the ‘Unsquare Mile’ promises to be ‘flexible, creative work space.’ On the Isle of Dogs, we are told ‘It will feel like Venice and work like New York’. Hackney Square announces itself with a picture of two hipsters – the man with the requisite waxed moustache: ‘This is the Definition of Urban Living’. (What they are selling is a new development where once stood the Queen Elizabeth’s Children’s Hospital). And my favourite, the revolutionary workspace on the City Road: ‘White Collar Factory’.

Such dreams are, of course, a sleight of hand; they are a three card monte that shuffles in front our our eyes our desire for a place that we feel we deserve, the calculation that the ground beneath our feet is being measured, priced and sold, and the truth that the city that we call home is becoming ever more a place of inequality, risk and exclusion. Our common places have become complicated financial instruments, packaged up, priced and marketed; often without us even noticing until it is too late.

Most discussion of the future London are informed by the belief that, in order for the metropolis to be revived, it must be privatised; that the old, the unproductive, must be replaced, pushed out, in order to make way for the new and the economically productive. Every corner of the city, every moment of the day, must be made to be as profitable as possible. And according to the mantra of the free market, private ownership is the best route to add value, to make a space productive once more.  

Privatisation is proffered as the solution for how to improve quality of life. You can not open a newspaper without a story about the next calamity in the housing crisis, or how we are becoming more unequal, yet these are signals of a much deeper problem. London is living through a period of rapid enclosure: the spaces where we live our everyday lives are being measured, given a value, and sold to the highest bidder. This process of financialisation and privatisation turns a universal common wealth into a portfolio of assets, to be traded in a global market. This process has seeped into every corner of the city. It defines who is allowed to be part of the metropolis; it affects our relationships with each other, the places where we come together: home, work, public spaces and the corners that we hope to keep private.

In the end, the damage of this rampant enclosure is not to the fabric of the city but, more urgently, to us.

Growing inequality – unlike what Boris said – does not inspire innovation, but rather has a devastating impact on health, and the loss of trust that makes a city work. As the spaces of the city becomes divided, enclosed and privatised, so this has a damaging effect on how we live together. The loss of public space where we can come together, we lose the chance to become citizens, and this also have an effect on our creativity.  

These things are all connected by one question – that you must ask yourself as you start your campaign: who is London for? This is the key question as rich foreigners continue to invest in London real estate and never visit while at the same time thousands of families are forced to move out of the city by the very councils that were created to protect them. In April this was announced that 50,000 families had been sent out of the city since 2011. For others, the cost of living is becoming impossible as rents continue to rise as private landowners take more and more of the city.

Who is London For? This question sets out a commitment to a certain idea of the city? It forces us to consider the question of belonging – as a home, a social community, a place of potential flourishing, a set of behaviours that define citizenship. We must consider:

  • A place that is open to all.
  • A space of common wealth: a place that can be shared by all, for all.
  • a more social urbanism: where the city is designed and planned around people who live there rather than the other way around.

From this vital question, we can then consider the values that we believe make up a fairer city: equality, trust and sustainability.

Without a consideration of this social urbanism we can not really start to think – and rethink – the way the city runs: housing, transit, innovation and work, health and policing. It will help us understand how technology might be used to make the city more efficient rather than falling for the unthinking seductions of the smart city, or the internet of things. Undoubtedly, these innovations will change the city but they do not make up the city: we do.

In your campaign, start here. It will not provide every answer but it offers an idea of the city that can be good for us all. Thus we must always keep the key question: who is London for.

September 21, 2015 / Leo Hollis

London Vernacular


(This article appeared in Icon Magazine, September 2015)

Getting off the train at Stratford, you are offered two very distinctive versions of the newly regenerated neighbourhood. Head southwards, take the bridge that crosses over the tracks and within five minutes you reach the Carpenter Estate, a collection of council houses, organised around three 1967 tower blocks. The estate has been earmarked for demolition and today looks the worse for wear. The streets have been decanted of people in order to make room for new housing. The locals have not gone without a fight, arguing that the fabric of the traditional streets of brick houses is sound and that this place can still be home to a thriving community.

Return to the station and make one’s way through the bustle of Westfields towards the new housing areas within the Queen Elizabeth Park; here one finds a different story. This is the fastest growing housing development in the capital. By 2030 there will be homes for over 10,000 people. Each area has been renamed to infuse the once industrial ground into a buccolic idyll: East Village, Chobham Manor, Sweetwater, Pudding Mill. Much attention has been taken on the fabric of the new housing, according to the marketing material ‘contemporary homes taking lessons from London’s traditional Georgian and Victorian squares and terraces, looking out over parklands and waterways’.

Both places – the discarded Carpenters Estate and the new Olympolis developments – are expressions of London Vernacular. While one is criticised for being unfit for purpose, the other is raised as the answer to the modern Londoner’s desires for sophisticated design, public planning and convenient urban living. Why are they being treated so differently?

In the recent pamphlet from Urban Design London, ‘A New London Housing Vernacular’, authors David Birkbeck and Julian Hart, identify a change that has occurred in the last 5 years, wiping the colour and variety from the faces of the capital’s recent new developments. There are subtle additions and features: more homes on the ground floor with their own front doors, as well as less shared access space for the other residents. The elevations are predominantly faced with brickwork, punched with featureless, recessed windows. If there are balconies, they are also recessed and in brick. There is often semi-public private space in front of the building, but designed as shrub beds rather than a garden or play areas: green, planted non-space.

One of the principles of this new vernacular was a return to the Georgian syntax of the London street. This was partly dictated by City Hall. While Ken Livingstone encouraged increased density and large developments, Mayor Johnson was concerned that the drive for numbers reduced quality. This culminated in the 2009 London Housing Guide, that co-incided with the housing based credit crunch that swiftly double-downed into the Great Recession. The Guide emphasised the honest typography of traditional 19th century street, replacing the colour splash facades, barcodes, and wave feature roof with a restrained, almost blank face, ordered fenestration, and a parapet that often topping the recessed penthouse.

Was this a return to more simple or honest times – where new developments take on the utilitarian signature of interwar council housing? Perhaps, but also remember these were buildings created by developers, and as a result the London Vernacular is an expression of their reading of the market. What are they telling us about the future of the city?

Most clear is the importance of the reduction of risk, of sales, as well as design and construction. These new blocks are easier, and often cheaper, to build. This is an important factor as land prices continue to soar. These are buildings that offer satisfactions on the computer screen, the brickwork picked out in pixels, as well as in the marketing brochure. From the outside, it is impossible to say how the interior is organised: the size of the units, the number of bedrooms, therefore avoiding the embarrassments of luxury, in contrast to the flashy non-dom investment empty towers elsewhere in the city. Some of the flats might even be affordable housing, but you can’t tell from the outside.

The New London Vernacular is dictated by the developers to mitigate risk, rather than offer the ‘hard working Londoner’ the home of their dreams. Rather than appeal to homely desires of the buyer, its prioritised the developer’s ability frictionlessly to shift product. And this gets to the heart of the paradox of the neoliberal city. This doctrine suggests that the London of the 21st century is being redeveloped according to principles that offers the consumer infinite choice, but in fact we are offered acres of the same. As political economist William Davies noted when he walked around Stratford in 2014, it is not arbitrary that while the Carpenters Estate is deigned ‘inefficient’, its modern incarnation – new, regenerated East Village- fills the windows of the estate agents, marked as a good investment.
This is not laziness in the normal sense of the word. There is nothing lazy about the developer’s pursuit of a design that mitigates risk in pursuit of a 20% return for their investors. But their goals are longer aligned with those who have to live there afterwards. Rather, the developers display a sloth that Dante revealed in the fourth terrace of Purgatory: the moral laziness found in the failure of will or courage to pursue virtue. Rather than ‘city-making’, the idea of rebuilding the city, the New Jerusalem that inspired the Carpenters Estate (however flawed and unachieved), we are being sold the small beer of place-making, a short term strategy with narrow horizons.  London deserves more than that.  

August 20, 2015 / Leo Hollis

TEDx Ghent talk: Who is The City For?