Transition tales #4: How things have changed

A tale of ‘two Londons’: from diversity to displacement

London – the first city to reach a population of more than one million in 1811. This simple, historical fact can be interpreted, in a metaphorical way, as a sign of the future city transformations. Currently seen as one of the ‘places to be’ in Europe, London is shaping itself as a megalopolis, taking in a vast number of new residents from across the UK and the world. Being so over-centralised in the current economy and the road to success in almost every field comes with a price for the city, and that price has got a label: ‘gentrification’.

As Ruth Glass (1964) predicted, the ‘competitive consumption’ driving London would in the end threaten its very own diversity and dynamism. This new process focused on the influx of the middle class in deprived, low-income neighbourhoods and quickly transformed into a recipe for real-estate development.

It is if you can’t go anywhere now without there being cranes breaking the horizon. Maybe that’s a good thing, I mean you just have to ask who is doing it and who for.’ Sir Antony Gormley

Gentrification became an easy strategy to implement change: emphasise artistic developments, point out the neighbourhood’s diversity, attract investors and add luxury loft residences. Interestingly enough, gentrification seems to put an end to the very ‘social diversity’ it celebrates. Displacement of the neighbourhood’s working-class, the transformation of its entire social character and the continuous rise of property prices are some of the sub-phenomenas that make people question: what is the price of gentrification? According to The Guardian, the price is quite substantial.

In a recent article on the displacement and rise of property value in London, they estimated that a top-end property that was around £5,000 seventy years ago, currently values up to £5m or £10m.

It cannot just be said that the top 1% are gaining at the expense of the 99%, which was never the whole truth. Now the 1% are themselves finding themselves overmatched by the 0.1% or the 0.01% or the 0.001%.’ The Guardian

The Guardian on gentrification

This substantial increase in prices is not limited to the central areas, it is spreading through-out the city. Neighbourhoods are ceasing to be places to live and are becoming spaces for consumption chains. The neighbourhood pubs where the bridge club would met and locals would have community evenings are replaced by gastro vegan wine bars. The once animated streets, with children playing and neighbours socialising are now empty at dusk and half opened at noon. Read the full article here.

All hail the new King’s Cross 

In the midst of all these transformations, London is facing one of its largest developments in the area of King’s Cross. A former industrial part of the city, by the 1970s it was the place to be for the underground London art scene and alternative life-style. Although equipped with a bad reputation, King’s Cross was a place where lives where lived, people had jobs, houses and life was affordable for the low-income residents.

King’s Cross in the 70s © Roger Perry

Now, under the label of ‘social diversity’, developers are aiming to make King’s Cross ‘feel like a piece of London’. The question then arises to which London are they referring to? Considering that the area is adjacent to central London, geographically speaking King’s Cross is already a piece of the city. The underlining goal however follows the same lines of gentrification: an upmarket development, whose facilities are for the high-educated, sophisticated middle-class with money. The transformation of King’s Cross is not only physical, it also changes its social character. The displacement of the neighbourhood’s working-class together with the spiralling house prices have residents questioning the very future of the city they live in.

King’s Cross official redevelopment plan

One of those residents is Antony Gormley. Currently one of the most renowned British artists, he started his journey in King’s Cross in the 70s, living for free in a house together with 22 other artist.

‘I squatted for seven years. How things have changed.’ Sir Antony Gormley

His story of London is very personal and possibly holds a romanticised image of the past. Still, through his views as an artist and a Londoner he highlights the same problem as researchers and journalists: London is loosing its vibrance and richness of cultures.

Watch the inspirational video below.

It has been argued by researchers that gentrification was inevitable. The decline of public housing in the favour of luxury condominiums, the increase of large commercial chains, shifts in economy, all these point towards an unavoidable outcome for the city: social division and exclusion. If we are to follow the perspective of gentrification being inevitable and unavoidably bad, what is the way in which we can manage and possibly change this course?

Transition tales

The stories we present reside at the intersection of planning, culture, politics and economics. We introduce a series of weekly uploads from a number of sources (conferences, interviews, summits), that offer a better image on the way cities are changing and what are the ideas behind this transitioning.

comments on this article
There are comments on this article
in London
comments on this article