Some notes and thoughts… haven’t quite had time to make these more coherent, but will try to do this soon!
This Sunday afternoon we attended an anti-gentrification walk around Elephant and Castle. The changes that are happening in this relatively small area are incredible. Huge new fancy apartment blocks have sprung up, including the giant tower – the Strata tower – with three wind turbines which stubbornly refuse to spin. And from the walk, we learned that there are many more towers planned for this area so that City workers are a ten minute cycle away from their work place. Of course this ‘development’ has completely ignored the local community that is already living there – not only does it ignore them, but it strives to create an urban environment that actively excludes them. In one new apartment block that had been built where there was a quota for social housing, the social housing flats had steel balconies in contrast to the other flats with their coloured wooden balconies – strikingly illustrating the intended segregation. In the Strata tower the social housing is on the lower floors and they have a separate lift from those wealthier residents living on the higher floors so that the two groups never come into contact with each other. And of course, when these new developments promise ‘affordable housing’ – the first question we must ask is ‘affordable for who?’
After walking our way around the new housing developments that are popping up around the Elephant and Castle roundabout and down the Walworth Road – all of which have adopted a bright colour scheme of oranges and greens which do make them quite striking – our final stop on the walk was the Heygate estate, which in contrast to all these brightly coloured new buildings is the grey concrete of the 1960s/1970s brutalist housing estates. This huge deserted estate is welcoming though. It’s incredible walking around the place. It feels slightly post-apocalyptic, but also uptopic…you can imagine how it may have once been, when the spacious and well built flats had residents living there. But also its current empty state seems full of potential, as one of the walk’s guides pointed out – they are trying to breathe life back into it by having bonfires and soups and out-door film screenings there. It feels exciting to think about how this space could be used. There is so much open space and lots of greenery that it feels like a refuge from the busy London streets. Yet, as well as potential, it seems a terrible waste of space and housing, to be left almost desolate. What about the people who lived here? What has happened to them now? What do they think of what has happened? There are signs warning of patrolling guard dogs and all the houses are covered with iron sheets to prevent squatters from entering. One fact which seems to sum up the feelings of waste and lost potential of this place is that the hundred of trees that are dotted around between the buildings are only reaching maturity now. Just as the architect’s vision was being realised, government policy and developers have decided that more money could be made from knocking down these homes with complete disregard for the lives that were lived here.
Of course, this process that is occurring in Elephant and Castle is happening all over London and other cities in the UK. A little way away in my home areas of Brixton and Stockwell rapid changes are occurring here as well. Change is not always a bad thing. But when the changes are implemented in the non-democratic and profit making manner that characterize these developments in Elephant and elsewhere then we must look and think critically about what is happening around us.
I’ve been on several radical walking tours of different parts of London in the past month. It’s an incredible way to see and learn about the city and capitalism and to think about what interventions we can make to reclaim our urban environment.