Journeys through urban Britain talk

18 Jul

Last Friday I attended a brilliant talk at the British Library called ‘Journeys through Urban Britain’ featuring Owen Hatherley, Laura Oldfield-Ford, and Owen Jones discussing the politics of our urban landscape. My terrible memory and my note taking on a scrap of paper doesn’t really do justice to the discussion – but I thought it might be worth throwing out some of the points that were made.

Hatherley and Oldfield-Ford both reflected on their wanderings, observations, and experiences of London and further afield, whilst Jones was on hand with statistics and a historical context with which to situate the changes in British cities. The picture they painted of British cities today, which are descriptive of the politics, was indeed bleak as more and more boundaries are erected, public space lost, and people forced out of their areas but there have been moments of hope, especially in the last couple of years. The speakers described the student movements, Occupy, and the ‘euphoria’ of the riots as examples of ways in which cities can be lived in and created differently.

Here are some interesting things that I learnt:

‘There are too many people baking cupcakes’ LOF (cupcakes are the apotheosis of neoliberalism right? They promote individualism with the emphasis on everyone having to have their own tiny, perfect little cake rather than people enjoying slices from a big cake. You just can’t share a cupcake as they are the size of one mouthful. Communal cake eating and enjoyment is destroyed by cupcakes as people become preoccupied with having the daintiest, fanciest cupcake they can get to outdo everyone else’s. They’re also slightly creepy as they seem to hark back to and celebrate women’s incarceration in the kitchen in the 1950s in the name of ‘retro’. – me!)

The opening song for the Shard was ‘fanfare for the common man’

Inequality that is built into the Strata tower, in which there are separate lifts for social housing tenants at the bottom of the tower (so they don’t get the good views) and the rest of the tenants, reflects our unequal society– OJ

The drift ‘an important strategy to see how flows of the city have been re-ordered – to see how we can re-configure the urban space’ LOF

Walking around cities allows you to ‘see political processes at work…cracks are really obvious in British cities and that’s what my work brings out’. OH

What do the Tories want? ‘It’s a project of destruction rather than construction’. OH

Coin Street, a community trust housing development, is often held up (by the left?) as an example of how housing could be done, however, OH points out that actually it’s not as pleasant as it seems. They have strict vetting process for who is allowed to enter their ‘community’.

Cities and work

Seeing cities as places other than places of work

To do this – OH – need free time or a job that allows you to walk around the city.

The relationship between cities and work – ‘cities are giving us messages that we should work all the time, even when you’re relaxing having a coffee in Starbucks there’s a sign saying there is wi-fi’.


Woolwich after the riots – there was a sign up saying ‘back to business’ as if to say ‘we won’t learn anything’ OH

What does community mean? ‘the broom brigade showed how nasty and vicious the word community can be’ LOF

The future…?

Unison’s new building on the Euston road has social housing around the back of it, Hatherley would like to see unions getting more involved in housing.

‘I think when Westfield shopping centre is looted and burnt out, it would make a good social centre’. LOF


If these disjointed notes have piqued your interest – I reckon it would be well worth checking out their books (in LOF’s talk, she showed us drawings from her book and they were fantastic!) from your local library before the government tries to close it!

A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain, Owen Hatherley

Savage Messiah, Laura Oldfield-Ford

Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, Owen Jones


2 Responses to “Journeys through urban Britain talk”

  1. Alan Stanton July 18, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

    Great stuff! I’m really disappointed to have missed this discussion.

    But yes, your notes have got my interest. Especially for Laura Oldfield-Ford’s book which I hadn’t heard of. I’ve read Owen Hatherley and have his Guide to the New Ruins. This took me to lots of places – entertainingly and in good company – but left me without a clear idea of the direction he’s suggesting.

    Details: I didn’t understand the reference to the “broom brigade” showing “how nasty and vicious the word community can be”. I thought the people who showed up in Tottenham were well-intentioned. But perhaps not all of them have a clear picture of what happens here.

    Must read more about Laura O-F’s cupcake analogy.

    Best wishes,


    • izzykoksal July 19, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

      Hi Alan,

      thanks for your comment. Yes, I really want to read Hatherley’s book (and LOF’s) soon – if I get any ideas of what directions he’s suggesting, I’ll let you know!

      Re. the broom brigade – maybe I shouldn’t have put up this quote without the eloquent context that LOF provided – I’m sure some people were well intentioned, however, some of the broom brigade referred to the rioters as ‘scum’, ‘feral’ and ‘rats’ – as LOF put it, these were often middle class/yuppies people who had often just moved into an area and were defining themselves as the community and making these comments about working class people who had lived in the areas for a lot longer. That’s paraphrasing her, and she probably said it a lot more eloquently than that. I’ll see if my friend who attended it with me can remember any better and will get back to you!

      The cupcake rant was mine – I don’t know if LOF has written much more about cupcakes, I just loved her observation that too many people are baking them nowadays!

      All the best, Izzy

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