Tag Archives: London

Property guardians: when private security becomes precarious housing

By Mara Ferreri, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, Gloria Dawson, Independent researcher, and Alexander Vasudevan, University of Nottingham  

protects-by-occupation_2

Figure 1. Camelot’s ‘Protects by Occupation’ sign, North London. Source: M Ferreri

On 27 September 2016 a group of squatters occupied a vacant building in Shoreditch, East London. While not unusual in itself, the event was widely reported in local and national media because, with calculated irony, the occupiers had reclaimed the former headquarters of an international property security company, Camelot Europe. The company, with offices in six cities in the United Kingdom, specialises in a little-known yet growing form of property security through live-in guardians, also known as property guardianship. The squatters, who renamed the place ‘Camesquat’, hoped that the occupations would help “highlight the issues around property guardianship, and the rise in this new, precarious form of housing, first introduced to the UK by Camelot themselves” (SQUASH, 2016). So what are the issues with property guardianship and why do they matter for understanding contemporary cities?

Property guardianship (PG) is a relatively new form of insecure urban dwelling, existing in the grey area between informal occupation, the security industry, and housing. PG was first developed in the Netherlands by “anti-kraak” (anti-squat) companies in the 1990s and has since spread to other European countries, including France, Belgium, Germany and Ireland. Our paper ‘Living precariously: property guardianship and the flexible city’ is the first in-depth geographical study of PG in the UK that combines a study of the sector with an analysis of the lived experiences of guardians. Our research found that while until the mid-2000s the PG market in the UK had been dominated by large companies like Camelot, since the global financial crisis of 2007/2008 the sector has seen something of a boom. At least 22 out of 32 companies currently offering PG were founded after 2009 and growth in the sector is expected to continue. A high proportion of these companies operate mainly or exclusively in London, because of both a highly dynamic property market and high housing demand at a time of a double crisis of supply and affordability (Dorling, 2014).

As widely promoted by PG companies, the appeal to guardians is that of enjoying housing below market rent and often in central and ‘unusual’ locations, such as office blocks or civic buildings. However, guardians are bound by license agreements (not tenancies) that stipulate a number of restrictions on residents’ use of the premises, such as hosting friends overnight or having dependants, as well as a shorter notice period than a standard Assured Short-hold Tenancy agreement (AST). Crucially, as licensees, guardians do not enjoy exclusive possession of the buildings they inhabit (Hunter and Peaker, 2012) and are exposed to unannounced inspections and other forms of surveillance, and to the constant threat of having their licence terminated, leading to eviction. These conditions make living as a property guardian ambivalent and controversial, requiring a nuanced and qualitative approach to guardians’ rationales and experiences.

In our paper, we analyse these experiences through the narratives of guardians and their everyday precarious geographies. In-depth interviews with thirty-two long-term guardians in London reveal that choosing to live through PG can bring economic and professional advantages in a competitive job market. Guardians, who are often university educated, were able to change careers, afford unpaid or low-paid entry-level jobs or engage in further education. At the same time, everyday housing insecurity compounded by precarious work, exposed deep anxieties about the realities of ‘flexible urban living’, with many experiencing high levels of stress and the fear of being unable to leave a self-reinforcing cycle of precarity. In fact, critiques of the scheme are often met by guardians with resignation toward the lack of more secure alternatives, pointing to a much wider cultural and political acceptance of work and housing insecurity.

While the scheme so far only affects a minority of city dwellers, we argue that the logic underlying PG needs to be understood as an example of an emerging precarious subjectivity that has become normalised in response to wider dynamics of work and life precarisation in the global North. This normalization occurs alongside wider socio-economic shifts in urban centres. In London, in particular, guardians have been used to secure ‘unusual’ property in the context of a wider restructuring of the welfare state. For example, PG has been deployed by local government to secure council estates slated for demolition or privatisation (London Assembly, 2015), a process that further exacerbates the crisis of truly affordable housing in the capital. Our study of property guardianship shows the city as a site of intensified insecurity where uncertain work, life and housing co-constitute and reinforce new forms of urban precarity. While occupations such as Camesquat are useful in highlighting the iniquities that underpin PG, a geographical approach enables us to bring together a political economy critique with an understanding of the subjective dimension of the normalization of work and life insecurity in contemporary cities.

About the authors: Mara Ferreri is an urban researcher working at the intersection of human geography, politics and cultural theory, working at the Institut de Govern i Polítiques Públiques, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, Bellaterra (Barcelona), Spain;  Gloria Dawson is an Independent Researcher, based in Leeds; and Alexander Vasudevan is Associate Professor Cultural and Historical Geography at the University of Nottingham. 

References

books_icon Dorling, D. (2014). All that is solid: How the great housing disaster defines our times, and what we can do about it. London: Penguin UK.

books_icon Ferreri, M., Dawson, G. and Vasudevan, A. (2016), Living precariously: property guardianship and the flexible city. Trans Inst Br Geogr. doi:10.1111/tran.12162

books_icon Hunter, C. and Peaker, G. (2012) Who guards the guardians, Journal of Housing Law 297, 16.

books_icon London Assembly (2015) Knock it Down or Do it Up? The challenge of estate regeneration. London: Greater London Authority.

60-world2 Orbis Property guardians white paper 

60-world2 SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) (2016) Camesquat Press Release – 3 October 2016.

60-world2Taylor D 2016 London protesters occupy former HQ of property management firmThe Guardian Online 27 September 2016

 

Development Projects: Elite / Non-Elite Discourses

By Benjamin Sacks

Astana's futuristic city centre. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Astana’s futuristic city centre. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Civil projects constitute some of the most visible and symbolic actions of the state. Buildings, monuments, bridges, urban reorganisation, and dams, amongst nearly countless other programmes, can serve a wide array of functions: propaganda, potent displays of public resource allocation, political manipulation, civic pride, improvement of health, welfare, and education. Their development (usually) necessitates job growth, and their completion can do much to promote regional and national interests in the international community. Civil projects are also a near-universal behaviour. From Los Angeles’ expansion of its fledgling public transport system and the 2012 London Olympic Games, to Pyonyang’s infamous (and unfinished) Ryugyong Hotel, public projects can heavily influence local and global conceptions of national power, stability, priorities, and culture.

Who decides how a city – especially a national capital – is going to look? What image(s) of itself does the city want to project or obscure? Who gets a say, and who doesn’t? Natalie Koch (Syracuse University) tackled these questions in the most recent Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. In ‘Bordering on the modern: power, practice and exclusion in Astana’, Koch examined the remarkable creation and expansion of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet capital, which creatively, is Kazakh for capital. Long-serving president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s flagship programme, Astana has come to at once symbolise Kazakhstan’s meteoric rise as a regional power and the country’s increased notoriety as a centre of cultural creativity and experimentation, as well as an enduring example of the problems of (even relatively benevolent) authoritarian rule.

Scholars have been fascinated by the ‘Astana phenomenon’ since construction began on top of the small Soviet-era city of Tselinograd in the mid-1990s. Most recently, Charles E Ziegler, Isabelle Facon, and Jean-Pierre Cabestan, writing in Asian Survey, identified Astana’s successful 2010 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit as symbolically demonstrative of the city’s rising importance in Asian international affairs. But these specialists, by and large, have conceived of Astana in strictly ‘top-down’ terms, without examining how intricate sociopolitical negotiations between various factions continuously develop the city.

Koch’s approach is substantively different. In both ‘Bordering on the modern’ and a series of previous studies on Kazakhstan’s urban development, she has sought to recover the voices and desires of average Kazakhs, not just those who control the capital’s space age-looking skyscrapers and monuments (p. 433). To accomplish this goal, she identified and collected data from both elites and other urban actors to paint the most comprehensive image of Astana’s development culture we yet have.

Cities, by their very nature, are constructed of borders and bordering. These borders are not the traditional rigid, red-coloured lines we usually see in atlases, but rather active, discursive, processes of inclusion and exclusion, acceptance and ‘othering’. When particular (group)s press for change, redevelopment, expansion, or shifts, they are attempting to redefine who and what gets accepted or othered. When Nazarbayev’s engineers set out to erect a new capital for a newly-independent state, they didn’t entirely know what they wanted to achieve. They did know, however, what they wanted to ‘other’: Astana would not be a Soviet city. Ironically, the elites who designed and funded the first, new wave of capital construction drew on Soviet-influenced models to establish a distinctly non-Soviet city:

[T]he Astana project draws on similar visions and has been an important site for enacting Nazarbayev’s vision of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet modernity. And yet, these elites are heavily influences by a distinctly Soviet-era understanding of the ‘city’ – in terms of both its function and its symbolism (p. 434).

With that in mind, however, Kazakh elites also used this opportunity to raze thousands of poor Kazakhs’ samannyi, or mud-brick buildings that had been built on Tselinograd’s periphery. Both Soviet practices of architectural standardisation and low-income housing were deemed incompatable with Nazarbayev’s vision of a culturally representative, deliberately eclectic urban aesthetic. This development would suggest that elites have simply imposed a top-down reinvention of Kazakhstan’s capital, but the truth is more complex and interesting than that. Even as Kazakhstan deals with the many problems of capitalism without significant democratic liberalisation – a conundrum that promotes a rich, powerful oligarchy at the expense of relatively poor masses – many city spaces are being designed with the collective public in mind. Malls, in particular, serve as a popular social rendezvous, even for those without sufficient means to purchase many of the higher-end products sold in their stores. Architects are gradually accepting this social phenomenon, creating indoor/outdoor fixtures that promote social interaction.

Nevertheless, much of Astana’s middle- and poorer-classes increasingly resent the iinordinatecontrol of Astana’s elite over the city’s future political and cultural directions. Fault lines divide Astana between ‘northerners’ (traditional, ‘Russified’ urbanites), and ‘southerners’ (rural and recently urbanised Kazakhs), who wrangle for political and financial power, redistributing funds to their own, respective urban projects and political balances shift (p. 438).

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See special issue of Asian Survey 53.3 (May-Jun., 2013).

books_icon Koch N, ‘Bordering on the modern: power, practice and exclusion in Astana‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 39 432-43.

Spatial and Local Factors in Understanding Financial Crises

By Benjamin Sacks

Picturesque Pforzheim, Germany belies local and regional financial woes. (c) 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Picturesque Pforzheim, Germany belies local and regional financial woes. (Image credit: Parlacre (CC 0)

Geography, economics, and finance are intimately linked disciplines, a relationship that is sometimes misunderstood or ignored entirely by contemporary media. Port access, weather, spatial and network relations between various tiers of government, private sector businesses, and third-party (e.g. academic) institutions, even the positioning of financial headquarters – as recent threats from Standard Life and Lloyds to relocate from Edinburgh to London in the event of Scottish independence demonstrate – can all drastically affect financial markets, long-term monetary stability, and the ability of particular precincts or sectors to recover from such recessions as the 2008-2010 global financial crisis.

In the most recent suite of articles in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Reijer P Hendrikse (University of Amsterdam) and James D Sidaway (National University of Singapore) undertook a focused study of Pforzheim, a German city of some 120,000 people in Baden-Württemberg, near the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. In ‘Financial wizardry and the Golden City’, Hendrikse and Sidaway critiqued the media’s focus on national-level bailouts, arguing that provincial- and city-level bailouts and financial negotiations were just as, if not more important to comprehending both the scale of the 2008-2010 crisis as well as possible solutions. Further, they recalled and adopted David Harvey’s 2011 argument criticising French and German media pundits and financial analysts alike who saw ‘the crisis in cultural or even nationalist terms’; as somehow a ‘distinctive Anglo-Saxon disease’ based in London and New York City.

The authors chose to examine Germany, in part, because of that country’s apparent economic stability in the face of difficult industrial and economic issues in neighbouring Eurozone states. Berlin famously directed the bailout of several EU member states: Greece, Portugal, and Spain. But a closer examination revealed a significantly more complex and debt-ridden landscape. Various German cities were ‘like Greek islands within Germany’, Die Tageszeitung reported, ‘having slowly but surely drowned in their debts over recent years’ (p. 195). Pforzheim, following a trend blazoned by other cities in the Rhine heartland, bought a large series of Deutsche Bank interest-rate swaps. This speculative maneuvre, popular in the world of hedge funds and day-trading currency exchanges, permits institutions (e.g. a city) to obtain a more cost-efficient fixed-rate interest arrangement enjoyed by another corporation. Ideally, both parties benefit from reduced interest-rate-associated costs. However, the risks are highly variable, and dependent on the financial stability of both parties. As A R Sorkin described, and Hendrikse and Sidaway reiterated, German cities were ‘gambling that [their] costs would be would be lower and taking on the risk that they could be many times higher’ (p. 196).

Theoretically, Pforzheim should have been a model city. After enduring a horrific bombing campaign near the end of the Second World War, Pforzheim’s economic base recovered, thanks to longstanding jewelry and watchmaking industries in the city. But Pforzheim’s geographical location limited its growth. The city shares Baden-Württemberg with Stuttgart, Heidelberg, and Mannheim, each major cities with significant economic and political clout. These cities traditionally attracted major corporations away from such smaller, more specialised urban centres as Pforzheim. Although the financial stresses of the late-2000s put pressure on all German cities, smaller, less economically vibrant communities suffered significantly worse. A Pforzheim administrator summarised the city’s awkward geostrategic situation: ‘We are a jewelry- and watchmaking city that has brought a relatively mono-structured economy’, more sensitive to economic shifts than larger, more diverse cities as Frankfurt-am-Main and Cologne (pp. 198-99). In a dangerous game of financial roulette, Pforzheim and other small German cities engaged in increasingly complicated and risky collaborations with German and EU financial institutions – unaware of these banks’ own instabilities. Pforzheim’s recession, the authors concluded, was demonstrative of how integrated German and continental European financial markets are to Anglo-Saxon banking paradigms, even as they continue to assert a supposedly distinct, fiscally conservative methodology and culture.

60-world2Robert Peston, ‘EU Law may force RBS and Lloyds to become English‘, BBC News, 5 March 2014.

60-world2Robert Peston, ‘Is Standard Life alone?‘, BBC News, 27 February 2014.

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Reijer P Hendrikse and James D Sidaway, ‘Financial wizardry and the Golden City: tracking the financial crisis through Pforzheim, Germany‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39 (2014): 195-208.

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David Harvey, ‘Roepke lecture in economic geography – crises, geographical disruptions and the uneven development of political responses’, Economic Geography 87 (2011): 1-22.

books_iconA R Sorkin, ‘Towns in Europe learn about swaps the hard way’, The New York Times 16 April 2010.

Shock of the Global: Post-War Britain and Globalisation

A 'make do and mend' poster, c.1942.

A ‘make do and mend’ poster, c.1942.

by Benjamin Sacks

The Second World War permanently altered Britain’s relationship with the rest of the globe. Before 1939 the empire, particularly India and the settler colonies, dominated Britons’ conceptions of international affairs. But nearly six years of global conflict incontrovertibly changed this mindset. Isolated from its dominions by Axis submarines, ‘austerity’ Britain quickly adopted severe rationing and a ‘make do and mend’ approach. Gardening, raising small animals, and comprehensive recycling and reusing of countless household items became part-and-parcel of daily life. The British government and various civil organisations promoted the ‘local’, not the ‘global’ (to borrow sociologists George Ritzer’s and Roland Robinson’s terminology), prioritising national entrepreneurship and ingenuity over importing and exporting of goods.

This radically – and painfully – changed after 1945. India and Pakistan’s independence in 1947 catalyzed the empire’s irreversible (but relatively ordered) disintegration. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as fierce economic competitors, with considerably greater physical resource assets. At home, voters ousted Winston Churchill in favour of Labour Party leader Clement Atlee, who promised to refocus government policies on domestic social welfare. Internationally, Britain was forced to contend with a radically-changing marketplace. By the 1950s, it was increasingly evident that it could no longer solely rely on domestic production and inter-Commonwealth trade to both satisfy consumer demand and maintain the state’s strong international profile.

In ‘Fill the ships and we shall fill the shops: the making of geographies of manufacturing’, Thomas Birtchnell (University of Wollongong) skillfully demonstrates how – in short order – the Board of Trade, private businesses, and public organisations sought to re-educate consumers and producers alike of the global marketplace. They widely circulated such advertisements as ‘how can cycles sent to Africa fetch us cotton from U.S.A.?’ (1947) (p. 437). Officials popularised a “container-ship culture” in schools, trade and commercial magazines, and businesses in an effort to ramp up exports and imports of both raw materials and finished goods. Birtchnell recalled how social economist Karl Polanyi’s 1944 study, The Great Transformation, was trumpeted to promote Britain’s long history of international trade alongside other ‘economic propaganda’ campaigns (pp. 437-438).

To accomplish this goal, the Board of Trade and its allies tapped into a culture of consumerism and luxury that had persisted despite the war’s enormous pressures. At partial odds with Guy de la Bédoyère’s 2005 study The Home Front, Birtchnell proposes that Britons were at first exorted to produce and export advanced luxury items (e.g. radios, clothing, automobiles) in exchange for essentials. But this found little favour with British audiences, who had quietly clamoured for higher-end goods during the war, and now demanded their availability in the post-war environment. From 1947 the language changed: the Board of Trade instead promoted the export of British goods in exchange for foreign luxuries – silks, perfumes, electronics, foodstuffs. Such historians as Llewellyn Woodward promoted this programme via their writings; in 1947 he pronounced that ‘An English housewife finds it odd that English china to match a tea-set shattered in the Blitz can be bought in New York but is not on sale in London’ (p. 439). Birtchnell’s study is a fascinating contribution to our knowledge of Britain’s immediate post-war recovery, and hints as well at how Britain’s manufacturing base gradually switched from mass production to luxury, bespoke goods.

books_icon Thomas Birtchnell 2013 Fill the ships and we shall fill the shops: the making of geographies of manufacturingArea 45.4: 436-42.

Also see:

books_icon George Ritzer 2004 The Globalization of Nothing (Thousand Oaks, CA and London: Pine Forge Press).

books_icon Llewellyn Woodward 1947 Middle EnglandForeign Affairs 25.3, 378-87.

 

 

Gibraltar: The Fortune of Location

by Benjamin Sacks

'The Rock' looms large in political and geographical discourse. © 2013 Wikimedia Commons.

‘The Rock’ looms large in political and geographical discourse. © 2013 Wikimedia Commons.

As is the case every few years, Gibraltar recently returned to many newspapers’ front pages as London and Madrid exchanged heated words over the British-controlled territory. Speaking to reporters after meeting with Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, Prime Minister David Cameron stated that ‘the UK would always stand up for the British territory and the interests of its people’. Spain’s Foreign Minister, Jose Manuel-Margallo, responded that Gibraltar ‘is, has been and will be a national priority’. But why?

Gibraltar is an oddity amongst the world’s remaining colonial possessions. A tiny peninsula, only part of which is habitable thanks to a 1,398-ft limestone promontory, Gibraltar and its environs have been contested by various European and North African empires for a millennium, each seeking control of ‘The Rock’s’ ideal position at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea. Today, it remains an occasionally emotional source of tension between two states otherwise intimately allied via NATO, the European Union, and almost countless cultural and economic relationships. Its remarkable physical and topographical geography has long fascinated explorers and politicians alike. Pero López de Ayala, a fourteenth century chronicler and counselor, described it as possessing near-mythical qualities: ‘With uplifted hands he [Ferdinand IV] gave thanks to Providence for the reduction [from the Moors] under his dominion of a Rock and Castle so important, and almost impregnable’. Alexander Von Humboldt described Gibraltar’s prehistoric formation at the rupture between Eurasia and Africa as ‘ante-historical, or far beyond any human tradition’, a point to which, in 1867, then-Royal Geographical Society president Sir Roderick Impey Murchison agreed. H T Norris intertwined Gibraltar and its central position with the vivid, exotic life and travels of fourteenth century Arab explorer Ibn Battūtah, who described the peninsula in lush prose:

I walked round the mountain and saw the marvellous works executed on it by our master (the late Sultan of Morocco) Abu’l-Hassan, and the armament with which he equipped it, together with the additions made thereto by our master (Abū ‘Inān), may God strengthen him, and I should have like to remain as one of its defenders to the end of my days. 

Spain formally ceded Gibraltar to Great Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) – a peace which recognised the latter’s global ascendancy over the former’s empire. The Rock rapidly became a byword for British imperial power, the supposed stability of ‘Pax Britannica’, and – just as importantly – a slogan for the Empire’s geographical extremes. Scholars, explorers, and entrepreneurs turned to Gibraltar (or, at the very least, its image) to describe similar oceanic passages, strategic outposts and, albeit more recently, territorial-colonial disputes. ‘The best parallel I can give to tidal observation of Barrow Strait’, Sherard Osborn, for instance, argued in 1873, is that of the strait of Gibraltar…where the flood-tide flows into two enclosed seas from the Atlantic Ocean’. H H Johnston, visiting Stanley’s way stations along the Congo River, borrowed the colony’s importance and meaning to describe Franco-Italian competitor Pietro Paolo De Brazza’s attempts to control the Congo region:

Should De Brazza ever reach the Congo in his present expedition, and succeed in establishing himself at Mfwa, it is rumoured that he would like to take Calina Point and make it the Gibraltar of the [Stanley] Pool, and then with this fortified post and the station of Mfwa opposite he would be able to close, if necessary, the mouth of Stanley Pool where it commences to narrow into the rushing lower portion of the Congo.

In 1915, P M Sykes similarly invoked The Rock to describe Kala Márán, a mountain near the village of Pá Kala in Persia.

Gibraltar’s position extended far beyond the Mediterranean and European Atlantic. It proved to be an ideal replenishing site for expeditions in Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and, after the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Indian Ocean. Writing in The Geographical Journal months before the outbreak of the First World War, Rudyard Kipling reduced the Britain-to-India route to four essential steps: ‘London-Gibraltar; Gibraltar – Port Said; Port Said – Aden; Aden – Bombay’. Its pivotal location also greatly aided British and allied efforts during the First and Second world wars, and in a number of Cold War-era conflicts, including Suez, Aden, Malaya, Dhofar, and the Falklands.

The Royal Geographical Society was quick to discuss the Gibraltar issue following Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s decision in 1969 to close the border with the British colony. That year, John Naylon described how Spain intended to recover Gibraltar via the creation of an economic and social development around the peninsula: the so-called Campo de Gibraltar. Madrid indeed invested in the region’s growth, but Gibraltar steadfastly refused to revert to Spain.

books_icon Gilbard, G J, 1881, A Popular History of Gibraltar, Its Institutions, and Its Neighbourhood on Both Sides of the Straits, and a Guide Book to Their Principal Places and Objects of Interests, London, 52.

books_icon Kipling, R, 1914, ‘Some Aspects of Travel‘, The Geographical Journal43.4: 365-75.

books_icon Johnston, H H, 1883, ‘A Visit to Mr. Stanley’s Stations on the River Congo‘, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, New Monthly Series, 5.10: 569-81.

books_icon Murchison, R I, 1867, ‘Address to the Royal Geographical Society‘, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London37: cxv-clix.

books_icon Naylon, J, ‘The Campo de Gibraltar Development Plan’, Area

books_icon Norris, H T, 1959, ‘Ibn Battūtah’s Andalusian Journey‘, The Geographical Journal125.2: 185-96.

books_icon Osborn, S, 1873, ‘On the Probable Existence of Unknown Lands within the Arctic Circle‘, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London17.3: 172-83.

books_icon Sykes, P M, 1915, ‘A Seventh Journey in Persia‘, The Geographical Journal45.5: 357-67.

60-world2 ‘On This Day: 1982: Spain’s Rock Blockade Ends‘, BBC News. 

60-world2 ‘Gibraltar: Talks on sovereignty discounted by UK and Spain’BBC News, 3 September 2013.

The Target of Tall Buildings: The Shard Climb Protest

by Jen Turner

278px-The_Shard

In a 2007 Area article Igal Charney explains the politics surrounding debates over the building of structures in London.  Challenging the well-established planning practices in central London,  a handful of very tall buildings were approved in the area after 2000.  Although conservation groups had their concerns, Charney reports how these were quickly dismissed by then London Mayor Ken Livingstone in an acknowledgement of the merits associated with iconic architecture and high-profile architects.   Stressing the significance of high-quality design and iconic architecture helped to wear down deep-rooted antagonism and to channel the debate to improving the aesthetic qualities of London, a goal that enjoys wide consensus.

However, these tall buildings have come to be seen as much more than simply aesthetic additions to the skyline. In many cases, they have become sites for political protest. Last week, six Greenpeace activists were arrested after climbing to the top of London’s Shard . The women were later arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass after their ascent on Thursday 11 July in protest against Arctic oil drilling.

The women evaded security guards to begin their climb in the early morning. Finally, upon reaching the summit of skyscraper after 16 hours of climbing, two of them unfurled a blue flag with Save the Arctic written on it. They said the protest was intended to put Shell and other oil companies in the spotlight and they live streamed the stunt. As the protesters reached the summit, Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said: “It is an honour to stand here at the foot of Europe’s highest building and witness this remarkable achievement by these women.

The actions of last week are emblematic of a wider discourse surrounding the significance of these sites of vertical magnitude as landscapes of power.  On August 7 1974, a young Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire illegally rigged between the twin towers of the World Trade Center – New York’s tallest buildings – and danced about on the tight-rope for over an hour to fulfil a long-standing desire to ‘conquer’ these tall buildings. More than this, no one can disregard the significance of the September 11 2001 attacks, which saw these buildings destroyed with terrorist motive.  Activities such as these, from the seemingly innocuous conquering of a building, to the horrific targeting of 9/11 illustrate the importance of tall buildings as aesthetic pleasures, but also landscapes of power.

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Igal Charney (2007) The politics of design: architecture, tall buildings and the skyline of central London Area 39 2 195-205.

Mapping Class

By Benjamin Sacks

Five Boys

Conceptions of class remain inseparable from contemporary society, according to a BBC-commissioned study. The Great British Class Survey, undertaken by the BBC’s Lab UK and faculty at LSE, University of Manchester, University of York, City University London, Universitetet i Bergen, and Université Paris Descartes, surveyed 161,000 people across the British Isles. The study’s authors argued that ‘class’, as twentieth century writers tended to define it, was ‘too simplistic’.  Rather than an equation of ‘occupation, wealth and education’, class was actually formulated around ‘economic, social and cultural’ dimensions, of which the traditional structure only formed a part. Along with the traditional classes – elite/upper class, middle class (itself a category distinct from US conceptions), and working class – new divisions had arisen: technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, or ‘precariat’, the authors’ term for ‘precarious proletariat’. Predictably, the study’s publication catalysed a diverse range of media responses. The Financial Times reminded its readers of how deeply entrenched class was in British history. Tristram Hunt recalled William Harrison’s 1577 Description of England: there were ‘four degrees of people’, led by ‘those whome their race or blood or at least their virtues doo make noble and knowne’. A letter to The Guardian compared it to the hierarchy used by the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification scheme (NS-SEC). The Guardian itself wondered whether the new hierarchy was more reflective of the television programme ‘The Wire‘ rather than of British society.

Critics aside, the BBC survey indicated the continuing influence of class, whether desired or not, in shaping how different people think, act, speak, travel, and shop. Geographers have long been aware of the role and perception class played in British and international cultures. Indeed, in 1995, Gary Bridge (Rodney Lodge) called for a standardised, ‘consistent application of class analysis’ when examining urban and rural gentrification. In a 2004 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers study, Anthony J Fielding (University of Sussex) documented the spatial organization of Japanese cities by class. Critiquing previous, recent accounts that suggested that Japan’s rapid, postwar capitalist transformation had erased, or at least minimised cities’ ‘social geography’ (defined by Fielding as the distinction of classes or groups in space), Fielding used GIS programming to visually and textually demonstrate how major cities have, in fact, been organised by class and social standing, as is the case in most European and North American cities. Interestingly (and importantly) however, through the collection of mapping of this aggregate data, he suggested that the degree of spatial ‘segregation’ was generally lower than in the West. Comparing Kyoto and Edinburgh, Fielding proposed that the former’s spatial organisation was different, and it experienced a lower, but still quite identifiable level of segregation (p. 83). Indeed, Fielding’s study of Japan implicitly mirrored Jon May’s study, also from the University of Sussex, seven years previously. In the 1996 study, May, evidently fatigued from ‘theoretical literature’ on London’s complex social dynamic, created visual and textual maps of Stoke Newington (p. 195).

Class, it almost goes without saying, infected the storied halls of Lowther Lodge. For some two decades at the turn of the twentieth century, the Royal Geographical Society had debated whether to elect women to the fellowship (women had applied for admission as early as 1847, but the issue was not seriously considered until the 1890s). If women were to be admitted, as Morag Bell (Loughborough University) and Cheryl McEwan (Durham University) recalled, then, as the debaters proceeded to argue, they must be of the right social and economic standing. Returning to more recent issues, JoAnn McGregor posited the rapid growth of Britain’s Zimbabwean community within class ‘differences and identities’, in a fascinating shift from more mainstream studies of Robert Mugabe-era emigration. Regardless of whether the BBC survey has lasting impact, geographers will continue to observe, critique, and play with class.

60-world2 ‘Huge survey reveals seven social classes in UK‘, BBC News, 3 April 2013, accessed 7 April 2013.

60-world2 Tristram Hunt, ‘The rise of the precariat and the loss of collective sensibility‘, Financial Times, 7 April 2013, accessed 7 April 2013.

60-world2 David Rose and Eric Harrison, ‘Little solidarity over the question of social class‘, The Guardian, 5 April 2013, accessed 7 April 2013.

60-world2 Paul Owen, ‘BBC’s seven social classes: The Wire version‘, The Guardian, 4 April 2013, accessed 7 April 2013. 

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books_icon Gary Bridge, 1995, The Space for Class? On Class Analysis in the Study of GentrificationTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 20.2, 236-47.

books_icon Anthony J Fielding, 2004, Class and Space: Social Segregation in Japanese CitiesTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 29.1, 64-84.

books_icon Jon May, 1996, ‘Globalization and the Politics of Place: Place and Identity in an Inner London Neighbourhood‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 21.1, 194-215.

books_icon Morag Bell and Cheryl McEwan, 1996, The Admission of Women Fellows to the Royal Geographical Society, 1892-1914; the Controversy and the Outcome‘, The Geographical Journal 162.3, 295-312.

books_icon JoAnn McGregor, 2008, ‘Abject Spaces, Transnational Calculations: Zimbabweans in Britain Navigating Work, Class and the Law‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 33.4, 466-82.