Pandemic cities: how will coronavirus shape urban life?

Empty streets in Seattle
Cycling through Seattle’s empty streets. Photograph: courtesy of TIA International Photography
The impact of THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC is dramatically affecting cities around the world – but what will it mean for their future? By Francesca Perry

While the novel coronavirus pandemic affects us all, cities – the high-density centres of population – exhibit the impacts in extreme ways. As with most disasters, from climate change to war, the poor and the vulnerable are hardest hit. As concentrated beacons of a society that is persistently unequal, cities inevitably have inequality written into their DNA. The Covid-19 pandemic has both highlighted and heightened these urban inequalities in countries all around the globe.

This is undoubtedly the key issue to address as we tackle the crisis and look to recover from it. But it is worth taking a look at how exactly coronavirus is shaping urban life, and what short- and long-term impacts it might have on how our cities should, or could, work. Here’s a roundup of some of the key themes and the best stories that have emerged so far.

Ghost towns

London’s typically heaving Piccadilly Circus deserted in April. Photograph: Ella Whiteley

Around the world, city streets are deserted. Crowds and traffic have disappeared. Tourists don’t come and most residents stay at home. Police patrol the open spaces. What started as jokes about urban commuters wearing face masks, has transformed into something altogether more surreal, even dystopian. Photo galleries show deserted cities in the wake of the pandemic, from Caracas to Dubai to Seattle.

Photojournalist Franco Pagetti’s video – Milan, a City Closed – documents the hardest-hit Italian metropolis under quarantine, capturing it empty and eerily silent. “Here in the deserted city, there are no sounds, only noises,” Pagetti tells the New Yorker. For some, the empty cityscapes might feel like sweet relief from endless congestion. But for most, seeing people vanish from cities is a stark reminder of how unprecedented this threat is, and how it holds the power to change urban life irrevocably.

Pollution and transport

Delhi before and after: interactive sliders on the Guardian

With mass closures and stay-at-home orders, the need to commute or travel around cities has decreased dramatically. That means a big decline in public transport usage. Some major hubs like London, Rome and Bangkok have limited their networks while others like Delhi, or Wuhan – the centre of the outbreak – shut down public transport altogether.

But it also means far fewer vehicles are on the roads. This, with the added reduction of flights and other forms of polluting transport, has led to a staggering drop in air pollution globally. The difference made in cities – especially those that typically struggle with traffic and air quality – has been illuminating. You need only step outside to see, smell, and breathe the difference. 

Cycling has seen a bump in popularity. New York City, Mexico City, and Bogotá, among others, rolled out “emergency” cycleways to boost bicycle use. Some cities have closed roads to traffic in order to give people more space to safely cycle as well as walk and run. Despite being temporary measures, hopefully those decision-makers will act on lessons learned, enhancing pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in their cities, while those encouraged to bike or walk will continue to favour these emission-free transport modes in the future.

Find this interactive chart on Quartz

Public transport – cities’ key method of sustainable travel – will struggle to attract back users even once social distancing measures are over, however. “There’s good reason to suspect that the return of previous [public transport] riders could take a year or more,” writes Jarrett Walker in CityLab. As crowded spaces have become synonymous with danger, persistent fears of contagion may encourage more use of personal transport. If that means bicycles, great, but in most cases it will inevitably mean cars – and lots of them.

Once the pandemic subsides, investments should be made to ensure public transport is kept clean and safe, but measures may also need to be taken to limit car usage. Otherwise, we run a large risk of moving from one devastating crisis back to another: namely, the climate crisis, which could well be exacerbated by a kneejerk reaction of a “return to normal life”.

Now is an urgent time to reevaluate our lifestyles and our actions. Cars cannot rule cities again. Before and after photographs of cities suddenly free of toxic pollution should be a blueprint for the future, not just a wake-up call. “The coronavirus could be the shock required to reclaim the streets for people, accelerating a trend already taking place around the world,” Andrea Sandor writes in CityMetric.

Public space

Police tape prevents access to an outdoor gym in a London park. Photograph: Francesca Perry

The pandemic-triggered lockdowns have instilled a new fear of public space, bringing with it potential proximity to strangers – the very thing most city planners design for. But our public spaces have also become more surveilled, patrolled and controlled. Public parks – which typically welcome an inclusive array of citizens, allowing us to connect to nature and interact with each other – have been shut down in many cities. “Once parks are closed, opening them back up will be harder,” writes Zeynep Tufekci in The Atlantic.  “Authorities may dig in their heels and the issue may become more polarising.”

In the resulting requirement of isolation, pandemics are “anti-urban”, explains New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman: “[Pandemics] exploit our impulse to congregate. And our response so far – social distancing – not only runs up against our fundamental desires to interact, but also against the way we have built our cities and plazas, subways and skyscrapers. They are all designed to be occupied and animated collectively.”

Public space and the right to protest. Photograph: Francesca Perry

There are “two contrasting futures for urban life” after the coronavirus, writes Janan Ganesh in a powerful Financial Times piece. “In the sanguine version, people liberated from their homes re-form the great pullulating mass that has been shooed from the streets and sequestered of late … In [another], a meaningful number of people never regain their trust in random contact.”

When Covid-19 cases finally decline and social distancing is relaxed, it’s vital we don’t carry forward this fear of, or aversion to, shared space and public togetherness. But there is also a serious worry that governments and authorities will extend new surveillance measures and enact stricter public space controls, citing the pandemic, which could lead to more restricted use and – critically – further clampdowns on congregations and mass protests. 

Mental health, civic voice, community building and equitable societies rely on inclusive, active public space. Essentially, well-functioning cities rely on it. Some lucky few may have their own gardens, but most rely on this shared outdoor realm – psychologically, physically and politically.

High streets

Closed businesses in Melbourne. Photograph: Francesca Perry

With shops, cafes, restaurants and other businesses forced to shut indefinitely, many face permanent closure. What this means for high streets and local economies – already struggling in an age of online ordering – could be devastating. How do we ensure that the lifelines of neighbourhoods are not lost? Benefit packages and support schemes have been announced in some countries aiming to help protect small businesses – but it may not be enough.

Community

A community board for neighbours to communicate and share in a time of distancing. Photograph: Athlyn Cathcart-Keays

One silver lining of lockdowns, quarantines and stay-at-home orders has been the mobilisation of community aid groups and neighbours willing to help one another, not to mention the mutual singing and clapping happening from doors, windows and balconies as local residents interact like never before.

Lists of mutual aid groups in London and New York, for example, reveal the extent of such activity happening globally, but there is so much more beyond official initiatives. Across Washington DC, “small neighbourhood militias are forming – militias of kindness, assistance and caring,” reports Petula Dvorak in the Washington Post. In Berlin, local fences have turned into sharing platforms where neighbours hang items such as clothes and food for others who might need them. In Chicago, a teen group that normally works to fight violence is helping the elderly get essential products like hand sanitizer. In Nottingham, an ad-hoc community board enables residents to communicate, share and collaborate at a safe distance.

While it shouldn’t take a crisis to see an uptick in community spirit, many hope the legacy of these networks and connections will remain long after the pandemic has subsided. But the likelihood of that is another issue: “Whether such groups survive beyond the end of coronavirus to have a meaningful impact on our urban future depends, in part, on what sort of political lessons we learn from the crisis,” writes Jack Shenker in the Guardian.

Housing

The Reclaiming Our Homes movement in LA. Photograph: courtesy of Reclaiming Our Homes

As many are confined to their homes, so the issue of housing inequality has become more pronounced. It’s too ambitious to hope this crisis could provide the stimulus to properly tackle low-quality housing, homelessness and unaffordability, but various buds of housing innovation are blossoming.

Stopgap measures like suspension of evictions and emergency shelters for the homeless show what’s possible, and in turn are being harnessed as tools in campaigns for housing justice. In Los Angeles, the pandemic has catalysed an activist movement making vacant homes available at affordable prices. In short-term urgency, a group of homeless and housing-insecure people from the Reclaiming Our Homes campaign occupied publicly owned vacant houses in the El Sereno neighbourhood.

There has been speculation that the inevitable reduction of Airbnb usage has triggered a spike in long-term rentals, as owners are no longer able to rent their homes out on the short-stay platform. Although in theory this would increase housing availability and drive prices down, it’s too early to tell what shifts are taking place. “Whether long-term units flip back to short-term is the looming question,” writes Brian Feldman in New York Magazine. “Still, the crisis is a wake-up call for people making big bets on platforms like Airbnb – those who signed 20 leases with the intent of keeping them continually booked, or those who took out large bank loans to buy condos and remodel them as ‘ghost hotels.’”

The density debate has also resurfaced, as some argue for cities to stop building high-density housing to prevent such rapid spread of disease. Plans in California to increase the number of high-density buildings to alleviate the housing crisis have recently lost support due to the perception the typology has exacerbated the coronavirus spread. We’ve seen this condemnation of housing density many times before. But well-designed, well-managed, high-density housing is not a danger in and of itself, and a turning away from it will only exacerbate the housing crises faced by cities all over the world. 

The death of the city?

Urban density brings with it myriad benefits, but will it now be stigmatised? Photograph: Francesca Perry

“I wonder if, after this is all over, our cities will see a mass exodus,” writes Rhiannon Lucy Coslett in the Guardian.

Cities are places of proximity. They are hubs of people and shared resources. Recently we have embraced “co-living” and “co-working” like never before. But now, density has been blamed by some for the rapid spread of the coronavirus. So will we now view high-density cities with suspicion – and seek to flee them? In a great interview with Frank News, architect and urban planner Vishaan Chakrabarti says in the wake of major crises, “there is a move to de-densify”. But that soon passes:

“I just don’t think that this is the death of office space or the death of cities. I think that everyone’s yearning to get back to normal … I am sure there will be a bunch of rhetoric about how we need to de-densify and then we’re going to come out of that, and people realise why we’ve always lived in dense circumstances and that we’ve continued to despite technological advances … Human beings actually like human connectedness and they like to get together. Cities are just constant proof of that.”

What’s more, being together, in close proximity, enables efficient services that are better for people and planet. “It will be a shame if we come away from this moment skeptical of density itself,” writes Emily Badger in The New York Times, “or if some of the benefits of density, like mass transit and bustling commercial corridors, suffer lasting damage. Whether or not we fully appreciate them right now, we may need them in the next disaster.”

Human beings actually like human connectedness and they like to get together. Cities are just constant proof of that

Vishaan Chakrabarti

From struggling football club to vital community hub: the story of CS Lebowski

Just outside Florence, the first fan-owned football club in Italy is working to support local communities and promote inclusivity. Chloe Beresford reports

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A recent victorious match at CS Lebowski’s home ground, Centro Sportivo Tavarnuzze in the town of Impruneta

When is a football club more than just a football club? This is a question posed by an amateur Italian team, CS Lebowski, based in the small town of Impruneta just outside Florence. Their supporters could find top-tier football just down the road at ACF Fiorentina, the Serie A powerhouse located in the city. Instead, they have invested everything in a project that benefits the entire community.

Centro Storico Lebowski was named after the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, in honour of the main character, The Dude. The image of a slacker like him was consistent with a team that were the bottom of the lowest league in Italian football, a side that would lose every week by large scorelines. 

In 2004, a group of local disenchanted teenagers named Marco, Fosco and Duccio discussed their exasperation with the corporate world of modern football. They decided to become ‘ultras’ – an organised group of ultra-fanatical support – for CS Lebowski, a team that was, at the time, somewhat of a joke. What started as typical teenage anti-establishment sentiment soon grew into an unexpected initiative, and a far cry from the hooliganism that ultras are often associated with.

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Celebrating a win in ‘ultras’ style

Six years later, those teenagers had become young adults and had slowly attracted others to support the team. They had an ambitious vision to take over CS Lebowski and create a community-based and fully inclusive club that welcomed anyone who wanted to watch the matches or even play for the side – no matter their faith, gender, sexuality or ethnicity. Despite some progress, football in Italy remains a white, male-dominated environment; in some places, incidents of racism are not unusual. By actively promoting its inclusivity, CS Lebowski made it easy for minorities to feel welcome.

No-one stood in the way of the Lebowski Ultras when they came together to take over the struggling club, and form the first fan-owned, community-focused club in Italy. The idea of not having a powerful owner in charge was unheard of, even in the minor leagues, but among them these supporters could now boast qualified football coaches, doctors and lawyers, all of whom could contribute their skills towards the team. ‘Our club is not dependent on the fortunes and whims of a single owner, but is the expression of a collective project, economically and politically,’ explains David Ginsborg, a former volunteer for CS Lebowski and doctor of social anthropology.

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A community meal organised by the football club. ‘Ultimi rimasti’ means ‘the last ones left’, and refers to original Florentine residents

After establishing the team in its new form, these fan-founders drew in players from the local area to bolster the squad and improve the quality of those already in place. Even people in Florence and further afield, when they heard about what was happening, wanted to join in. This new and idealistic idea of pooling skills and creating a range of teams has seen the group of friends grow from three fans to thousands of supporters all over the world who identify with the unique community spirit of this project. 

However, the people who have really made a difference are those based nearby. A group of local volunteers give their time to CS Lebowski in order to make it into a welcoming social space to those in the area who feel excluded or displaced from society. On match days an army of people prepare the Centro Sportivo Tavarnuzze — the home of the team — and cook huge meals for the players and their supporters to share dinner together. Away from the pitch, the club hosts communal dinners and social events to unify the community. It has become known as ‘la famiglia Lebowski’ (the Lebowski family).

Where most minor league clubs are an escape for young, adult males, here nobody is pushed aside; women, children and elderly relatives are all actively encouraged to participate by contributing what they can in terms of practical help to keep the club running. ‘Being founded on the collaboration of many individuals means by definition we are open to involving as many people as possible,’ Ginsborg continues. ‘Indeed, the club is reliant upon this involvement in order to continue to exist.’

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CS Lebowski’s free football school in San Frediano, Florence

The work of the club is particularly important for the residents of the San Frediano district of Florence, a neighbourhood on the southern banks of the river Arno within the city centre. This is one of the only communities in the heart of the city still predominantly inhabited by locals, the others having seen Florentines forced out by the demand for tourist accommodation. Indeed, according to the Italian tenants’ association, Florence has the highest proportion of Airbnbs of any Italian city, and around 1000 residents of the city are forced to leave their homes each year as landlords turn their properties into profitable holiday rentals for tourists. Many residents of Impruneta were themselves residents of Florence before tourist-driven higher rents and housing scarcity pushed them out. 

In 2015, CS Lebowski decided to support the community of San Frediano by opening a football school, giving local children coaching free of charge. While Florence is a global attraction, the school is a purely local attraction, a part of town that is exclusively for local residents. The school is one of CS Lebowski’s efforts to retain and restore the ‘community soul’ of Florence, which they have seen disappear over the decades.

The project allows the members of CS Lebowski to build a bond with the area, a hub of remaining Florentines, as they work to protect it from large companies looking to construct yet more lucrative developments in the city. The club is also active in organising and participating in protests in Florence against the evictions of local residents.

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Children play football in a San Frediano piazza in the 1950s. CS Lebowski shared this photo as an example of the community spirit in Florence that has been lost with the decline of residents

Pulling together in such an inclusive manner is what CS Lebowski is all about, using football as a vehicle for community cohesion – both within the club’s town and within an urban area under threat of tourism. It also allows young people and their families to see the positivity that can be brought about by a game that so often draws negative headlines. 

Most of all though, it harnesses the power of the collective, the idea that so much can be achieved if many people give a little towards a common goal. And speaking of goals – CS Lebowski is no longer bottom of the barrel; last year the team finally achieved promotion. 

All images courtesy of Centro Storico Lebowski

Could self-build help tackle homelessness in the UK?

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by James Andrew Cox

A lack of affordable, good quality housing in the UK is affecting everyone; thousands of people are being priced out of their homes every year. For more than 78,000 households (a city the size of Wolverhampton), this means living in temporary accommodation — and for many more, on the street.

With a record number of homeless people dying on the streets or in temporary accommodation (a figure which has doubled in the past five years), its critical to look at innovative approaches to help alleviate homelessness. One approach is to explore the potential of self-build accommodation, supported by additional social infrastructure and training.

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A common misconception of homelessness is that lifestyle choices are a fundamental cause. According to recent research undertaken by Homeless Link, in England some 4,750 people sleep rough on any one night, an increase of 15% since 2016 and 73% in the last three years. This steep rise in homelessness reflects structural changes relating to housing provision and welfare reforms, including but not limited to the end of assured shorthold tenancies (2010), the introduction of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ (2012), the tentative rollout of universal credit (2015), cuts to young people’s housing benefits (2017), a shortage of affordable housing more generally, and ever-soaring rents.

Despite this inexcusable rise, responses are slow, as we have seen with the £28m rough sleeping fund still remaining unspent and recent comments made by the new homelessness minister, Heather Wheeler, that she ‘does not know’ why numbers are up.

As professionals in the built environment, we can use our influence to create homes, places and cities that are designed to work for everyone. This belief was the main driver behind my post-graduate research project, ‘Forgotten Land, Forgotten People’, at The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL.

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In partnership with Trident Group, a Midlands-based organisation which aims to help the most vulnerable by providing good quality affordable homes, services and support, my thesis proposed a new way in which housing associations could better use small under-utilised pieces of land within their ownership (for example garage sites), as self-build sites for groups of ‘self-build ready’ homeless individuals and families.

With the pressures currently faced by housing associations (such as the 1% Rent Reduction, Right to Buy Extension and introduction of the Value for Money Standard) alongside the need for more affordable, adequate and secure housing, self-build may present an innovative solution for tackling homelessness through the built environment.

The process of self-building also has the potential to help alleviate many of the consequences of homeless­ness; it can equip participants with tools and skills that can enable reintegration into the job market. New technologies and systems such as WikiHouse have the potential to help support this outcome, through lowering the skills’ thresholds needed and the costs involved in building homes.

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The process of taking a ‘self-build ready’ group and enabling them to build their own homes is not a short-term quick win for housing associations. However, the benefits would be felt widely across the both the development and health sectors — and beyond — through providing new homes and opportunities for homeless people, cleaning up a previously under-utilised or unused and resented site, and delivering a marketable ‘product’. Whilst my project focussed on garage sites for permanent homes, further discussions indicate that this prototype solution could work for many stakeholders even if only on a temporary basis, for example as a meanwhile use for a development site which aligns with the new Draft London Plan policy (H4) on meanwhile use for a development site that responds to local need.

James Cox is a senior planner at Lichfields UK and recently completed a MSc in Urban Design and City Planning at The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. This blog post is an edited extract of a post originally published on Lichfields’ Planning Matters blog

 

Dreams of home

From Metro-land to Battersea Power Station, Kenn Taylor confronts the problems of selling a housing fantasy

Battersea Power Station. Photograph: Kenn Taylor
Battersea Power Station. Photograph: Kenn Taylor

London’s suburban ‘Metro-land’, celebrated in the writings of John Betjeman, was created and branded as such by the Metropolitan Railway as it built its route out of London in the first half of the 20th century. The company famously promoted Metro-land aggressively and creatively, even having songs written that extolled the virtue of the new housing estates it built along the route of the line. A private precursor to today’s Stagecoach or FirstGroup, the Metropolitan Railway didn’t build Metro-land to inspire poets though, but to make money by selling the dream of country living to those who could afford it.

It was Metro-land I thought of as I explored the very different environment of Battersea Power Station. This monolithic exercise in brick by Giles Gilbert Scott is, after years of decay and dereliction, being turned into a new residential development with both Norman Foster and Richard Rogers working on elements of it. I was privileged to see it close up before its transformation and pleased that it would find a new use other than to decay into dust. Yet what struck me most as I wandered through, were the slogans on the brightly-coloured construction hoardings around it, like those that accompany almost every major, high-density urban development these days:

A PLACE OF VISION AND MAJESTY; A THRIVING. DIVERSE AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY; AN ICONIC RIVERFRONT ADDRESS; A CULTURAL POWERHOUSE

Just as the songs and pamphlets advertising Metro-land once promised, the hoardings around the Battersea Power Station development promote a lifestyle keenly desired by much of the aspirational middle class. It’s marketing, of course – and whether it’s a fridge, a car or a home, they long ago realised that if they sell you an idea, a dream and a lifestyle rather than just a product, you’re more likely to spend.

In reality though, the creation of Metro-land saw fields torn up and replaced with row upon row of near identical housing. Rural ways of life were replaced by the thousands of commuters leaving every morning to their work in the city via a concrete tube station and returning later to live out an image of the country idyll. For many, this is still the dream, a dream which year on year sees ever more green space turned into housing, driven by the desire of so many of us to have our own personal version of the ‘lost Elysium’ Betjeman wrote of.

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More recently though, we have seen the development of a new idea of Elysium that, just as 100 years ago, property developers are only too keen to sell to those with the means. That is the lifestyle of living in a THRIVING, DIVERSE AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY and a CULTURAL POWERHOUSE such as is now promised at Battersea.

This desire for a certain kind of urban living that has ‘cultural authenticity’ dates perhaps from the same 1960s when Betjeman was writing of his distaste for the demolition of Victorian and Georgian buildings for new developments influenced by Modernism – most prominently campaigning to save the former Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras station, which was designed by George Gilbert Scott, father of the Battersea Power Station designer, Giles.

Many of the people who backed Betjeman’s cause were amongst the first ‘gentrifiers’, those part of the phenomenon identified by sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964. The suburban dream of Metro-land began to be less desirable for some by the 1960s, while the inner-city – where, in the earlier 20th century at least, people only generally lived if they could not manage to live elsewhere – began to be seen as more attractive.

As I have discussed previously, ‘creatives’ play a key role in this process: for years artists, critics and the like left the ‘comfortable’ suburbs in search of the ‘truth’ and the ‘real’ in the inner city, most of all what they perceived as ’culture’. Or rather, they headed for the ‘outer’ inner city, away from actual centres of business, tourism and authority, but not so far out as to live in the middle-class suburbs. They moved to areas by and large populated by people who could not afford to live either in the centre or the suburbs.

It was these fringe places that were seen as the edge of capitalism, set apart from the bourgeois self-satisfaction and complacency of the suburbs as well as the glitzy centre. In these locations, artists could live cheaply, with plenty of space for their activities. Such locations became the home of a class of people who came from all over to take up what they saw as ‘authentic’ urban lifestyles.

Gentrifiers made such areas more desirable and thus eventually more expensive, leading to the displacement of poorer residents. This prevented new ‘creative pioneers’ from settling and so forced them to seek new places to occupy. Where the artists lead, the capitalists capitalise, selling the opportunity to live in A CULTURAL POWERHOUSE to those who can afford it, albeit perhaps one with security gates between the property and the DIVERSE COMMUNITY. The term ‘village’ is often bandied about in such developments, for those who wish to combine the security and order of a ‘village’ with just enough of an ‘urban cultural’ feel.

Battersea Power Station hoardings. Photograph: Kenn Taylor
Battersea Power Station hoardings. Photograph: Kenn Taylor

Yet such areas are neither villages nor urban cultural powerhouses. These new ‘suburbs’ are literally Metroland, the city as fantasy consumer product. Gradually, the ‘authenticity’ and ‘edginess’ that generated the desire for many to live in such locations declines and, more often than not, they become home to a wealthy monoculture, living in generic apartment blocks with, if you have the means to afford it, ‘heritage features’. A carefully managed version of the city, created for those who wish to embody a particular lifestyle by those with an interest in profiting from land. Much as a carefully managed and accessible version of the countryside was created for the dwellers of the Metropolitan Railway’s new housing estates.

“If the older generation looked to the suburbs for romantic middle-class communities that represented a new way of life,” Irving Allen wrote in the 1980s, “some members of the young generation may well be looking to cities for romantic middle-class communities that represent an alternative to the suburbs…it is safe to assume that many of the new settlers are seeking a selective, buffered, and entertaining encounter with the social diversity of city life. Their parents sought a selective, buffered, and entertaining encounter with small-town and ‘rural’ life.”

Metro-land cut Mock Tudor furrows through rural Middlesex and sold former city dwellers the country dream to the point that what they liked about that countryside largely disappeared. So too the developers of the late 20th century sold the urban dream to those who fled the Metro-land suburbs, to the point where these new residents ended up helping to drive away what it was they perceived to be authentic about the city. Replacing it with non other than a more high-density version of suburbia, packaged, just as Metro-land was, with slogans promising a life that has already disappeared, if it ever even existed.

Such processes have been happening since at least the 1960s. However, recently, a new gentrifier generation has emerged that embraces rather than resents Modernism. To these rebellious aesthetes, the Brutalist architectural works by the likes of Erno Goldfinger and Alison and Peter Smithson – once reviled by gentrifiers for their role in the destruction of old Georgian and Victorian neighbourhoods – are the new objects of residential desire.

As 18th and 19th century housing once occupied by working class people became home to wealthy residents, so today former concrete social housing like the Trellick Tower in west London and Sheffield’s Park Hill, the latter renovated by trendy property firm Urban Splash, become home to new ‘pioneers’ keen on a new type of ‘character’ property.

As a previous generation saw new possibilities and a sense of nostalgia for the 19th century city as a reaction against collapsing Modernist ideology, so this generation is filled with nostalgia for the Modernist vision of utopia as Neo-Liberalism crumbles.

Scott Greer considered the ideology which rejects the contemporary for an imagined better past, whether urban or rural, labelling it as ‘conservative utopian’: “At one time they believed the rural life to be the only one fit for man, the city evil. Today they remain fixated on the past, but it is now the dense, polyethnic, centralized city of the railroad age.” As the Romantics inadvertently brought urbanism to the country by helping to spark the desire for ‘Metro-land’ and the first gentrifiers brought the suburbs to the city, so now the Modernist urban fringe is the new frontier. Yet this generation’s dreams will likely have as similar unintended consequences as previous ones as they look back to a supposed better past without the knowledge of what was wrong with it. 

The more people try to embody a particular lifestyle through property and location and escape what they perceive as contemporary corruption, the more they corrupt what it is they try and inhabit. As John Betjeman once wrote of the loss of rural idyll and Victorian wonders so today the press is littered with tomes on the loss of inner city culture and authenticity, almost inevitably penned by the same people who began such changes.

Of course, many do protest at all of this. Yet since Ruth Glass first noted gentrification, save for some successful islands of resistance and peaks and troughs caused by recession, the market forces of Britain continue to drag development in both directions to sell everyone who can afford it the country dream or the city dream, or, if you have enough capital, both, however diluted dreams both have become.

The urban life those billboards in Battersea promise is just a much a fantasy as that sold in the songs of Metro-land nearly 100 years ago and just as alluring. Meanwhile, Battersea’s new residential community is to be opened up, just as Metro-land was, by a new Tube line connecting it to The City.

The more this all turns, the more London in particular is transformed into a total fantasy, Metroland, an urban playground for those with the means. Everyone keeps on chasing, hoping that, if they try hard enough, they will get their own little residential dream, whatever happens to anyone else. And those who paint pictures of our perfect lifestyle remain only too keen to sell us the ticket to it and tell us: Elysium is still waiting.

This is an edited version of an essay which can be found on Kenn Taylor’s blog