I just spent an afternoon in Tampere‘s old library discussing nimble uses of space. Mostly the discussion was about connecting under-utilized spaces with people who need them: small businesses, musicians and artists, purveyors of psychological services, neighbours wanting to do things together.
Though activists in the room despaired of persuading municipal officers to respond to their innovative proposals, it became clear that there are many remarkable initiatives that sustain Tampere’s urban fabric as well as its historic identity. Given that the event was organised by Tampere’s own Culture and Leisure department, it seems the city also recognises the importance of fostering creative, even experimental forms of occupancy.
If there was a core message in my presentation today it was that without small-scale, activist-led projects to sustain their identity and, even more importantly, their capacity to reproduce themselves, cities will soon not be worth the name.
With a focus on activism, I compared Helsinki and London. I found myself telling the audience that in growing swathes of London space for sociability, culture and even for sleeping, is disapperaing fast. And without these ingredients, one should not speak of urban culture.
But I’m not the only one in dismay at what is happening to London. Under attack from the cranes (the poster above spotted at 56a, the Infoshop social centre near the ginormous, much discussed, Elephant & Castle regeneration project), life seems to be ebbing out of this wonderful city.
Creativity, experimentation and simple need inspire still, but in conditions of unprecedented difficulty. On the hoardings that are everywhere, fantasy reigns.
Meanwhile social housing, like the 1970s-built Heygage estate that once stood behind these hoardings, was demolished. This has left long-term tenants homeless or forced to move to places of cheaper land values that they don’t know.
In the rest of this post I’ll share a few photographs and thoughts of what I found over the last four weeks of revisiting old haunts in London’s south-eastern quadrant. It’s still a landscape of steep hills, much unexpected cultural heritage and alarmingly short generation spans. But the cranes are never far away.
The key driver of the madness seems to be the way the world’s rich treat London property as an excellent place to park their money. I’d say another problem is that many Brits consider individualism – for instance aspiring to home ownership rather than renting – to be natural. Finding no security in state institutions, they treat their houses as their castles, bulwarks against outside danger. They want to own them.
Where once were solid walls with doors and windows, hoardings now scream with inane promises of luxury, sustainability and vibrancy. Mostly they peddle all this in hygienic solitude or, at best, in tantalising twosomes. The rise in promotional property porn has not gone unnoticed. If anyone has seen it adbusted, I’d love to know!
What is disorienting is that what is being built is doing nothing to help those who need shelter. It is creating homelessness and alienation, and it is stifling enterprise. Is this gentrification? No, said a couple of activists, that’s too polite. It’s social cleansing.
More interestingly, there are also many, many quieter but certainly not feeble voices join with actions to protect urban life in the cracks of this frenetic construction. The urban garden flourishes here too! Sometimes it gets co-opted for developer branding – “developer compliant” as one disgruntled activist called it – elsewhere it just turns its back on the madness and gets on with constructive pursuits like permaculture.
My sense is that it is only low-capital ventures that can halt or at least temper the trajectory towards non-places. While the new normal creates environments where bringing up the next generation is unaffordable (unthinkable?) except for the very wealthy, it is in places like Glengall Wharf in Peckham or at New Cross’s The Field, that I found the kinds of things that do reproduce place and do nurture society.
Solidarity, small enterprise and creativity, sensual experiences of making, growing and tending, community and togetherness – are being trampled by the construction boom but nurtured by people I call activists.
I am certain that Helsinki’s boom is of a kin with London’s disaster even if the scale – London’s sheer mega-ness – is much smaller. The similarities and the differences will bear closer analysis. Tampere’s real-estate sector too, though the town is lucky to have enthusiastic activists, is now part of a global game that puts profit making over life making.
But for now I sign off with images of the soon-to-be-demolished Elephant and Castle shopping centre. Here too you’ll find enterprise, community and place (for now), and an amazing repository of local history, recent and older, online! In a sense, there’s maybe more place than ever here, now that it’s under threat. Funny that. Or not.