While Londoners whine about gentrification, other cities long for it

The as-yet-ungentrified Little Maltings. Image: Niall Crowley.

A canal cuts through an urban landscape. It’s overlooked by angular facade of a Grade II listed Victorian brewery. It’s been sympathetically converted into loft apartments, live-work spaces and artist studios.

The canal bustles with life. Boats, barges, a floating bookshop, even a floating cocktail bar. Strollers, joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers and meanderers all negotiate their way along the narrow towpath. A strip of independent shops, cafes, bars and a theatre look out onto the park from the west. It’s a short 10 minute walk from the railway station; there’s even a canalside pub – The Bridge – with its own microbrewery.

It’s an urban success story. Or at least it would be, if it was London. The place I describe is Langley Green, a small village-like corner of the Black Country, a few miles north of Birmingham where I grew up. The theatre, the pub with the craft beers, the canal, the Grade II Victorian brewery are all there.

Or at least they were. 

Langley Maltings, was never transformed into loft apartments, as developers once promised. It’s now a burnt-out ruin, having twice been attacked by arsonists. The once-popular pub with the micro brewery closed its doors a couple of years ago, and has since been demolished. Only a part of the front elevation remains.

The only life the canal sees is the occasional dog-walker, and the high street, like many around the country, is in steady decline. The theatre and the cobblers (run by a father and son since the 50s or 60s) are thankfully, still there. 

It’s a world away from my adopted home of East London, where much-maligned hipsters and creatives have helped transform rundown areas where, not so long ago, few people wanted to live. The Regents Canal, on the edge of my estate, does bustle with life. Here, you can browse second-hand books and buy cocktails on canal barges. And the canal-side cafe does sell porridge for around £4 a bowl, though don’t tell that to Class War. 


Nearby Shoreditch Park, which borders “gentrified” Hoxton and Old Street, is well used and loved by locals, who come to meet up, read, hang out, picnic and play. Overlooking the park is not a Victorian brewery but the old Gainsborough film studios, now a gated apartment complex (which also overlooks the canal), where a one-bedroom flat will cost upwards of £500,000 and one of the newly-built townhouses on the other corner of the park start at £3m.

Many years ago I spent a weekend on the estate where I now live, visiting friends who were squatting in a tower-block. It was, and still is, a sprawling, ugly 1970s estate in a then unfashionable area.

Back then many of the flats lay empty, which is why the local authority eventually allowed squatters, including my friends, to take up legal residency. Now it seems everybody wants to live here. In gentrified east London, even this dreary old estate is now de rigueur.

Only there would you  find, say, a young Japanese fashion student living next door to a born-and-bred London postman; hear the sound of  a violin rehearsal waft in through an open window, while your neighbour’s hip hop tunes vibrate through the walls.

Here, the kid spraying graffiti all over the lift works for the props department of the production company filming on the estate, and the stage play showing at the local ‘community centre’ is sponsored by the Royal Court and stars two Oscar-winning actors. Here, there’s always somewhere new to go, something new to do. You can eat, drink or dance most times of the day or night, any day of the week. 

Still, some people complain about hipsters, “greedy” developers, social cleansing and about gentrification. When I returned to live in Dalston a few years ago, after a period away from London, I was stunned by how much the place had changed and by how vastly improved it was. “Wow! Hasn’t Dalston changed?” I said, in wonder to a member of staff at the trendy new Curve Garden.

I was equally stunned by his negative take. “It’s not all that bad.” he groaned. Maybe people have short memories? Or maybe those doing the complaining were in fact the previous generation of gentrifiers who now want to lift the drawbridge on the rest of us?

In Langley Green, where I happened to be when anti-gentrification protesters attacked the Cereal Killer cafe in Shoreditch, people don’t complain about hipsters, gentrification or rising house prices. And they definitely don’t complain about overpriced cereal bars.

But I wish they did. If moustachioed  hipsters and creatives were opening oddball coffee shops and floating cocktail bars; if developers were breathing new life into old Victorian breweries, then I suspect people in Langley, and other rundown parts of the country would welcome them as a sign of some much-needed economic dynamism.

For what underpins the revival of former undesirable areas of London is the city’s relative economic success over recent years. Now the rest of the country needs an economic revival. And that won’t happen without massive investment in new industrial sectors and large-scale infrastructure projects.

When that happens, maybe people in the rest of the country will have the luxury of complaining about their high streets being filled with art galleries, brasseries and overpriced cereal cafes. 

Niall Crowley is a writer, designer and former bar-owner based in London. He is speaking at “Gentrify this! The pros and cons of urban development” at the Battle of Ideas festival on 18 October at the Barbican.

CityMetric is a media partner for the festival.

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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