A group of domestic violence activists has occupied a flat in Hackney to protest the demise of council housing

Image: Oonagh Cousins, courtesy of Sisters Uncut.

We know – we were practically born knowing  that there isn’t enough housing in London. The Independent found in 2015 that tens of thousands of families seeking council accommodation have been moved out of London entirely, because there simply isn’t enough space.

And yet, in one single borough, over 1,000 council flats are currently standing empty. In Hackney, 18 estates are up for “regeneration” (which usually means demolition), and as they wait to be regenerated, the council is emptying them out. So Sisters Uncut, a group which campaigns against domestic violence cuts, have decided to put just one of them to good use. On Saturday 9 July they marched from Hackney Town hall and occupied a flat on the ground floor of the Marion Court estate in Hackney.

The flat is nice. Really nice. The walls are fully plastered, and the group have replaced the missing carpets and installed curtains adorned with the green and purple Sisters Uncut logo.The campaigners tell me that their next door neighbour’s flat is in worse condition; and yet, feet away, this flat was standing completely empty. I wondered if they had to break in to start the occupation, but no – the door was simply unlocked. 

“All we did was clean, put some carpets down, and bring in furniture which was donated or we found on Freecycle,” one of the Sisters (the activists generally prefer to remain anonymous) tells me.

A list of requested donations in the occupied flat. Image: author's own.

The flat’s good condition is part of the key message of the occupation: there is unused, good-quality, well-sized housing scattered all over London. “Someone now living on this estate was moved out to Basildon while she was doing her GCSEs, and eventually moved back here,” one Sister tells me. “This is a beautiful, three bedroom flat lying empty. To say there are no properties for her to live in while she does her studies is an outrageous lie.”

Sisters Uncut are here for two reasons. First, they want to use the otherwise wasted space as a community centre for the local area, which they’ll keep open “as long as possible”. People can drop by whenever they like for a chat, to donate food or other supplies, or come for the children’s breakfast club between 7 and 9 every morning. “We’re also holding housing workshops this week where people can learn their housing rights,” one sister tells me.  


But they’re also here to make a statement. The group have four key demands for Hackney council, which are inspired by their work for victims of domestic violence, but also gesture at the housing crisis as a whole: no more council flats to be lost as part of regeneration projects; women fleeing domestic violence to be housed in refuges or self-contained properties, not B&Bs; fill the borough’s 1047 empty council properties immediately; and refuse to implement the Housing Act (which would allow for rent rises and further evictions). Philip Glanville, Hackney’s deputy mayor, has agreed to speak to the group about their demands, though hasn’t confirmed yet when.

In the 1970s, over 40 per cent of Brits live in council housing; now that proportion is just 8 per cent. Put simply, Sisters Uncut want protection for council homes, not least because a better system could save the lives and livelihoods of those trying to flee abusive relationsips. It may sound old fashioned," one tells me, "but we just want proper council housing. That's what works." 

While the problems around maintaining council housing in an increasingly expensive city may seem intractable, the Sisters argue that they are not – and practical solutions are available. Empty properties should be used, and one Sister suggests that the council should have tried building more expensive “penthouse” apartments on top of existing council blocks, or built more housing on the gaps between blocks, to make money. “At the moment, we’re seeing zero creative solutions”, she says.

These problems are endemic across a city which has a questionable definition of “affordable housing” (80 per cent of market rates), and which often allows developers to dodge even measly affordable housing minumums by paying off councils. So why did the group choose Hackney?

“There are lots of empty homes here,” one Sister says. But another adds: “Hackney was home to the riots. Since then, the council just hasn’t been listening to the local people. We have an Olympic legacy of nothing.

The only legacy is seeing our communities socially cleansed out.”

Follow Sisters Uncut for more information on the occupation here.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.