How your neighbourhood’s regeneration can impact your mental health

A residential tower block in an area of Southwark, London. Image: Getty

Imagine you received a flyer in the post that tells you your neighbourhood is about to undergo regeneration. What is your first reaction? A sense of unease? Excitement perhaps? Most of us would probably feel a bit anxious even if our home wasn’t directly impacted.

It is entirely natural to feel uneasy about seeing your neighbourhood change, especially if you feel shut out from the process. Reluctance and unease often stems from a fear of the unknown and a process that underestimates and disregards people’s connection to the place they live.

Regeneration can cause distress for tenants, even if it’s welcomed, but it doesn’t have to if processes built on empathy, accountability and patience are created.

In 1974 Yu-Fi Tuan brought the poetic notion of topophilia into the field of human geography – ‘topo’ meaning place and ‘philia’, love of. It sought to explore the emotional link between person and place.

The term was also further unpicked in the field of environmental psychology, which proposes that most of us feel an innate attachment to a place. This attachment is built on the notions of identity and familiarity. It’s a cognitive knowledge of place anchored in a sense of history. Any threat to this subconscious map, or to any attachment to it that we may hold, brings anxiety.

“We accept the collapse of the fabrics of our old churches, the thieving of lead and objects from them, the commandeering and butchery of our scenery by the services, the despoiling of landscaped parks and the abandonment to a fate worse than the workhouse of our country houses, because we are convinced we must save money.” 

– John Betjeman, First and Last Loves (1952). A poet and architecture enthusiast, passionate about places and people, Betjeman was instrumental in saving St Pancras station from demolition in the 1960s.

A statue of John Bejeman in London’s St Pancras station. Image: Wikipedia via Creative Commons.

So, when a place is up for regeneration, it’s important to keep in mind this innate attachment people may feel. While as outsiders we may not understand what there is to love about a building or area that we consider to be run down and in need of improvements, attachment is entirely subjective. It’s not rooted in any sense of “beauty” or architectural appreciation, but of familiarity; it’s rooted in the routes we choose, the markers that tell us where we are and our social history. It makes up a part of our identity and it connects to our sense of security.

The ability to navigate and feel secure in the places we inhabit is strongly connected to health. Feeling lost tends to generate anxiety and insecurity; particularly within older generations, whose memories may no longer be what they once were. Living in an insecure tenancy is another source of anxiety, one that warrants a whole other article in itself. In a city like London, which is constantly undergoing rapid change, understanding the impact of regeneration on people’s mental health and the reactions it may trigger could help us create processes that alleviate this stress.

Community engagement – that is empowering and collaborative – is one method of minimising the potential mental health implications of regenerating an estate or area. A study by Glasgow University (2016) found that “higher levels of empowerment reported higher levels of mental health and well-being” in regeneration schemes and concludes that there is a “compelling argument for paying more attention” to this space. In a time when communities are experiencing rapid change in their environs and their familiarity of place may be eroding, their role in place-making is crucial. Engagement provides a platform from which people can be actively involved in the process.

The value of engagement lies in the relationships formed where trust can grow; trust in people, processes and organisations. Within this space, empowered collaboration can happen and that’s when attachment to place can be restored, place identity can evolve, and familiarity can be retained. If communities are mainly seen as a risk or constraint to achieving housing targets, then we can’t have meaningful engagement processes.

Regeneration projects must embrace collaboration and co-production methods if we want to address the underlying fear and anxiety that the start of the process can subject residents to. Between viability, numbers and targets the conversation is often dehumanised and objectors vilified as ‘usual suspects’ or nimbyists. That’s simply not the whole picture. Because the process – or lack thereof – influences people's willingness and ability to engage, so it’s vital to put in the time and effort. Not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it has impacts on people’s health.

There is a general, and sometimes justified, lack of trust in the engagement process and a growing resistance of the marketisation of social housing estates in London. In the context of recent high-profile regeneration precedents in London it’s fairly understandable. It serves to be said that there are many practitioners are passionate about involving communities, but the system is currently not set up to fully allow the time and energy it takes to really engage residents and be accountable to the outcomes. If we are going to re-establish faith in the system, which we should, every scheme matters, big or small. Understanding that process is key; numbers aren’t everything and the end does not justify the means. From this position we can build the homes London needs with minimal impact on the health and social fabric of existing communities.

Madeleine Lundholm is a London-based writer with a base in human rights studies and sustainable development and an MSc in Urban Strategies & Design.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.