In London, cranes can be as significant as what they build – or destroy

The former industrial cranes in Battersea. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

London can easily give the intoxicating impression that its landscape is constantly changing. And there is one material symbol of this change that no one can miss when walking along the Thames: the capital’s infamous construction cranes.

We live in a time when building innovation focuses on showing off how to reach extreme heights and how can some materials be ‘resilient’ to that height: an era in which skyscrapers are mass-produced. The geographer Andrew Harris has coined the term ‘volumetric urbanisms’ to describe how classic urban geography processes, such as urban sprawl, displacement, enclaves, and so on, can correlate with vertical urbanisms.

What can be seen in Greater London is the switch from one type of verticality to another. Vertical mass housing à la Corbusier is neglected and is literally crumbling down; meanwhile, mega ‘regeneration’ housing projects – realising young execs’ dreams of private gyms, concierges and mahogany – are popping up everywhere. This is where the cranes gain a whole new meaning.

Vertical politics and the neoliberal construction site

The thing to remember about cranes is that they do not operate for just any type of infrastructure projects, but for only the ones that could, in any medium-sized city, be qualified as ‘colossal’. The consultancy Deloitte, in its biannual London Crane Survey, records crane locations as a proxy for the city’s economic growth, in several sectors: London’s forest of cranes grows as exponentially as the dividend pay-outs transnational company shareholders accumulate as they dispossess the lower classes of their homes.


In September 2006, a tower crane collapsed in a Battersea housing development site, killing its driver and a passer-by. In the construction sector, this drove debates over the dangerousness of these machines.

But Battersea’s cranes have also attained a symbolic meaning, linked to the start of the Battersea Power Station mega housing project: a 2013 Evening Standard report, for instance, was titled “Power to the people: a last lingering look at Battersea before the cranes move in”. Paradoxically enough, tower cranes that were used in the former power station will be restored and reconstructed as a ‘heritage feature’ when the estate opens

The way cranes are operated in the setting of large urban projects is also embedded in neoliberal logic on the organisational side. Carillion is a UK construction firm specialised in crane-built infrastructure, that over the last few years relied more and more on very large public-private partnerships. While its directors were increasing their bonuses, thousands of jobs were jeopardised, and when the company went into liquidation in January 2017, several projects were temporarily deserted.

The image that most media captured from this bitter event was of the massive Carillion signs being removed from cranes. This made the situation vastly  more dramatic: with this symbol, the whole process of outsourcing was called into question.

How to gaze at cranes

The Colourblock Cranes project. Image: Diamond Geezer/Flickr/creative commons.

There are several ways of looking at the image above. ‘Colourblock Cranes’ was commissioned by the Upper Riverside development project – one of the seven ‘new neighbourhoods’ in the Greenwich area, a former industrial zone.

Morag Myerscough, the artist responsible for Colourblock Cranes, has said of the project:

“When I travel I collect images of temporary scaffold-clad structures, and for many years I have been fascinated by cranes. So to be asked to colour a group of cranes came at the perfect time. Cranes are so skeletal, standing elegantly, moving and sometimes even dancing around in the sky.”

The dance of cranes in the London skyline is almost mystical, hypnotic; it is a pitfall for those who are passionate about cities and progress. Gentrifiers tend to seek moral redemption in their acts: the ruling classes think they are bringing about ‘positive social mixity’ in the places to which they are moving. They are more likely to move to places that have adopted a ‘sustainable’ mode of living (or at least those which are advertised as such), or where ‘creativity’ plays a role: media and arts might seem, prima facie, less ‘violent’ than the financial sector.

My guess is that the latter is the reason why Colourblock Cranes was commissioned in Greenwich; cranes are seen a reassuring entity in that context. They are a flagship feature of “industrial luxury” discourses – I have genuinely seen this expression on an advert for a construction site in North London – and merely set the scene for more fetishisation of working class material.

All in all, this is another, relatively hidden, example of artwashing.

“I remember looking up and seeing all of these cranes in the sky. They were so heavy and such an eyesore, and not what I identified with peace and refuge. I remember thinking of it as an analogy for my transition—this idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us.”

Solange, on her song ‘Cranes in the Sky’

At a time where people are homeless and homes are people-less, Solange provides a convincing vision of the types of effect that cranes can trigger on oppressed communities. Anxiety, dispossession, ostracisation – the neoliberal city makes these emerge out of power structures, objects, and landscapes.

The (un)reachable high-rise. Image: Freaktography/Flickr/creative commons.

Urban explorers (or ‘place hackers’) such as Bradley Garrett play with legal boundaries and crane-like unachieved space because they feel the need to re-appropriate them, or the feeling of height, or the view. (None of these things are free nowadays.) Cranes can indeed be climbed, like universities can be occupied, like strikes can actually work. It is a message of hope: as urban citizens, we should be aware that landscapes should not be considered as static.

Whilst cranes bring apparent motion to the skies over the course of the day, human bodies and spirits add noticeable momentum to the landscape. Entire regeneration projects can effectively be stopped, as it happened a few months ago in the borough of Haringey, where resident associations single-handedly put an end to the privatisation of public housing and services in their neighbourhood. But only if we are involved enough – if community potential is translated into exploration, collaboration, and political effort.

 
 
 
 

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.