London's skyscrapers are a monument to the city's worship of finance

Cash boxes in the sky. Image: Getty.

A new skyscraper is set to join the City of London’s world-famous collection of oddly-designed buildings with novelty names. With 73 storeys, the Trellis will rival the Shard in height, and overshadow its next-door neighbours, the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheesegrater. If all goes to plan, the tower will rise from the rubble of the existing Aviva building at 1 Undershaft, sometime in the 2020s.

In the aftermath of Brexit – at a time when investors are spooked and the pound has plummeted – the local government of London’s finance district (the City of London Corporation) was on the look out for a good news story. Keen to cast off the shroud of uncertainty and cement London’s status as a global financial hub, the City of London’s planning and transport committee chair, Chris Hayward, boldly proclaimed that “this development shows the high levels of investor confidence in London’s status as a global city following our decision to leave the European Union”.

Yet skyscrapers are not just slick, glassy lures for business and wealth; they tell us something about the character of London itself. St Paul’s Cathedral used to be the dominant landmark of the city, impressing locals and visitors alike with its scale and architectural finesse. Now, skyscrapers are the dominant structures, giving the finance sector an imposing physical presence.

Power building

Just as cathedrals were historically built to represent the power and presence of the church in everyday life, the Trellis is the latest tall building to speak for the dominance of the global financial market as a driving force in Western society. The scale and the grandeur of these distinctive constructions is a tribute to those who deliver the City’s wealth and success – and a symbol of the power they hold.

This power comes from the City of London’s status as one of the largest concentration of banking and financial services industries in the world. The City turns over an estimated $1.9trn worth of foreign exchange each day, accounting for 37 per cent of global capital flows.

It is also a critical site for job creation, with nearly 150,000 people employed by the financial sector and a further 140,000 in legal and accounting professions. In fact, countless jobs throughout the UK depend of the prosperity of its financial sector.

The fable of St Paul and the Cheesegrater. Image: Tim Benedict Pou/Flickr/creative commons.

There is a dark side to these built behemoths, though. For those who pass through the City’s streets, the shadows of these towering structures loom over the tightly knitted network of lanes and alleys, creating a sinister and somewhat claustrophobic feeling. They can intrude into, or even engulf public spaces, blocking out the sun or blocking off access routes.

There have been some attempts made to humanise these buildings. Their strange names and peculiar shapes have become figures of fun and play. They offer viewing platforms, sky-high dining experiences and interactive learning environments, to invoke a sense of identity and ownership.


Human error

But above all else, skyscrapers symbolise the deep entrenchment of market ideology within the very fabric of our society. These buildings mark out a stark geographical boundary of wealth and exclusivity, while their growing numbers reflect the concentration of wealth, not only in a specific area of London, but among a particular class of people. High levels of inequality indicate that this fountain of wealth does not trickle down throughout the rest of society – instead, it swills around the City.

Yet if it seems the architecture in this area of London is an uncritical homage to capitalism, then dig a little deeper: there are cautionary tales hidden in the history of London’s built environment. The failed Pinnacle project is an allegory for the financial market’s instability – and the devastating consequences when it fails.

The Pinnacle was designed to be 62 storeys tall – but it never rose beyond seven. After the global financial crisis hit in 2008, funding dried up, construction was halted, and the Pinnacle became known as the Stump. Only this year have developers been given permission to proceed with a new high-rise design, which will grow alongside the Trellis, to be completed in 2019.

Failed funding structures and overconfident developers are as much a part of the modern financial sector as wealth and job creation. But while old foundations can be used for new buildings, the massive impacts of financial sector failures are more difficult to mend.The Conversation

Alex Simpson is a lecturer in criminology at the University of Brighton.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

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.