Tubes, bridges & sewers: The centuries old infrastructure Londoners still use today

Believe it or not, this is part of the sewer system: the inside of Crossness Pumping Station, south east London. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikipedia Commons.

An accusation often levelled at the modern era is that it’s one of waste: that we are a throw-away society, over-consuming off paper plates with disposable cutlery. If this is the case, then we should take inspiration from our not-so-distant ancestors, the Victorians. They really knew how to build things to last.
Today’s Londoners would be hard pressed not to use at least some of the infrastructure left over from the 19th Century. If you’ve taken the Tube, crossed the Thames or even gone to the toilet in the capital recently, then you’ve used something Victorian.

But it wasn’t us they had in mind when all these durable things were built: in their own time, the era’s city planners faced plenty of infrastructure problems of their own. In the 19th century, London was the largest city in the world, and its population more than tripled from just under 2m in 1840 to almost 6.5m by 1900. With the fabric of the city facing unprecedented burdens, the engineers of the day began to build.

The Tube

There are few things as synonymous with London as its underground. Begun during the second half of the 19th century, the system was created in part to deal with the overcrowding that population growth had brought to the city’s roads.

First opening in 1863 the original Metropolitan Railway was just four miles of route, between Paddington and Farringdon. But other lines swiftly followed: the District arrived before the decade was out, and what would become the Circle line was completed in the 1880s. The first deep level tube, a stretch of the Northern line, opened in 1890.

Last year, a magnificent 1.4bn rides were taken on the London Underground – all the more impressive when you consider that the engineers maintaining and upgrading today’s network are still working on a system first opened while Abraham Lincoln was president.


Sewer System

The density of London’s population also created huge sanitary problems. The Thames was an open sewer, and the streets were little better. Through the Miasma Theory of disease, deadly illnesses such as cholera were blamed on ‘bad air’ – and not on the fact that people were relieving themselves in their drinking water. Something had to be done.

Following a particularly warm and noxious few months in 1858 – a period known as The Great Stink – the local government of the day rolled its sleeves up. The Metropolitan Board of Works commissioned its chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette to create a new system of sewers and pumping stations.

Bazalgette installed 82 miles of “intercepting sewers” parallel to the river Thames, with a further 1,000 miles of interconnected “street sewers”. Most used gravity to funnel waste to the east; but series of pumping stations were included, to offer a helping hand. All this did wonders for London’s poorly and no doubt the city’s smell – and created the Embankment in the process.

Rudolf Hering’s 1882 map of London’s sewers. 

The system has been used ever since. The historian Peter Ackroyd puts this relatively unknown engineer alongside giants such as Christopher Wren in his pantheon of London heroes.

With London’s population at an all-time high, dealing with the capital’s waste is top of the agenda again, and the authorities are now building the 16 mile Thames Tideway tunnel under the river. Let’s hope it lasts as long as the 150 year old Victorian system.

Bridges

You can’t really go anywhere but the loo to appreciate London’s sewage system – so if you want to ogle some Victorian engineering, why not visit the river?

Nearly two thirds of the 33 bridges that cross the Thames were built by those intrepid engineers, and they include nearly all the best lookers: the Albert Bridge, the Hammersmith Bridge, to name but two.

Tower Bridge.

In Tower Bridge, the last to be built by the Victorians, we’ve got both a looker and an incredible piece of engineering. Not only does it draw visitors from across the world (it’s currently listed on TripAdvisor is the 7th ranking attraction in the world’s number one destination city); the bridge can also raise its central section, to allow large boats to pass. A functional beauty: those 19th century builders did it again.

Internationally, Victorian Britain gained the unfortunate – and accurate – reputation of being arch-colonialists. Domestically, though, they did us a lot of good, building exceptional structures that are still in use a century and a half later.

We can only hope that the massive infrastructure projects of today will last nearly as long. HS2 and Crossrail, the ghost of Isambard Kingdom Brunel is watching.

 
 
 
 

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.