What should cities do with ‘dark sites’, where tragic or sinister events occurred?

High Royds Hospital, Leeds. Image: 0742 Mark Mozaz Wallis/Wikimedia Commons.

Disused buildings are an inevitable feature of urban landscapes. Businesses move premises and areas become undesirable; think of Hull’s ‘ghost estate’ or Liverpool’s deserted Garrick Street, where houses were sold by the council for just £1. Disused buildings and sites are a waste of valuable land, and can be addressed in two ways: demolition or re-development.

Deciding which can be controversial. In my corner of Leeds, debate is currently raging over whether to preserve or build over a historic Victorian train tunnel. Yet there is a consensus that something needs to be done – that abandoned structures cannot be left as they are.

But what happens when these sites or structures hold a deeper significance? ‘Dark sites’ – places where tragic or sinister events occurred – exist across the UK. We tend to associate them with haunted natural landscapes, like Mother Shipton’s cave, named after an alleged witch; the ‘witches cottage’ unearthed near Pendle Hill, or the ‘devil's cauldron’ at Lydford Gorge.

But dark sites also exist in towns and cities: institutions, prisons, residential properties. If these sites are abandoned, the practical solution is again to demolish or re-develop. Psychologically and culturally, however, the stakes are very different. Dark sites occupy a prominent position in the urban landscape, attracting curious visitors and urban explorers. They also exert a powerful psychological influence, generating urban legends and providing a physical repository for fears and anxieties.

So what do we do with these most sensitive of abandoned spaces?

At sites where individual acts of violence took place, demolition, the opportunity to raze and start again, is tempting. In Gloucester, the home of murderers Fred and Rose West was flattened by authorities who removed the rubble and crushed it at a secure site – partly to prevent morbid souvenir-hunting but also, as the BBC puts it, “as a way of expunging the sense of evil linked to the place.”

In these cases, dark sites exert such a psychological hold that only ritual destruction feels appropriate. Even then, the space cannot be fully cleansed: the path that now runs over the site of the West’s house is an attempt to restore normalcy, but the gap formed between the other houses is a clue that something isn’t quite right. Demolition may have been the only real option, but even then the empty space acquires an eerie presence.


It’s unsurprising that communities want to physically erase the sites of violent crimes. In other cases, though, dark sites hold a deeper historic and social significance that can be commemorated. In these cases, redevelopment offers an alternative to demolition. High Royds Hospital was a psychiatric institution in Leeds which closed in 2003 and turned into housing. I remember walking around the site in the early stages of redevelopment. The grounds felt desolate, and it was easy to imagine the abuses that took place there.

They may feel abandoned, but disused sites like High Royds still attract visitors – most notably ‘urban explorers’. Urban exploration – the practice of entering and documenting abandoned urban structures – is not restricted to dark sites, but the theme of urban decay lends itself to the macabre (one of the most common images of High Royds is the white mortuary table).

‘Urbex’ photography can have a restorative function, shining a light on forgotten histories and helping to tell the stories of people who were ignored in life. Sometimes the focus on morbid details has the opposite effect, turning dark sites such as High Royds into a gothic house of horrors and its former residents into ghosts. In both cases, though, the increasing popularity of urban exploration shows the power of dark sites to catch the imagination.

These days High Royds is a high-end housing complex named Chevin Park. I’m not convinced Leeds needs more luxury housing, but I’ll admit that the re-development has restored a sense of normalcy. Its history hasn’t been forgotten: the water-tower is visible for miles around, and heritage walks are occasionally held on the estate. But High Royds is no longer an abandoned curiosity visited primarily by urban explorers and ghost-hunters. By moving a new community into the complex’s Victorian core, the development visually preserves a troubling part of our history whilst showing that some dark sites can be successfully re-integrated into their local environment.

Dark sites are not just abandoned spaces. They invite exploration, generate urban legends, and disrupt safe suburban landscapes. For these reasons they might be viewed as public spaces, even if many are fenced-off and privately owned.

When we talk about towns and cities we understandably focus on utility – transport links, housing. Disused sites are rarely thought of as contributing to the urban environment. For better or worse, though, dark sites exert an important influence on our towns, cities, and communities, and the question of how and whether we can live alongside them will remain relevant as long as they exist.

 
 
 
 

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.