Are artists the shock troops of gentrification – or just another of its victims?

Carradale House, with Balfron Tower behind it. Image: vasilissdimos/Wikimedia Commons.

Editor's note: This article draws heavily on the work of the housing writer Dawn Foster, particularly this article in the Guardian. We are happy to make this clear.

Balfron Tower looms over Poplar like only a 1960s brutalist tower block can. To some, it is a work of art in itself, bold and uncompromising.

The block of modernist flats was designed by Ernő Goldfinger for the London County Council in 1963. Today it is owned by Social Landlord Poplar HARCA, who took over ownership of Balfron Tower following a ballot of residents in 2006.

Poplar HARCA originally undertook to bring all of the dwellings in the estate up to the last Labour government’s “decent homes” standard. In 2015, however, it was announced that the properties in the Grade II listed building were to be sold as luxury flats.

Residents of the block were decanted during the refurbishments, and artists occupied the tower in their place. It was an example of what Mark Aeling, owner of MGA Sculpture Studio and president of the St Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District Association (WADA), describes as “art washing”: a phenomenon in which artists are used to increase the attractiveness of an area and the value of properties.

A Balfron Tower Redevelopment Video posted on YouTube in July 2014 by the Balfron Social Club, which campaigns on behalf of social residents, shows the plans for redevelopment. They include a cocktail bar and cinema. The video makes no mention of where the former social tenants will live.

Hannah Nicklin was one of these artists – a “storyteller in residence… as part of the Social Housing Arts Network working alongside Poplar HARCA”, according to her website. On Twitter, the Balfron Social Club accused her of art washing.

In a blog post response, Nicklin said that artists “sometimes work with partners within communities and the world in general… who are playing a damaging role in the lives of many of those same communities”. She also went onto say that “Art and artists often plays a role in gentrification”.

In other words, artists are being co-opted to facilitate gentrification. The presence of artists in Balfron Tower during its transformation from social housing to luxury flats appears to be a natural part of the process. Londoners are familiar with abandoned factories becoming galleries or studios, and then luxury homes. Grayson Perry has described artists as the “shock troops of gentrification”.

But are they benefiting from the changes to the social fabric of London? Or they also the victims of rising property prices, as much as the social housing tenants?

Aside from a few household names, the majority of artists do not have a large income. It is therefore necessary for them to locate where accommodation and studio space is cheap. This movement of artists is a reflection of pressures that rising rents in London are putting on creative industry workers.


Artists have also been inspired by social housing, even if they are not themselves social housing residents. In 2007, Catherine Yass filmed tightrope-walker Didier Pasquette’s attempt to cross the 45-metre gap between the two blocks of Red Road Estate in Glasgow. In 2010, the residents of Balfron Tower featured in Simon Terrill's Balfron Project. From the use of Thamesmead in A Clockwork Orange to Jonathan Meade’s documentary on brutalism, social housing has inspired many works of art. The relationship between artists and social housing goes beyond the need to find affordable space.

Do artists benefit from the process of gentrification? When organisations like Poplar HARCA offer space to artists, it is understandable that they accept it, even if these spaces had formerly belonged to social housing residents.

So the relationship between artists and property owners is a complex one, because artists depend upon support from companies and on cheap housing. Their presence changes the perception of an area, adds value to the assets of property owners – and eventually makes the space unaffordable for artists themselves.

“It’s a vehicle,” WADA’s Mark Aeling said. “[Artists] don’t generally have economic resources, they have creativity. Their energies often get utilised and they, to be honest, get taken advantage of.”

Artists are very much a part of gentrification, and it is understandable why residents who are concerned about rising rents are wary of artists moving into an area. But artists are often as much the victims of gentrification as the benefactors, as rising property prices threaten their livelihoods.

The artists will leave Balfron Tower when the work is finished. Like so many of the capital’s residents, they will continue their migration further east in search of affordable properties. But there is no guarantee that they will be able to find anywhere to re-establish their community.

And why not buy Dawn Foster's book, Lean Out?

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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.