How city tours can help tackle homelessness

.An Invisible Cities tour in Edinburgh. Image: Luke Bennett.

We love local recommendations about city destinations; that secretive cafe hidden down an alleyway, or a stunning park a stones throw away from the city centre. Tours run by locals allow us to see a city through the eyes of those who live and breathe it.  

This is the philosophy of Invisible Cities, a social enterprise that trains homeless people to become walking tour guides. It believes that those who have spent the most time on a city’s streets are the best people to tell its stories.

By providing mentoring and training with professional guides and storytellers, workshops on public speaking and first aid, Invisible Cities is helping people to get back on their feet.

In York, the training process for Invisible Cities is in full swing. Tours on a variety of subjects, including the city’s railway heritage and its famous snickelways and alleyways, are set to begin in June. Here tour guides practice with volunteers and make use of individual mentors helping them to research their tours.

In addition to providing homeless people with employment, Invisible Cities also invest in projects designed to help the wider homeless community. The organisation delivered Christmas presents to 150 homeless people in Scotland in 2018, and has also donated to the Street Barber in Edinburgh, which provides free haircuts and shaves to homeless men.

An Invisible Cities tour in Edinburgh. Image: Luke Bennett.

Paul is one of the beneficiaries of Invisible Cities. His Edinburgh-based tour, Leith: The Trainspotting Generation has been running since January 2018. “Doing the research for my tours was amazing – and has piqued an interest in gaining full-time employment in this field… I have recently attended interviews with eight production companies, including the BBC.” After talking with a representative from Edinburgh City of Literature, a UNESCO trust, Paul has decided to write a book. 

Invisible Cities tours also provide an indication of places in the UK that have high numbers of homeless people. In York, figures released by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government revealed that the number of homeless people living on the streets rose by 61 per cent in 2018, three times the average for the Yorkshire and Humber area.

Kenny Lieske, director of Good Organisation, an Invisible Cities partner in York, explained that “a quarter of all the homeless people who died in the region in 2017 died in York, equating to 11 deaths in a single year, which is one of the reasons we were so keen to team up with Invisible Cities to launch a practical project to support local homeless people.”

York’s high homelessness figures sit in stark contrast to its booming tourism industry. Over seven million people visit the city each year, with tourism contributing £600 million annually to its local economy.

Cities including Oxford, Bristol and Cardiff have registered interest in the project, and the organisation has plans to launch in a city outside of the UK in the next few years. As the UK witnesses rising levels of homelessness, Invisible Cities is providing a unique model to tackle an increasingly common urban crisis.


Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.

So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.