How did regeneration become a dirty word in Boris Johnson's London?

South London's Heygate Estate, site of one of the more controversial bits of urban regeneration of recent years. Image: Getty.

In Boris Johnson’s London, argues Labour assembly member Nicky Gavron, regeneration is just a synonym for redevelopment.

In the capital today, long-standing communities are being bulldozed to make way for luxury developments that most Londoners could never dream of affording. Popping up in their place are residential skyscrapers, with no regard for the character of the local area or the needs of local people. Londoners are concerned that the capital will become unrecognisable.

It does not need to be like this. Regeneration should be about making an area better for the people who live there. It is about offering the chance for a better life by producing more diverse communities with improved public transport; a good range of local shops and other amenities; places to meet and congregate; good schools and health facilities; a range of jobs, and the skills training and education people need to access them. It should be about turning areas which don’t work well into areas which do.        

When he came to office in 2008 Boris Johnson was dealt a great hand. He had the London Development Agency. He had £5m for affordable housing. He had swathes of land.

Most importantly, the vision was there: the previous mayor had set out the route to accommodating a rapidly growing population within the boundary of Greater London, by co-locating denser mixed-use development with a vastly improved and expanded public transport system. One of the big ideas was to direct development to the east of London to redress the huge disparities in wealth and opportunity between east and west.

It was a vision of London being an exemplary sustainable world city economically, socially, and environmentally. But Boris brushed it aside, replaced only by the grand but meaningless ambition of becoming the “best big city in the world”.

The mayor of course continued with the Olympics, which has been a great boost to the inner east, but what has he done for outer east London? Cancelled the DLR and East London Transit Scheme. Cancelled the river crossing. Some of these proposals have been belatedly resurrected, but in the meantime we’ve lost years when we could have been moving forward.


The Olympics themselves did not achieve their full regeneration potential under Boris Johnson. There has undoubtedly been a striking transformation of this part of east London, turning a former industrial wasteland into a diverse cluster of shopping, culture, and sport. The park achieves high visitor numbers, and there are exciting plans to move academic and arts institutions and new tech firms to Stratford.

However the ambition to make this a mixed income residential area is being undermined by a mayor unwilling to commit to maximising affordable housing. In the former Athletes Village, now the East Village, 49 per cent of homes are affordable, albeit only half of them at social rented levels. The targets for the later neighbourhoods are slipping; Johnson has compromised from 35 per cent down to 31 per cent affordable housing on the west side, and the split means less than ten out of every hundred will be at genuinely affordable rents. The next mayor will need to negotiate the final totals for the southern neighbourhoods.  

There is no better example of what regeneration means under the Johnson mayoralty than Earls Court, the £12b development of 7,600 primarily luxury flats with not even one additional affordable rented home. This was not some derelict and dilapidated site; Earls Court opportunity area was a vibrant area with established communities and thriving businesses.

Yet the plans, which Johnson pushed through, will result in the destruction of an iconic exhibition centre supporting an ecosystem of local businesses and contributing £1bn to London’s economy. It will also mean the demolition of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green housing estates, and the potential loss of 550 high-skilled manufacturing jobs at the Lillie Bridge tube depot. Earls Court is not about regenerating an area for the people who live and work there, but about making big money for developers and providing luxury properties to international investors.  

Earls Court is one of the 38 Opportunity Areas identified as sources for new housing and jobs. There had been existing Opportunity Areas for which Johnson was very slow to create planning frameworks, but he created one for Earls Court in order to drive through his enormously destructive plan for the area. Meanwhile, other Opportunity Areas with far more brownfield land remain untouched.

Earls Court is particularly outrageous because it is on land owned by TfL. The mayor, as chair of TfL, is the owner of the largest portfolio of developable land in London, much of it around transport hubs and in town centres.

That presents the next mayor with an opportunity to lead on a model of true regeneration across the capital. That land should be developed to provide affordable homes and affordable workspace in walkable, well-connected, mixed-use and diverse neighbourhoods. That is the bare minimum we should demand of the next mayor.

 Nicky Gavron AM is Labour’s London Assembly planning spokesperson.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.