Hostile Environment

Segregation of Public and Private Spaces in Modern Britain

Image credit: Lewis Bush

Another day, another example of rich people putting spikes on things to shield them from reality. This time (I swear I am not making this up), a developer in Bristol has put spikes on the branches of trees to prevent pigeons from roosting there and pooing on the residents’ fancy cars. Have we reached Peak Privilege? I think we may have. The trees overhang the car park, and rather than cleaning their cars the good old-fashioned way, the residents requested that the building management install a preventative measure, so that they don’t get inconvenienced by unsightly bird shit. I do hope those trees aren’t deciduous (haha, yes they are!), or they’re going to be mighty upset come autumn.

The rest of us plebs have to park wherever we can find, even next to puddles, in the rain, or heaven forbid, near to where poor people live. Oh, to be wealthy enough to buy an existence in a hermetically-sealed bubble that keeps the dirt and poverty out. The previous incident was the notorious “homeless spikes” that rightly disappeared as quickly as they had been installed after a public outcry (in some cases). I don’t know about the idiom “more money than sense,” but I can see how “more money than empathy” might be a useful alternative. Excuses and rationalisations were made by the companies involved after they were slammed in the media for their heartless utilitarianism, although other forms of hostile architecture exist unchallenged. At least we know what sort of people we’re dealing with: they value homeless lives as much as those of pigeons.

As our city centres adopt a more polished, high-class veneer, we seek to eliminate all that might clutter its minimalistic order. We built our towns and cities in defiance of nature, dredging and bottling rivers, draining flood plains, and hacking down forests to build homes, factories, and farms. But the 21st Century has brought with it some new obstacles. I’m not going to go into the drivers behind homelessness, but it is important to mention here that councils, architects and developers see homelessness itself as the problem that needs to be fixed. And by “fixed,” they mean “moved out of sight, and not actually dealt with.” The media have helped to convince the general public that those human lives are little better than rubbish that needs to be swept away.

But it’s not only the homeless that are affected by coercive landscaping. Standing benches, and seated benches with individual seats and armrests, were (allegedly) designed partly to allow effective use of the space in areas like bus shelters and railway stations, and to acknowledge that they are transient spaces where people might only need to perch against a seat rather than enjoy the luxury of properly sitting down. They do, “incidentally,” have the “benefit” of preventing somebody from lying down and sleeping on them. The problem is that whether you agree or not with the principle of moving the homeless out of these spaces, these measures also pose access problems for those with disabilities. But the guardians of our urban spaces have decided that it’s a small price to pay for being able to boot the homeless out of shared spaces.

A Camden Bench, Good for Perching, Not so Great for Sleeping

Image by The wub - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

This technique can be used for more positive ends, such as removing hiding places where people might lurk, or to direct them between spaces using the safest and most convenient routes. But we are less likely to notice what doesn't get in our way.

Inventive landscaping is also used to segregate rich and poor, when they are housed on a single site. The funding and planning permission for many developments is contingent on them having a social housing element. But that doesn’t mean that we’re creating a utopian shared estate, with the wealthy and impoverished skipping hand-in-hand through the grounds together. No, where a contractor can’t wriggle out of their obligation to provide affordable accommodation, they simply provide separate entrances for the “luxury” apartments, and the bog-standard council flats, using so-called “poor doors.” Nice.

Various cultural and social foibles lead to some areas being regarded as ghettoes or sink estates, but there are ways of combatting this. Sadly, the most common option in the UK is to bulldoze the whole lot and start again with developments that will price out the poorest households. All it does is move the problem on to somewhere else. We have got to improve the standard of living for the poorest members of our society if we genuinely want to tackle inequality and social ills; sadly it seems like we don’t care as long as it’s someone else’s problem. A US study identified how market forces can manipulate, and be manipulated to create, segregated neighbourhoods. The simple measure of the number of real estate brokers in a suburb indicated how affluent, and by extension how white, the residents of that area were.

While defensive architecture is a more passive means of keeping the “undesirables” out, sometimes planners and residents’ associations use more explicit means of telling people that they’re not welcome. There are two examples in London of people in a lower social class being banned from certain areas of the estate:

  • The One Tower Bridge development in Southwark, where the private owners of some of the flats want to restrict access to the communal garden so that the tenants in the council flats can’t use it; when this was always a condition of living there.
  • The Exchange development in Bermondsey, where shared ownership tenants do not have access to all the facilities that full owner-occupiers do. This is a particular worry, because it demonstrates a rise in what we perceive as the line between “rich” and “poor.” While I disagree with segregation whatever the social classes are, it seems ridiculous that somebody who only part-owns their home would be classed as in the “undesirable” group.

Another way that we segregate rich and poor is by conveniently locating the social housing out of the way of where the wealthy people live. This has happened in Stafford (and many other areas), but there are places where rich and poor have been housed side-by-side with no problems, like The Way in Beswick, and means have been identified within the industry to accommodate all residents without unrest. This includes building and finishing all dwellings to the same high standard, rather than one standard for “luxury” homes, and a lower standard for the social housing.

The impetus for segregation stems from ideas that people have about the old council estates, which were set up originally to house people who were less well-off, but from a broad range of social classes and backgrounds, but descended into “rough areas” only populated by the poorest. They became associated with crime and anti-social behaviour, yet instead of looking at the reasons behind the breakdown in these communities, the popular mood was to blame the poor families as if it were an inherent facet of their character. I hope that a trend for mixed communities develops, so that we can aim for cohesion and actually tackle the problems that cause people to fall from the standards society expects.

It’s up to us how we use the built environment to encourage and discourage certain behaviours. Whatever we build, it changes our landscape and way of living. All human interventions are political to some degree. We’re currently asking questions about the standard of living for our poorest citizens, resulting from the Grenfell disaster and recent failed Conservative government welfare reforms. However, there are vested interests in construction and property development that prioritise the accumulation of wealth over the accommodation of citizens from diverse backgrounds; and these in turn are tied to vested interests of cash-strapped local authorities pleased to receive investment from wherever they can obtain it. Without positive legislation to guarantee homes for citizens of all income bands, we are in danger of returning to the old council-estate ghettoes. We have an opportunity to define our spaces as welcoming for everyone, or we can put barriers in the way. Be careful, as you don’t know which side you’ll end up on.

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