Dirty Rotten Socials: making the Good City

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Photo courtesy of Alison Haigh/Wolff Olins

Last week I had the pleasure of taking part in the inaugural event of the House of St Barnabas’s ‘Dirty Rotten Socials’. The House of St Barnabas is a curious institution in the very heart of Soho: housed in a lovely Georgian building on Soho square, it is both a homeless charity, and a private members club. The Dirty Rotten Socials are an attempt (in partnership with Pioneers Post) to bring some discussion of the social issues with which the charity is preoccupied to the creative community that makes up its membership.

This first event, ‘Design Like You Give A Damn’, curated by Wolff Olins, invited five speakers from the world of design to present the audience with a provocation or question that they themselves ‘give a damn about’. The audience was then asked to tackle each question in small groups, proposing a ‘magic wand’ solution, an ‘ideal’ solution, and a realistic, actionable solution.

So, what do I give a damn about? I wondered. Having never been one for causes, I can certainly say I’m interested in lots of things, but I’m not sure that’s the same. And then, as is so often the case, a silly answer provided the kernel of honesty that set me on the right track: ‘Well obviously I just want things to be lovely all the time’, I sighed to myself. And in London, where I live, and where this debate was taking place, it is increasingly true that things can only really be lovely all the time if one is very wealthy. Except even then you’d be occasionally faced with the unlovely side of the city the rest of us have to contend with, which might take the shine off your otherwise perfectly composed day.

One thing I have always been caught up by is the nature of cities, and what makes places the way they are. What makes Rome so convivial, Copenhagen so civilised, London so dynamic? Far too much to tackle in one blog – or a five minute provocation. But through conversation with colleagues at BOP, who know far more about this than I do though their work on the World Cities Culture Forum, we boiled it down to a central challenge. That is, right now there is a force physically and socially reshaping London with astonishing rapidity: the influx of global capital.

It is de rigueur these days for cities to orient their policies toward attracting inward investment, and in London it is the oil that greases the machine of the city for which we should all be thankful. But unchecked it will run away with us: as in the 250 skyscrapers in the offing, an onslaught of urban surgery the scale of which the public, and apparently even Boris, was blissfully unaware. It’s also fuelling the (utterly bizarre) inflation in property prices, which means that no one with even a decent salary – and certainly not students or key workers – can afford to live anywhere near where they work. This commodification of the basic human need for shelter has negative consequences for so many people – something I’m sure the team at House of St Barnabas are acutely aware of. Ironically, the creative and cultural industries (who form the majority of HOSB members) are partly to blame. They are the frontier explorers leading the cycle of gentrification that ultimately often threatens their own place in the city.

So this was my question to the audience, and the poor souls in my group who had to try and come up with an answer: how do we protect our cities from the ravages of global capital, and make them decent places for everyone?

Needless to say, in the allotted time we didn’t solve this one, and in fact we spent quite a while debating what the Good City looks like anyway, and for who. In the end, our ‘magic wand’ solutions included putting something in the water that tempers greed, or at least detaching money-making from property. Our ‘ideal’ solutions included an obligation on those who make money out of money, without demonstrably creating jobs, to contribute to the public life of the city in some other way (funding free child care places for example). We also want to enforce a three day work week. And our realistic solution was an empty homes tax: making it more financially punitive for the global class of uber-rich to own property in London without either living in it or at least renting it out.

For my own part, I think crucially we need the complicity and leadership of politicians, planners and civil servants with vision, prepared to say no to development for private gain in favour of promoting more democratic solutions: Amanda Burden, the New York planner who fought for years for the high line to be turned into a park, is a good example. I wonder if ‘wishing for better politicians’ is in the magic wand category though?

But to end on a more positive note, one of our group (who wasn’t British) pointed out that – cost of living aside – in fact London is already more ‘for everyone’ than almost any other city in the world. ‘You can be whoever you want to be here, whatever that means, and thrive.’ So clearly it’s not all bad. The question is, how do we keep it that way?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Dirty Rotten Socials: making the Good City

  1. Pauline Degn

    As always Joss, an entertaining and provocative piece with some interesting and intriguing propositions. I do enjoy your writing style and choice of subject matters which more often than not lie outside my own areas of contemplation! I don’t always comment, but I do always read – keep ’em coming!

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