The Global Urbanist

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Strange plans to gentrify Hackney will exacerbate inequality yet may create needed jobs

Young writer Frances Brill reflects on those of her peers who rioted in London two years ago, and wonders whether the plans to deliberately gentrify the areas most affected will target investment to the creation of badly needed jobs or simply ramp up inequality and tension.

Cities: London

Topics: New cities and special projects, Place promotion, Property and real estate, Poverty and inequality, Youth and education, Social conflict, Architecture and urban design

The Aquascutum factory outlet at the corner of Chatham Place and Morning Lane in Hackney, formerly a workers' breakfast cafe, and soon to be a multi-million dollar fashion hub. Photo: Stephen McKay (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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In August 2011 London erupted with rioting, originating in the northeast suburb of Tottenham after the death of Mark Duggan and spreading like wildfire, fuelled by new technology and a pervasive sense of injustice. David Lammy, MP for the constituency, speaking at the London School of Economics the following February, cited a sense of exclusion and the huge discrepancy in opportunity between the haves and the have-nots as the sentiment most making the area difficult to govern. Two years later economic inequality is still on the rise in Britain, but two projects have been launched to tackle the remaining issues. Tottenham has been promised a £500-million, 10,000-home development, whilst nearby Hackney has different ideas.

Hackney Fashion Hub, a proposed two-bespoke-building development, hopes to transform the borough to the heights of style, stimulating economic prosperity and tackling the issue of unemployment highlighted by the events of 2011. It will build upon the successes of existing outlet stores (Burberry, Pringle, Aquascutum), but arguably will have limited effects on the identified root causes of the riots.

A sense of futility

Martin Luther King summed it up well: "rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility."

The London Riots were a reaction to the economic and social situation. The storming of streets, looting and the starting of fires were a reflection of previously unexpressed anger. In our modern consumerist society where one's material possessions are considered to be the indicator of success, the sense of entitlement amongst youths had grown and with it restlessness. The widening gap between the rich and poor and the proximity of those that have to those that haven't caused fury within a society that lacked the legal and political structure required to control the rage.

A few years down the line and tens of millions of pounds are to be spent tackling the problems, and the chosen method? An array of high-end fashion and gallery spaces, a Hub that will dominate the landscape, displace existing residents, outprice local renters, and provide shops that many can't afford to purchase from. High-end fashion is not the solution to the riotous behaviour, it will emphasise the class divide, split society further and evoke an even greater sense of anger. Gentrification in nearby Dalston has been blamed for pushing out existing black residents, with young highly paid professionals pushing in. 

Putting the investment to work

There is hope though: it will create jobs. Since it has been proven that unemployment is a strong determinant of riot size and intensity, new jobs will help. The designers of the project are partnering with Ways into Work, a scheme to get locals employed in the new businesses. The idea is that local people will fill the vacancies, generating an improved local economy and empowering them. The ideology behind the scheme is sound but implementing it will be challenging. The borough is deprived, with high unemployment, and high-end fashion jobs in companies that focus on the consumerist culture highlighted by the riots seems incongruous. The jobs need to match the skills of the local people. There currently stands no concrete plan though to fully target those involved in the riots, those most in need of jobs; time will tell whether the new shops really will hire locals in the promised numbers.

The optics of the project must also be called into question. Pedestrianising an area does not ensure that people will venture beyond the immediate buildings, as hoped for under the proposals. Aesthetic renovation is unlikely to tackle the underlying problems; there needs to be policies aimed at creating a much broader sense of place, a sense of a community with hope for the future that people won't want to rebel against. And the promotion of David Adjaye, the Power List 2013's "Britain's most influential black person" as the chief architect may help to tackle the issue of racism; however, the ethnic breakdown of the project team is unlikely to have a lasting impact on the poverty and tension that cused the riots and should not be overestimated.

Cosmetic surgery of historic buildings will not tackle the problems at hand. It is an odd investment decision that could take the borough on an unexpected trajectory to become the home of London's fashion scene, or it could lead to perceived reactionary revanchism by the ruling classes and worsen a proven destructive situation.


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