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Elite Takeovers of the Vertical City

Stephen Graham 7 December 2016

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"Vertical housing has transmuted in a generation into a movement of the elites into super-expensive condo towers."

Cities around the world are now segregated by height, with the world's wealthiest living at the highest points. It's a new form of class war from above, the politics around which are under-explored.

In this edited extract from
Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers, Steve Graham looks at how the geography of inequality, politics, and identity is playing out in our increasingly vertical and unequal cities.

Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers is currently 50% off with free shipping as part of our end-of-year sale.

The 2015 film adaptation of JG Ballard’s High-Rise. Photograph: Allstar/FILM4

Dead Windows: Planning as Social Cleansing in London

Given London’s status as the site of the largest concentration for ‘ultra-high net worth individuals’ on the planet, it is no surprise that developers there are similarly focusing overwhelmingly on building super-high-end, and increasingly super-tall, £2 million-plus properties for the global überwealthy.

As in Manhattan, many of them are holding properties for large investments, and these sites will rarely, if ever, be inhabited by people at all. Such properties, the Observer’s Alex Preston argues, ‘have become lavishly upholstered safety deposit boxes’ – buildings that consume iconic views for largely absentee owners while appreciating vast speculative profits. As in Vancouver and New York, many will remain unoccupied, their darkened façades and empty rooms looming arrogantly and absurdly over a population experiencing its worst housing crisis in living memory. London also provides a classic example of the ways in which simplistic critiques and representations of the supposed failures of vertically built mass social housing have paved the way for the proliferation of towers for the super-rich. Speaking of one of the forty-three-floor elite housing towers in Stratford, one legacy of London’s Olympics-based ‘regeneration’ in 2012, architecture critic Juston McGuirk ponders that the building is the ‘sort of high-rise that was supposed to be unpopular in this country [the UK], discredited architecturally and politically, at least when it was called council [social] housing.’

In 2013, 85 per cent of all housing purchases in inner London – largely those in the higher and ‘super-high’ price brackets – were being snapped up by non-UK nationals (mainly nationals from China, Singapore, Malaysia, Russia and Hong Kong, places where London real estate agents hold lavish prebuild sales events). Such frenzied speculation, often as a means of anonymously recycling money derived from corruption in a city now widely regarded as the world capital of money laundering, is pushing already-astronomical prices further ‘into the stratosphere’.

Startlingly, as in New York, the numbers of residential super-high towers in London are rapidly overtaking the more traditional towers of corporate and banking headquarters. In the biggest reorganization of London’s urban form since the rebuilding after the Great Fire in 1666, over 250 towers of at least twenty storeys are now in the pipeline. The shift in profitability is such that office towers are also being converted to residential uses. 

As in Vancouver, the vast majority of these towers, egged on by London’s government for consolidating the skyscraper skyline of a prominent ‘world city’, are being justified using vague platitudes about ‘density’ and ‘sustainability’ when in fact they are merely built as investment opportunities for global elites. Indeed, the 6 per cent of demand within the £2 million-plus category of so-called ‘new prime’ market for the elite is currently receiving 50 per cent of all housing investment in London. This is almost equal to the entire investment going to house the 50 per cent of the city’s population – fully 4 million people –who live on earnings of less than £50,000 per year.

Such a situation is the direct result of an obsession among London’s governing elite with sycophantically luring in the global super-rich. Such elites, Boris Johnson, London’s mayor from May 2008 to May 2016, said in November 2013, echoing Mayor Bloomberg’s comments in New York, ‘deserve our humble and hearty thanks’. For if they didn’t ‘employ eau de cologne-dabbers’, he added, ordinary families ‘might otherwise find themselves without a breadwinner.’

Real estate economics are also obviously pivotal. One market report in 2012 described the economics of marketising air, verticality and spectacular views in plain terms: ‘In terms of height, the general rule is, “the higher the apartment, the greater the price premium”. This not only reflects the enhanced views, but also the increased exclusivity of living towards the top of a tall tower.’ The report estimated that, for every floor upwards in London, market values for elite residential apartments per square foot increase by 1.5 per cent. Adding the name of a famous architect and fitting the unit out with balconies, exceptional space standards and super-high-end bathrooms, floors, kitchens and technology further compounds such increased profitability. 

Meanwhile, the totally inadequate production of affordable or social housing means that London’s poorer and middle-class populations are either displaced altogether or squeezed into ever more overcrowded and overpriced accommodation within the rest of London’s housing stock. Between 2012 and 2015, over 50,000 low-income families were physically displaced from inner London because of the housing crisis combined unprecedented cuts in welfare funding.

Many low-wage workers who remain are pivotal to the functioning of the city, but are crammed into tiny, illegally rented and often dangerous spaces in attics, basements, sheds and garages. Often highly overcrowded, with no provision for decent sanitation or fire escapes, and with no official record on maps and statistical registers, such improvised dwellings become extremely vulnerable to fires. ‘It’s a major concern if there’s a fire’, Anthony Bertuca, city attorney in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn, said about similar processes occurring there in 2010. ‘And the firemen don’t know that there’s an apartment in the basement, or an apartment in the back, the attic, or that the first floor is separated.’

In London, this situation has been dramatically compounded by the callous selling off and gentrification of public housing by local and central governments and the withdrawal of a wide range of welfare benefits for families, the disabled and other marginalised groups living in inner London. Worse still, the only way London’s boroughs can now generate even tiny amounts of capital for ‘affordable’ housing – which still remains very expensive and out of reach of the genuinely poor – is through contributions from the developers of elite luxury towers in the form of ‘planning gain’. (Even this fig leaf now faces abolition from the Tory government.)

London’s remaining estates of social and council housing – and the inherited legacies of modernist mass social housing such as the Heygate Estate in Southwark on the South Bank – meanwhile, are being ‘regenerated’ in ways that displace residents, re-engineer the areas as upper-middle-class or elite housing, and offer token units of affordable housing by way of camouflage. In such cases, the crumbling legacies of visions of mass social housing organised vertically with high levels of space, services and greenery are erased, to be directly replaced by new elite towers. 

Controversially, many such towers are also being designed with separate, utilitarian ‘poor doors’ which shift the small number of lower- income tenants far away from the luxurious street-facing foyers reserved for affluent owner-occupiers. Prompting social conflicts reminiscent of Ballard’s sci-fi novel High Rise, social or ‘affordable’ housing tenants of the blocks are also often denied access to collective gardens because they don’t pay full maintenance charges. On other occasions, faults in water supplies have led the owners to supply temporary hosed water – but only to wealthy owner-occupiers. Social housing tenants also complain that their apartments are often not marked on entrance signs to developments.

‘At Elephant and Castle in south London’, the Independent’s Mira Bar-Hillel observes, referring to Heygate’s regeneration-by-demolition, ‘a council estate where over 1,500 families lived is to be replaced by developers Lend Lease with over 2,000 private homes, and it’s rumoured that only 79 will be for social renting. Southwark Council describes this as “regeneration”.’ Even single-bedroom apartments within the new development will sell for well over £400,000.

Worse still, while tenants have been scattered to the far (and cheaper corners) of London and beyond, scrutiny of the financial deals behind the scheme is all but impossible because of the secret deals between developers and the municipalities. ‘Councils are pleased to turn a blind eye so they have higher rate payers within their boroughs’, Ian Steadman of the New Statesman remarks. ‘Developers getting … land at a fraction of its true value, on the promise of future profits that mysteriously never arrive; a revolving door between local authorities and regeneration consultancy and PR firms.’

The impact of speculation on central land values, and the huge profits to be made from replacing the neglected remnants of social and municipal housing with elite housing towers, radically undermines the chances that large-scale social housing will survive in London’s core. Instead, as in New York, the super-elite is taking to the skies.

Sometimes, London’s better-quality modernist towers – such as Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower – have escaped the wrecking ball. Instead, exploiting Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ for council tenants, their apartments are now privatised and sold at high prices to design conscious elites (often professional architects). The original social objectives of the towers – and the social and leftist orientations of their architects – have been quietly forgotten. In parallel with its protection from demolition through formal ‘listing’ as a building of historic importance, the Balfron Tower – lesser known twin of the Trellick – is now being sold off on the open market to wealthy purchasers by a housing association as a means of raising capital. There will be no ‘social’ or ‘affordable’ renting in the new regime. ‘Design-centric living – which the architect envisaged for the everyday Londoner – will again be accessible only to the privileged few.’

One artist who is about to be evicted from the tower notes how the community has moved from a mixed and cosmopolitan one to a homogenous white professional demographic. ‘It’s scandalous’, he spits. ‘If these flats are bought by overseas investors and then sit unoccupied, Ernö Goldfinger, a lifelong socialist, will be turning in his grave.’

More perverse still, stylised images of Balfron and its sister tower Trellick are now widely used to adorn the chic modernist mugs, posters, cushions, crockery and even tea towels available in the designer shops that pepper London’s hyper-gentrified neighbourhoods. In building up a cultural obsession with ‘austerity chic’ and firing up demand among an affluent, design-conscious clientele for the tower’s now-private apartments, the image is used to sell off a great achievement of the socially universal welfare state. It therefore presides over what architecture critic Owen Hatherley calls ‘the literal destruction of the thing it claims to love.’

St George Wharf Tower on the south bank of the Thames. Photograph: Hemzah Ahmed

Elite Takeovers of the Urban Skies

Vertical housing has transmuted in a generation into a secession of the elites into super-expensive condo towers. While not completely ignored, the politics surrounding this process remain under-explored.

It is clear that the circulation of images of the spectacular demise of housing projects like Pruitt-Igoe or Red Road increasingly ceases to connect to any reasoned discussion of the complexities surrounding vertical social housing. Instead, in bolstering grand stories about social high-rises, they stand as incitations to never build vertical socially oriented housing in the West again. Like Alice Coleman’s essentialising critiques, they stifle creative debate about how well-designed, well-managed and affordable housing in Western cities in the future might take other forms than low-level apartment blocks or the ground-hugging neo-traditional houses with their Newmanian defensible space, so beloved of New Urbanists. Meanwhile, bolstered by trickle-down ideas like those Ed Glaeser, in parallel with the evisceration and privatisation of the inheritance of social housing, city cores are being systematically re-engineered through speculative real estate and financial bubbles as the spaces for neo liberal elites.

With mass social housing projects largely undermined by processes of neoliberalisation within many contemporary cities, vertical housing – as with so many aspects of the politics of verticality – has transmuted in a generation into a secession of the elites into super-expensive condo towers. Indeed, the widespread construction of vertical, gated towers for the merely wealthy and the super-rich in many cities now rivals their more familiar horizontal shift to gated suburban, exurban or resort enclaves.

While not completely ignored, the politics surrounding this process remain under-explored. As already discussed, this is partly because the growth of glitzy housing towers for the wealthy in city cores is often being camouflaged by suggestions that such towers are part of a needed movement to ‘densification’ and increased urban ‘sustainability’. The elite take-over of the urban skies is also neglected because overwhelmingly horizontal frames are used – especially in the Anglophone world – to discuss and imagine urban inequality. Thus far, arguments about the clustering of elites into fortressed enclaves have tended to be, as anthropologists Kevin Lewis O’Neill and Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela put it, ‘supremely horizontal observations’ linked with studies of gated communities and fortified enclaves in the suburbs and exurbs scattered to the peripheries of cities. 

A growing range of urban writers and activists are, however, starting to address the ascension of the fortressed elites. Anti-gentrification social movements in cities as diverse as San Francisco, Istanbul, Tokyo, London, Hong Kong, Manila, Delhi, Mumbai, Vancouver. Melbourne and Toronto – where over 85 per cent of all central housing construction is now in the form of condominiums – now actively suggest that the central landscapes of these cities are being transformed through processes of ‘vertical sprawl’ erecting large numbers of ‘vertical gated communities’.

The Vancouver critique is especially important because of the way in which the city authorities there have concentrated housing investment into a large number of central glass-covered condo towers as part of their influential ‘smart growth’ programme. Vancouver’s authorities have ‘consciously willed [the city] into becoming a model of contemporary city-making.’43 Such ‘Vancouverism’ is based heavily on the construction of luxury condo towers through the central area, located sometimes on sites where low-rise, lower-income and social housing stood previously.44 As in many other cities, the experience of Vancouver’s vertical housing growth powerfully demonstrates that ‘densification processes that lack social measures for securing tenure for long-time residents lead to the displacement of poorer people, and to increased socio-spatial disparities.’ 

As geographers Jamie Peck, Elliot Siemiatycki and Elvin Wyly argue, the Vancouver model has been sold as a ‘winning combination of density, livability and sustainability – all rendered seductively real in the forest of glass-walled condominium towers that has colonized the downtown core since the late 1980s.’ Beneath the boosterist gloss, however, and despite laudable efforts of planners to protect key sightlines and integrate towers into the streetscapes below, they diagnose an effective suburbanisation of Vancouver’s downtown. This has occurred, they argue, as the gentrifying speculation of condo towers, fuelled by the flow of money from wealthy Asian investors, has remade the central city as an increasingly homogenous, exclusionary and – because many condos are bought as assets that are rarely used –sometimes even uninhabited space.

Vancouver’s formulaic repetition of architecturally cloned, squeaky-clean and socially homogenous towers can be seen, indeed, as an implantation of suburban logics into a previously much more diverse and unpredictable – that is to say, urban – landscape. ‘If the condos of Vancouverism were once seen as edgy and innovative, by virtue of their challenge to North America’s picketfence hegemony’, Peck and his colleagues write, ‘their subsequent commodification, materially and culturally, is reducing them to vehicles for capital gains accumulation and marketing clichés.’ Startlingly standardised, with their hardwood floors, high-end appliances and granite worktops, the condos in Vancouver have become ‘highly fungible [that is, interchangeable] and slickly marketed investment commodities’. 

Designed to consume the most spectacular views of Vancouver’s alluring combination of ocean and mountain vistas, and offering a gamut of luxury facilities and services within street-facing podium structures – tanning salons, private cinemas, pools, bars and shops –Vancouver’s condo towers have been widely lauded by planners across the world as means of improving urban ‘sustainability’ and ‘localism’ and sustaining ‘smart growth’. Such structures, the argument goes, increase the density of core populations within walkable neighbourhoods. At the same time, they are praised for reducing shifts of the wealthy to auto-dependent suburbs, bolstering municipal coffers and paying, through real estate taxes, for wider infrastructure improvements and public services that the whole city can use.

Such arguments are often questionable. Central-city condos for the wealthy tend to be built with lavish parking garages. Social and lower-cost housing also tends to be notable by its absence within such blocks. In a study of condo developments in Toronto, architecture researcher Michael Panacci found that the top of the building podiums, replete with lighted lagoons and luxury bars, often tends to be more active than the real street below, which is often now fringed by the highly securitised buildings and their car-garage entrances.

The result is often a simulated urbanity – but one that is elitist, controlled, sterile and removed from the wider public city. ‘As these jointly owned spaces increase in complexity and use, they begin to form a new interior urban realm’,  Panacci continues. ‘If Jane Jacobs’ view of urbanity centred on the street and neighbourhood block in the 60’s, it is becoming abundantly clear that to the current generation, urbanity must now surely include the condo corridor, elevator, its amenity spaces and the lobby.’

Panacci’s research also shows that neighbourly interaction between the residents of new condo towers is often minimal. Such mixing is now made especially difficult by the design of exit-only stairwells and securitised elevators that allow residents access only to their ‘home’ floors. Instead, the ‘repetitive residences become hermetic pods, supported by luxurious facilities and in-house amenities. It’s an easy matter to emphasise suitability when the rest of the city is pushed to the perimeter, visually and mentally.’ This distancing is in fact emphasised in the marketing and naming of new towers. Gleaming structures are depicted in brochures and ads as completely isolated structures surrounded by wooded parks that don’t exist; one tower in central Toronto is even labelled a block of ‘flying condominiums’ invoking the raising up of living space as a shift away from the terrestrial city altogether. 

Vancouver’s condo boom is even more problematic because of the relative weakness of the city’s economy and labour market. Indeed, the city’s main industries in the last three decades have centred on the very real-estate complex involved in the physical remaking – and marketing – of the Vancouverist myth as a means to draw in further investment from far-off places. ‘Someone recently said, “No one knows what drives Vancouver”’, a former Vancouver city councillor related recently. ‘Well, what drives Vancouver is that people make wealth in unpleasant places and they come here and spend their wealth in a pleasant place – that’s it!’

Far from reducing the cost of housing for people who already live in the city – a central tenet of Ed Glaeser’s argument – the powerful and globe-spanning speculative forces unleashed by this process have merely hiked up housing prices ever more beyond levels that can be sustained by locals drawing wages from the relatively weak local economy. Vancouver has by far the highest housing costs of any Canadian city. And yet some of the new condo districts in the downtown are eerily quiet because they are in effect resort spaces bought up by wealthy elites in Asia and elsewhere in North America, to be used during the odd skiing or summer vacation. Far from being a model of sustainability, affordability, and liveabiliy, then, Vancouver, as local architect Bing Thom puts it, has been remodelled into ‘a tourist resort and a place to park money’.

Extracted from 
Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers by Stephen Graham - currently 50% off with free shipping as part of our end-of-year sale.

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