Friday, 26 August 2011

Architecture, Housing, Making Communities, Grrr....

Managed to catch the final day of the "50 Years of London Architecture"  organised by The
Architecture Club, at a funky exhibition space called AMBIKA P3, just off Baker St. in the centre of London.  I think it used to be an underground service area or car park, but it is quite impressive, and this is  a part of it.

 The exhibition consisted of over 350 huge images of architecture built in London since 1960 and to be honest it made me feel proud of London, to see how many people have spent so much effort and money on  making it look good and work well.

I was specially impressed by a photo of Broadwall, part of the social housing at Coin St. on the South Bank (which I blogged about last time). Here's a snap of the exhibition picture which shows it off well.  (A picture of a photo - weird!)

I was also impressed by the gorgeous looking St. Mungo's homeless hostel in SE London - read about it, and see a photo,  here.

I'm interested in social housing, so last night I watched the BBC4 television documentary "The Great Estate, the Rise and Fall of the Council House."    If you live in the UK, I recommend taking a look on the BBC iPlayer.

If you're not in the UK, and aren't interested in housing per se, then you might consider stopping reading here, because I'm about to embark upon a rant.

Ever since watching this programme, I have been fuming about the Government's plans to limit the length of social housing tenancies instead of offering them to people for life.   What the programme pointed up (and of course it is echoed in real life), is the way that most people blossom when living in a COMMUNITY, where everyone has not only rights but responsibilities - the right to a secure and decent home and the responsiblity for keeping that home in reasonable order, for behaving well towards neighbours and making an effort to fit in with others.  

I'm lucky enough to live in a part of London with reasonable sense of community, largely due to an innovative mutual housing society which owns many houses in the the  area,  and the fact that the gardens of several areas of local flats have been mostly blended into one large traffic free, communal garden, locked against outsiders, each garden serving about 50 or 60 houses and apartment blocks.  Here's an example in this picture.  

The permanent residents are what keep these places going - either they have bought or have long term tenancies. They are the ones who maintain the gardens, and keep the housing society running. The short term tenants are very nice people but I have not known any who take part in community activities.  And yes, believe me there are people in the established community who only cause trouble, complain, criticise, grab all they can and try to trash the place.  But if everyone else behaves okay, the destructive behaviour of the relatively few, can generally be dealt with person-to-person, and doesn't get out of hand.

I think that the government's current idea of turning Britain's council estates into vast swathes of temporary housing, with residents constantly having to be re-assessed for eligibility,but not expected to repay that in any way (like by keeping things clean and behaving well)  is utterly destructive of any sense of community.  It's hard to see how any collection of temporary tenants can care about their estate, its public spaces or its sense of order when they have absolutely NO incentive to identify with it.   And if decent behaviour is not even expected of them, either, it all becomes totally nihilistic.  What on earth sort of environment is that to raise kids in? 

I know the arguments against subsidising people who can afford "better" housing, but having estates that are only for the extremely poor, extra needy, anti-social and vulnerable, is surely condemning the kids who live there to difficult, dysfunctional upbringings and much more trouble and expense for everyone in the long run.
It seems to suggest that the official priority, despite all the fine talk and hot air,  is not actually about building communities, and so it is not about helping poorer people to live decent and pleasant lives and therefore can not be about fixing the kind of social tensions which helped fuel our recent riots.  Policing and social work intervention alone will not create good places to live. The people themselves do that, and they should be helped to establish themselves, not uprooted as soon as their income gets above a certain level. 

Well, I could rant on about this for ages but I won't ... normal service wll be resumed shortly.


  1. Depressing isn't it? I completely agree with what you have said. Roll on the next election!

  2. Hello Jenny:
    It is, we believe, the responsibility of government to ensure adequate and acceptable housing is available to all who are not in a position to become owner occupiers. What is more, we can see no reason why council tenants should not enjoy the highest possible standard of accommodation and environment which is feasible and affordable and, at the very least, they should have security of tenure. In this way, as you argue here, communities are built and people feel that they belong and contribute to the well being of all as and when they are able.

    But then we deplore the current low level of social housing.

  3. Being in the US, I have a general idea what "council housing" is but don't really understand the who/why basics. I gather it is something like the "Section 8" welfare/assistance housing we have here in CA, USA.


  4. Change is difficult. I live in a rural area, my location chosen for the privacy and quiet. I'm struggling with the fact that new neighbors are moving in and "encroaching" on my peace. Mind you, they are nice and no one is terrible close, nor will be because of the size of the lots (all greater than 1 acre), yet the change is unsettling to me. I hate to see the area becoming more crowded .... even though I was a "crowder" 5 years back!

  5. @darla Council housing is I guess like public housing but it began as a means of offering decent housing to hard working slum dwellers - what the Victorians called the "deserving poor" (!) (yikes) It began as homes for heroes afterWW1 and was a central part of post WW2 welfare state. I have many friends who grew up very happily in council houses. @lynilu yes it is horrid to feel crowded out - I have a friend who grew up in rural countryside near Orlando pre Disney... You can imagine! Glad your neighbours are nice anyway. @ Jane and Lance your attitude is tge one I grew up with and agree with - it only works though if the tenants are expected to behave decently and kicked out if they trash it - ie respect all round. @ Sarah I wasn't that impressed with labours take on it sadly
    but there's a new generation coming up I keep hoping...

  6. nice pics these are... and Baker St reminds me of Sherlock Holmes... :)

  7. It's very interesting to witness the improvement in building that occurred these last few decades. Fortunately, architects seem to be competing to produce original, innovative, futurist yet sensible and elegant style of buildings.

  8. You make some very good points on social housing here, Jenny. Having spent time in short term privately rented housing I know how unsettling it is to have to move because your landlord wants his place back. And to make people move when their income gets above a certain level doesn't give them much incentive to get on in life. Definitely a lack of joined-up thinking in housing policy of the last few years.

  9. I couldn't agree with you more about council/ social housing. I've seen the gradual deterioration from respectable council estates full of people who took a pride in their community to the present residual estates full of problem families who couldn't care less about anyone but themselves. There should be a lot more council housing with, as you say, long-term tenants and enough functional, hard-working families to create a thriving community.

  10. Seeing as I have many architect friends, any information concerning new things in architecture is fascinating to me. How amazing that you have described the community in which you live! I agree with you completely - the living environment needs to contain pleasant architecture, the presence of nature, and also good neighbours!

  11. The exhibition looks lots of fun, as I’m interested in various architecture styles. The last photo shows how nice your environment is. In my town, a nice and quiet residential area, many residents like to keep their gardens neat, clean, and beautiful and volunteer to clean the public area from time to time. There’s no place like home and local community - people share that thoughts.

    I think governmental support is necessary to some extent but I hope the world where individual labors and efforts are the most rewarded.

  12. what a nice exhibition, i would've enjoyed it.

    i don't know the details of the issue, so can't have a firm stance. but i do understand all your points about community. in fact, it's one of the key reasons for higher crime rates, a lack of community spirit and thereby responsibility.

  13. I think the current government talk tough, then wimp out at the first sign of any major confrontation. We've had U turns on health service reforms and the BSkyB sale already.
    Already there is a groundswell of opinion that they cannot limit housing benefit or means test people in existing homes.

    Watch this space :)

  14. Our fundamental need to live in and contribute to nurturing communities is ever more important to defend these days, when it tends to be brushed aside, and particularly in big cities. Of course governments will generally not support this because once people are established in and supported by communities, they generally turn more socially minded and begin lobbying their governments on anything from big business, corporate taxes, pollution, poverty, corruption - and we wouldn't want that now, would we?


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