Image: Garlick Man parade in Telegraph Hill, summer solstice 2014
You’ll see from my latest work update (and previous ones) that I’m doing several projects that are about children and young people developing a sense of place and thrivable engagement with it, as places change either through development, ‘managed ruination’ or bigger forces. Living in London for the past 22 years that’s the changing place that concerns me most. It’s fashionable right now to be tired of London. There have been pieces by ‘journaliterati’ cashing in on their equity to move out, whilst railing about London being tired of life. The counter stream to these is pieces affirming a loyal love for dirty old London, usually by those who can enjoy its rich cultural offer and, moreover, can get away from it when they want. In both streams there is a lot of truth, in witnessing change that is seriously affecting other people than themselves and in an appreciation of the current creative vibrancy in the city.
But it’s these two things together that are the crux of London’s problems. The richer it gets, culturally and financially, the more its culture is threatened and the more people suffer poverty. Boris Johnson, the Mayor, is happy to let London’s skyline be plundered for profit, joking that “London is to the billionaire as the jungles of Sumatra are to the orangutans. It is their natural habitat.” (The irony is that those billionaires buying up London are some of the same also profiting from the deforestation of Indonesia or the destruction of countryside in China.) Boris’s joviality, whilst engineering these very conditions, shows a major deficit of empathy especially for young people and for those running small businesses.
For young people starting out in London from scratch, their dreams – of even basic progress in life – are becoming untenable. Houses are entirely unaffordable unless you already have property or a 6 figure salary. Commercial rents are rising rapidly, pricing out independent and creative businesses. Landowners can convert old buildings used for cheap workplaces into profitable sales, bought to make profit rather than to use the space to do good. Most new-build is allocated to luxury flats and high-end offices and sold to foreign absent investors. Consequently “there is a shortage of capacity for economic and cultural life; the city is much less able to nurture entrepreneurialism.” (Mark Brearley, LMU) Architecture critic Rowan Moore writes about how the domestic, organic and neighbourly qualities of some London housing estates are being eradicated, seen as brownfield sites for turning into high density luxury housing. In Lambeth, for example, almost everything created by William Morris devotee Ted Hollamby is under threat.
The rhetoric of all major parties is that there is a shortage of houses. We hear it so often it has become an indisputable truth. So, planning laws are loosened and license granted to rip up countryside, school playing fields, green spaces and social housing, in order to enable profit from building higher value properties. The truth is (give or take a few numbers) that there are 635,000 empty homes in England. Nearly 2.5 million Britons own second homes, around 1.5 million of these within England.
So, what about children and young people in this situation? The latest budget is a clear signal that the Government does not care about them. Families with children will be worse off, losing tax credits and benefits. Young people form the majority of unemployed, are increasingly excluded from benefits, are paying yet more for education and the Living Wage does not apply to them. Provision for CYP outside formal education is being cut. Between 2012 and 2014 Youth Services have lost £60 million, 41,000 places, 35,000 hours of outreach work, 2000 youth workers and 350 centres and since June 2015, schools will have £450 million less to spend on out-of-school activities.
At the same time formal education is becoming more, well, formal. Tests and exams are overwhelming all other means of measuring success and children are suffering record levels of stress and illness as a result. Danny Dorling, in an article on how Government policies are turning education into a production line, explores this: “We test so much because our government wants children, schools and parents to know their place and focus on their own little individual aspirations.”
The onus to support children to thrive in communities will fall increasingly on schools (within their formal provision) and on ‘placemaking’ initiatives linked to developments (via S106 obligations or proactive community strategies by developers). Evaluating the impact of these initiatives will be complicated by the general depletion of provision, with the result that these projects will be more appreciated but also may not result in as much thriving as similar initiatives were seen to have achieved a few years ago.
It’s important to be rigorous about the purpose and intended outcomes of such projects, because of the shifting politics behind them and because placemaking itself is political. “Placemaking for children and youth is a political act, and all educators and educational researchers are all engaged in such politics. Spaces can be created to control, indoctrinate, colonise and discipline young bodies/minds just as they can be created to actively cultivate creativity, curiosity and social critique.” (Jones et al 2014)
From one ideological standpoint, young people are expected to know their place (in a hierarchy), while from another standpoint, we hope that young people can come to know their place by creating it and thriving in it. When schools are increasingly overwhelmed by the former standpoint, and when places are being developed with a profiteering mindset, how can we create enough room and investment for the more nurturing and creative standpoint? What will be the result of the two rubbing together?
I’m just going to finish by quoting Emma Bearman (Culture Vulture) from her call to arms for play: “For me, Play is a brilliant trojan. How can we deny people the right to fresh air, freedom and kinship? Street play and green spaces need to be encouraged ahead of selling off public assets to private profiteers. Austerity might be forcing a fire sale and demolition of public assets, but think what legacy we are creating for the future generations of residents if we don’t reclaim our common spaces and demand better for ourselves. If we truly care about ‘raising aspirations’ we should be bringing people together, not seeking to ‘cure’ them.”