Demolition and Regeneration

‘Another example is today’s high rise of public housing projects. Originally conceived and carried through as major advances in ridding cities of slums, they involved the tearing down of rotting, rat-infested tenements, and the erection of modern apartment buildings. They were acclaimed as America’s refusal to permit people to live in the dirty shambles of the slums. It is common knowledge that hey have turned into jungles of horror and now confront us with the problem of how we can either convert or get rid of them. They have become compounds of double segregation – on the basis of both economy and race – and a danger for anyone compelled to live in these projects. A beautiful positive dream has grown into a negative nightmare’ (Alinsky, 1971).

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Built in the 1970s, The Heygate Estate, designed by Tim Tinker, was a large housing estate in the area of Elephant & Castle and was home to more than three thousand people. Part of the Brutalist architecture movement, prominent in the second half of the 20th century, the estate, which was first an enjoyable place to live, evolved into what was described as a ‘human dustbin’ (Heffer, 2010) or a ‘concrete fortress’ and it soon became an epithet for social failure, crime and antisocial behaviour. The building was, therefore, demolished in 2014, a decision brought by one of the biggest green regeneration programs of Europe: the Elephant Park Project, developed by the company Lend Lease, specialist in sustainable urban regeneration, in collaboration with the Southwark CouncilThe three billion pounds scheme foresees the construction of five-thousands new homes, three lines of boulevards, a new park at the heart of the city of London, community facilities and retail space in the whole area of Elephant & Castle. 

‘Elephant & Castle is a place where people just travel through; the program wants to make the area a place in which people want to stay. […] The 1960s architecture, the roundabouts and the unappealing subways are starting to be wiped away to create a new destination in which to live, work and play’ (35% Campaign, 2012).

Lies and myths 

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The revolutionary program carries, although, both exciting innovations and controversial mysteries. Plenty are, in fact, the ‘broken promises’ that the council made to the estate’s residents. As mentioned in the short film ‘Up the Elephant’ directed by Julie Speechley, in 1998 the tenants were, in fact, asked through a survey if they thought the area needed a significant change or not; 95% of the participants said yes, but the council failed to mention that it was only the 95% of the 5% of the residents to reply to the survey. Therefore, the decision of demolishing the building didn’t take into consideration the people’s opinion at all. Once the demolition was approved by the council, the tenants told that they simply didn’t have the money to maintain the estate anymore and that new social housing was going to be built for the residents of the building. The council had in fact planned the construction of 1100 new social rented homes in the area of Elephant & Castle, which had to replace the 1100 units of the Heygate, even though by January 2013 (few months before the demolition) only 209 of those homes had been completed and the total number reduced to 553. The residents who didn’t manage to find a new property within six months or refused the offers received from the council’s bidding scheme, were systematically subjected to eviction. Furthermore, of the five thousand new replacement homes 50% was promised in 2006 to be affordable, but in 2010, the percentage was reduced to only 25%. The final project also proposed to introduce sustainable materials and renewable energy, a promise that was never kept.

Whose regeneration?

Another controversy can be seen in the declaration that already in 1999, the Southwark’s Director of Regeneration, Fred Manson, expressed in an interview:

‘We need to have a wider range of people living in the borough. […] Social Housing generates people on low income coming in, and that generates poor school performances, middle-class people stay away’.
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‘Completely Naked’ – Flash Mob, Heygate Estate, 2012

The urban regeneration project thus revealed, in its early stages, to be willing of an inclusive gentrification scheme, planned ‘to bring in more wealthy residents with higher levels of social capital and labour market involvement and paying higher levels of local tax which could be used to benefit local residents’ (DeFilippis and North, 2004). The suspect that the whole regeneration scheme is an attempted social cleansing is well explained by the words used by Anna Minton (2013) in the article written for The Guardian: ‘the influx of a new class of plutocrats, seeking to take advantage of London’s global status as a tax haven, is undoubtedly skewing the top end of the property market. But while this is having an impact on the rest of the city, London’s reconfiguration is largely the result of deliberate housing policies, with cuts in housing benefit paralleled by plans for large-scale demolition and redevelopment schemes which will change the social composition of central London’. The regeneration project aims, therefore, in creating a more mixed community wealthy enough to afford the new houses and to make the area more suitable for the standards of central London.

 

Art in the Heygate

Initially hosting 1200 families, in 2010, the Heygate Estate was populated only by 54 of them and the whole building almost looked like the scenario of an apocalyptic movie (Independent, 2010).

‘The council has turned off heating and hot water on the Heygate Estate leaving the remaining residents, some sick and elderly, without utilities for weeks’ (Soutwark Notes, 2010).

The remaining tenants reunited into the Heygate & Aylesbury Leaseholders Action Group in reaction to the tactics played by the council.

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‘We are a group of leaseholders who have got together as a result of Southwark Council’s   plans to compulsory purchase our homes in order to make way for the coming regeneration scheme. We believe that leaseholders on the Heygate and Aylesbury estates are being excluded from the benefits of the Regeneration scheme. We believe that the council’s valuations do not reflect the true market value of our homes. There is a significant difference between the council’s valuations and the price of other properties in the area; This is resulting in many of us being forced to move out of the area completely’ (Southwark Notes, 2010).

Despite the council kept on closing the access to the estate, even though few residents were still living inside, the group organised small events for enjoying until the end their space and trying to prove the liveability and value that the estate could still demonstrate.

‘On the one hand, there has been a lot of heavy talk of supporting temporary uses such as gardening and social activities on the empty-ish site of the Heygate but then, on the other hand, they keep closing off access to the site itself despite the wealth of autonomous and free events, talks, walks, films, sports, allotments and other wonderful endeavours local people have been putting on there’ (Southwark Notes, 2011).

Interesting was also the interest that the film industry showed toward the building, which perfectly matched with scenes of gritty urban life, violence and degradation. Since 2007 the council earned £80.000 of filming fees.

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‘Is demolition ever the best way to regenerate?’ (Cathcart-Keays, 2014)

Before going to the site onto which the Heygate Estate once was erected, I didn’t know what to expect. Not knowing much about the history and the present conditions of the building, I tried to interview the people working in the area, although nobody could answer my questions: ‘is the regeneration project benefiting your liveability?’, ‘what happened to the people living in the estate?’, ‘what do you think went wrong?’, ‘was the demolition the best solution?’ etc.

 When I started to frequent Elephant & Castle, I was excited about the regeneration scheme of the area, as the present one is certainly not the most appealing for the eyes and it is inevitable to admit that it doesn’t reflect the standards of the Zone 1. Not being aware of the deprivation and exploitation that the people living in the area had suffered throughout the years or of the injustices hidden by ‘sustainable and innovative’ objectives, I was blind during my everyday journey from the Elephant & Castle tube station to the university. 

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From what I collected through the interviews, Elephant & Castle, as already mentioned, seems to be a place where people just travel through or where people just go to work and thus the disinterest about the problematics of the area. What impressed me was the complete lack of memory for what the estate was and the disregard of what the council wants it to become. The failure of my onsite researches perfectly reflected the sense of bleakness that the demolition has brought, which aimed at an architectural change and to a proper social and economic status renovation. The council won not only in dismantling the physical building but also in destroying the memories and the voices of the people who grew up in the estate.

According to Athlyn Cathcart-Keays (2014), demolition is certainly easy to market and it instantly gives a perception of progress. Nevertheless, the author also reports the point of view of the urbanist Ben Campkin who points out that it’s the negative connotation we built around estates that creates the impossibility of improving them. 

‘There is always an alternative to demolition. […] Rather than demolition, it is organic evolution that creates the most resilient communities. Forget tabula rasa regeneration, slow and steady wins the race. Just as nature renews itself, so a gradual process of pruning and regrowth is better suited to our neighborhoods. After all, successful regeneration of an area shouldn’t involve replacing the life that exists there. ‘ (Cathcart-Keays, 2014).

Bibliography:

  • 35% Campaign, (2012). 35% Campaign. .
  • Lees, L. (2004). The Emancipatory Community? Paradoxes and Possibilities. London: Sage Publications Ltd, pp. 74-86.
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