In case you think that what follows is an exaggeration, please take a quick look at the recent articles listed below. They are only a small selection from a rising wave of articles on gentrification and the new super-rich. It’s interesting that the New York-based City Limits piece mentions Vancouver first; we are after all a world leader in unaffordability, non-regulation, luxury towers and property speculation. But the Paris article is particularly depressing. I’m not even going to go into the mega-developments inflaming Istanbul.
Financial Times: Priced Out of Paris: Our great, global cities are turning into vast gated citadels where the elite reproduces itself
Financial Times: The Future of the American City
City Limits: Embrace the Worldwide Movement Against Gentrification
CBC: World’s Wealthy Richer Than Ever
I’ve noticed little consideration of what the disappearance of the middle class is going to mean, in a concrete way, for cities, architecture and design.
As most of us are quickly priced out of our former living arrangements by the buying and investment practices of the new global elite—by the lack of regulation that allows these practices and by the real estate development industry that profits from them—most of us have only two choices. We must either migrate out to suburbs or outlying towns, or we can attempt to hang on in the cities, accepting smaller and smaller spaces, higher rents, higher land prices and rising property taxes. (Or move to another city altogether, hoping for a job in a place not subject to global speculation.) Meanwhile the very urban “density” supposedly designed to combat unsustainable urban sprawl now sits largely empty, awaiting infrequent or nonexistent visits from jet-setting owners, and sprawl proceeds apace while big developers make wild fortunes at everyone else’s expense.
It feels increasingly creepy that the “shelter magazines” promoting home decor haven’t really dealt with this yet, except in an accommodating manner. Yes, they’ve always pandered to the very rich, and to those who like to look at the homes of the very rich (myself included), and they will keep doing that. (Though I’m not sure how they’ll deal with the increasing unease about income disparity that is starting to seize all sectors of their readership, at both the top and near-bottom of the income scale.) Meanwhile there is now an entire industry in “decorating in small spaces” publications. Despite being a homewares designer myself, I realized lately that somewhere along the way I stopped buying shelter magazines. Maybe it’s that their disconnection from reality crossed a threshold into a creepy surreality that’s part Brazil, part David Foster Wallace, part generic dystopia. That whole world seems to have its fingers in its ears right now. La la la la I can’t hear you.
As for the design effects, the eradication of the middle class is almost certainly already affecting the design and quality of manufactured items, as well as the form of our architecture and the development of architectural styles, in ways no one seems to talk about. I’d be curious to know if anyone has yet inventoried these formal changes and market patterns. The loss of quality, the loss of design integrity, the cheapness at the low end, the grotesque baroquerie or conspicuous consumption at the top.
The first pattern that comes to mind is architects taking a back seat to developers and marketers in the profit-maximizing climate. The result is what’s known around here as “marketecture.” Increasingly the form of buildings has nothing to do with what city-dwellers or planners would like to see built, or that good architects would envision. Instead it has everything to do with what developers can get away under the limits imposed upon them by building regulations and horse-trading with city halls. The architect of these structures is pure profit maximization in partnership with what’s allowed by building codes. Insert those two parameters into a blender and what comes out at the other end is a generic glass tower. When a think tank of Harvard planners visited Vancouver last year, one of the remarked upon looking at downtown Vancouver from across False Creek “can you have good urbanism without good architecture?”
Pardon this meandering essay, which takes on too many points at once around the issues of income disparity, design, property speculation and a host of related problems. Just thinking aloud.
As for the design magazines and house porn I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at beautiful places, or that it’s wrong to be curious about how others live, nor that we should spend every minute in painful awareness that we’re fiddling while Rome burns, even if we are. It’s just that personally I don’t want to browse through any more photos of tiny, boring, contempo, cream-upholstery-with-dark-wood-veneer, cheaply built 600 sq.ft. condos that cost half a million bucks as if everything is still fine. Why are we willing to live in cramped and indebted conditions when all our surrounding culture and vibrancy is quickly exiting our cities and relocating in the suburban sprawl? While small living is good, environmentally speaking, cramped living must be offset by other cultural benefits and vibrancy. The thing is, the opposite is happening. The current speculative climate is driving those compensations away, leaving us just with unaffordability and urban sterility.
We should be pushing for multiple forms of regulation of the real estate industry, including tax deterrents and other mechanisms, and we should be forcing on governments the understanding that housing, like food, should not be viewed as just another class of asset or investment tool. Housing must be viewed as a human right and should be protected as such.
This will improve not only the affordability of our cities, and thus ensure the vibrant mix of people who live in them, but it will also improve the physical form of our cities, architecture and design. But I think the architecture and design communities can no longer behave as if they operate in a realm separate from an increasingly distorted political economy.
What can we do? Vote in civic elections, and make sure we don’t vote for any candidate or party that takes donations from developments. That’s rule no. 1.
Photo at top via ABC News.