As raging flames consumed the Grenfell Tower building complex, London’s distinguished civility facade dissolved, exposing a human tragedy hidden in its urban core. The immediate cause of the blaze earlier this month was a lack of basic protections for buildings, but the underlying tinder was decades of social disinvestment and ruthless neglect of the poverty and unrest that smoldered deep inside. from one of the richest cities in the world.
There will be, in the coming months, many recriminations around the system regulatory failures which led to the drama. The street marches sparked rage to erosion of social services in working-class neighborhoods through budget cuts and the political failures of government ministers to provide a critical emergency response and restore community confidence, including the identification of victims. The Guardian reported that the Tory-controlled council of Tony Chelsea and North Kensington had over the years ‘stored’ hundreds of millions in funding reserves in order to subsidize wealthier voters with tax breaks even as authorities starved simultaneously their public housing budgets.
But no matter what the budget was broken, no matter how dilapidated the buildings were, the ideological underpinnings of the Grenfell tragedy were solid and rooted in London’s architectural and social history. The city has long practiced a form of modern “urban planning”, now replicated in hyper-developed cities around the world, which views structured inequalities as social engineering.
According to the design-advocacy Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) network, the tragedy would have been “completely preventable if even a little attention had been paid to the people of Grenfell themselves”.
Social housing like Grenfell has been a long-standing pillar of the UK welfare state, protecting working families from the punitive effects of poverty. These housing systems, when adequately resourced, have provided an institution for building dignified and cohesive working class communities. But through the degradation of public services since the 1980s, from Thatcherite privatization plans to the current explosion of rampant gentrification in London, social housing has fallen into disrepair that the social safety net has disintegrated. Engels’ descriptions of the drudgery of the working class in the Victorian East End live today in a gentler form in contemporary patterns of segregation and urban unrest.
Yet absurdly, such a disaster tends to only shock when it occurs in London instead of, say, on the outskirts of Dhaka, where the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 killed over 1,100. workers because of a combination of work abuse and a lack of essential safety. Infrastructure. Of course, the Rana Plaza was the product of a particularly reckless form of development, fueled by international trade and the global manufacturing market. But now privatization and deregulation have brought similar types of exploitation and inequality to wealthier Western cities that have abandoned essential welfare systems.
Today, American cities too often mirror the London model of anti-poor urban policies – policies that perpetuate segregation, displacement and substandard housing, says ADPSR:
Public agencies in the United States are rushing to meet the needs of fossil fuel companies, arms manufacturers and Trump family associates while ignoring the needs of rural communities, distressed urban neighborhoods and even aging suburbs . Cities in the UK and US represent a global trend of business expansion and social polarization. corporate power and increasingly socially polarized.
The Grenfell fire and the social frustration it sparked represent the consequences of the neglect of one of the last welfare institutions on the urban landscape. Ultimately, urban housing does not simply become “ravaged” or “overcrowded”; tragedies are fabricated when politicians choose to ignore the social needs of the most vulnerable communities.
Worldwide, 1.6 billion people live in substandard housing; Another 100 million are homeless. As former UN housing official Miloon Kothari and India-based housing rights activist Shivani Chaudhry warned: the “takeovers” of public space by companies around the world are “Further polarizing society and resulting in a new form of ‘apartheid’. The ashes of the Grenfell Tower are a byproduct of the systematic displacement of the poor, which forces underprivileged communities either into unsanitary and unliveable shelters or into equally hostile streets.
However, by revisiting the mission of social housing, we can begin to see buildings like Grenfell as ships for a new development paradigm, which would give people a direct contribution to rebuilding the ecology of their communities by supporting democracy. participatory and exploiting public protest in the process of social reconstruction.
The World Charter of the Right to the City, created by designers with a “united” urban vision, presents the basic building blocks of radical social conception: protect residents from the predations of capitalist development through rent control and create moratoriums on evictions to curb landlords who profit from pushing people into the streets. The Right to the Alliance City also responds to a global wave of displacement by demanding “the right to land and housing free from market speculation and which serves the interests of community building, sustainable economies and cultural and political space” .
According to Raphael Sperry, director of ADPSR – who noted that prior to the fire, Grenfell was actually undergoing a botched renovation process as fire safety concerns were not addressed – the preventable disaster indicates the aftermath of an undemocratic urban policy:
The lack of community participation in the renovation of the Grenfell Towers was both a significant problem in itself – as people have a right to participate in the shaping of the environment in which they live – and a sign of the more immediate danger of a project carried out without worrying about the basic health, safety and well-being of the occupants of the building.
In the United States, observes Sperry, “we cannot afford to see our Department of Housing and Urban Development, which helps organize and regulate the financing of private and public housing, to be run by ideologues and politicians. buddies of the Trump family who know nothing about buildings, security, town planning. planning or public participation. We must restore government to a system that listens to those most directly affected by its policies and that meets the needs of all citizens. ”
But to achieve a vision of just reconstruction, a planning process based on the principles of social inclusion is needed. Simple policy tools can help the process: rent control laws, land banks and collective housing ownership, or participatory budget and more public design process. The Grenfell Fire is just the latest eruption of historic injustice embedded in the city’s environment. Yet it could inspire a rights-based approach to reconstruction: the idea that a city with open streets and a culture of peace can reorient a crowded world towards a greater good. Progressive form and function go hand in hand.