Post-Olympics Housing Displacement in London

by Cristiana Strava

Carpenters Estate near London's Olympic Stadium. Source: Newham Council.

On Oct. 25, University College London (U.C.L.) announced that it had gained permission to proceed with a £1 billion plan to build a new campus in Stratford, home of the 2012 Olympic Games. This decision comes at the end of a summer of protests, official consultations and public meetings in opposition to the plans.

U.C.L. students protest their university's plans for the Carpenters Estate. Source: Demotix

The new campus will be constructed on the Carpenters Estate, not far from the Olympics site. U.C.L. management and the Newham Council see this plan as an opportunity to "regenerate" blighted East London, promising to create 3,300 new jobs. For local residents, however, the plans mean loss of their life-long homes and community.

In a short video for The Guardian, estate resident Mary Finch deplores the legacy of the Olympics: "I think that the Olympics has lost me my home."

A resident of the estate for the past 40 years, she is not keen to go. "I think they're gonna have to come in here and drag me out. Why should somebody be able to force you out of your home? A home that's got nothing wrong with it, that's standing solid? I do not want to go."

Her criticism speaks directly to the now-common narrative of failed utopia used by council authorities to justify regeneration plans marked by "decanting" and demolishing. Once removed from their homes, estate residents have little guarantee of return or access to affordable housing elsewhere, as social housing in London is quickly disappearing.

Fran, a resident of Carpenters Estate, in her home. Source: Flickr

At a recent meeting on Oct. 31, U.C.L. faculty and students came together to support the residents at Carpenters. Discussions revolved around what the role of universities should be in urban regeneration. An overwhelming majority of students and alumni pledged to boycott the new campus plans. The U.C.L. Urban Laboratory released a statement asserting that "ethical urban regeneration is only possible if community led." So far, residents of Carpenters Estate have fully rejected the university's plans. Many insist that they are not opposed to regeneration per se, only to losing their homes in the process.

Carpenters Estate, Orbit Tower and the Olympic Stadium. Source: Amanda Vincent-Rous

Speaking in front of a full auditorium, Michael Edwards, a professor at The Bartlett School of Planning, deplored the fact that university management had not consulted its own academic body. Stressing the loss of social housing in London, he urged all those involved to consider the implications of a "university-led community bulldozing" and called for an open debate on the proposed plans.

On Nov. 28, U.C.L. students occupied the university's Garden Room. Discussions at the occupation increasingly referred to the link between student debt, growing speculation on the student housing market and acts of displacement such as the new campus plan.

This most recent episode in the ongoing gentrification of London brings up important questions about the university's role in urban renewal and its responsibilities to the city as a whole.

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  1. thank you, and to ucl activists, for directing the focus where it should be: on the good of the community. urban development shouldn't come at the expense of diversity and affordability.

  2. I just finished my planning degree (MSc) at LSE (I'm American). One of the things that most appalls me about UK planning methods, especially by councils, is the determination to wipe out unwanted behaviors (and people) by demolishing housing estates that are seen to be blighted. As far as I can tell, this practice has been going on since the early 1900s and it is unbelievable that it is still happening. There are so many stories of communities being torn apart, multi-generational familial units being forced to move to different parts of London if not the UK from each other, about people who have never been able to form complete bonds with new neighbors, and of "yet another new estate that has failed," that it is crazy that planners and councils are unable to learn from these mistakes. There is a sense of myopic viewpoints, that if we just got rid of the "ugly" buildings, the ugly deprivation would disappear. In terms of this post-Olympics regeneration bid, yes, having 3300 more jobs would be terrific, but isn't it a bit ironic that those residents who are most meant to benefit from those jobs would be working towards removing their own community? (Assuming jobs are given to current residents.) It would be great if the students and academics protesting could also direct their protest towards Newham Council in support of residents. If UCL ultimately decides against their plans, what is to stop another, perhaps less concerned, developer from coming in?

    1. From someone who lived there for 11 years before being moved out and a young adult now. I did not see not one act of unwanted behaviour in my time there. What I did see was numerous get-togethers, fun-fairs, bon-fire nights and a fully functioning youth centre.

      It was the best neighbourhood I've ever been to with everyone knowing each other. There was a friend at every corner.

      I've been moved to another estate and have almost been robbed 3 times in 2 years. They should come demolish this place instead of demolishing places that are in essence a friendly, kind and a fully functioning community.

  3. Universities are microcosms of cities in that both bring together diverse groups of individuals to compete over limited resources. This story highlights the fact that the populations of both have the potential to utilize the resources needed to gain administrative recognition and publically voice their shared grievances, as described by Walter Nicholls in “The Urban Question Revisited”.

    It was surprising that the UCL students, who would utilize the new campus in Stratford, so objected urban renewal project in support of the Carpenters residents. By not consulting its student body, UCL’s administration sparked a bottom-up mobilization effort, where it students came together by converting public campus space into an open forum. Through these meetings, students vocalized common concerns about the renewal project, and even regarding other topics such as student debt.

    While certain parts of Carpenters are run down, it sounds very much like Jane Jacobs’ vision of an urban neighborhood. Jacobs was vehemently opposed to urban renewal, claiming that communal responsibility kept neighborhoods safe, not officers. In her “The Uses of City Neighborhoods” Jacobs describes her idealized community as one where the sidewalks police themselves, and where local economies bring residents out of their homes, and there is a real sense of camaraderie.

    The management at UCL and Newham Council hold capitalist perspectives; viewing Carpenters as blighted, and are eager to build a new campus in its place. A trying realities of urbanization, is the tension between capital and labor, says Marxist David Harvey. Capitalists view the desirable location as a source of untapped revenue that could be accessed through the renewal project. This scenario also highlights the fact that capital will generally overpower labor when the two come head to head. Despite student occupations, and boycotts, those with fatter pockets, developers and administration, will ultimately have the final say.

  4. Urban planning that happened because of the Olympics is very common. Take the example of Beijing Olympics in 2008, the whole entire Beijing, not to say many of the major cities in China, completely renovated itself. For the Chinese, the City Beautiful urban planning project did not only stop at city planning itself, it was but also implemented on the social, normative aspect of the people. The aims of these urban theorists who intend on structuring a type of Utopia or a decorated façade of a “beautiful city” are often flawed. As James Holston proposes in his article “Spaces of Insurgent Citizenship”, it is not feasible to plan a utopia based on “absent totalities” because a complete and successful city cannot run on incomplete citizenry. The London Olympics of 2012 restructured London in a way that is appealing to the flood of people for the Olympics and successful city planning is not what was done for the Olympics, but the aftermath of urban renewal and urban construct of the neighborhood used for the Olympics.

    The urban renewal projects are just as devastating happening in any cities. Take the example of New York City and its suburb in 1900’s. With the Housing Act of 1949 and Robert Moses’ federally funded projects that completely tore the whole city apart, many of the urban dwellers suffered similarly like how the residents of Carpenters are suffering. Many poor African Americans were forced to abandon their houses to live in worse conditioned public housing for the urban renewal projects; some couldn’t even find adequate housing. The Blacks in the suburb faced the same issue as well. They were forced or talked into selling their houses for lower than the market price, so the district could use the housing for other purposes, like say, sell them to richer Whites.

    These urban “renewal” projects are in a way urban “devastating” projects as the planning does not foster a sense of neighborhood, but destroys it. Like Jane Jacobs proposes in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the crucial elements to successful cities are the cities’ diversity, interactivity, and density. By dislocating the people of an existing neighborhood, the plan disrupts the sense of community that the people build up by living there. The loss of social capital is insurmountable, not even to mention the financial loss.

    Moreover, as it is mentioned in Jacobs’ argument for a successful neighborhood building, Morningside Heights was becoming a slum in the 1950’s. Although it has splendid planning including space, air, grass, high-to-middle-class housing, and the wonderful institutions like Columbia University and the Julliard School, all these so-called “success-bound” urban theories are fails because its streets lacked a sense of community. Once again, without the establishment of neighborhood, down the micro-level of streets, the city will not thrive. With London’s case, I believe, it would be wise to save the social capital as Putnam suggests rather than focusing on the so-called urban renewal planning that will eventually go downhill since the moment of its establishment.


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