What creeping inequality is doing to cities


District Six may look like something extraordinary The hunger Games, and in a way it was. For more than a century, this vast strip of central Cape Town has been a diverse and vibrant neighborhood of around 60,000 people. Now it’s mostly bare ground. Why? Because of the strange link between power, control and urban greyness.

Between the emancipation acts of the 1830s and the apartheid statutes of the 1960s, District Six looked a lot like parts of Sydney’s Glebe, Fitzroy or Surry Hills. Its narrow streets were lined with terraced houses with one or two floors. The children were playing barefoot in the street and the inhabitants were chatting on their steps. The people weren’t rich, but the harmonious mix of races, colors, religions and ethnicities generated a bubbling fusion culture that encompassed the visual arts, writing, music and food.

But such exuberant creativity has become too much for such a control-obsessed government. Between 1966 and 1983, under the Apartheid Group Areas Act, the entire population of District Six was relocated and quarantined based on color. Communities were atomized and the entire neighborhood razed. Even now, despite several attempts at recovery and reconstruction, District Six remains largely desolate.

It is a story of separatism. But it’s also a parable about control and how dramatic inequalities of power and wealth make cities not only cruel and unjust, but also unforgivable.

There are different types of inequality, of course. Just as some forms and degrees of equality are liberating and others stifling, some forms of inequality are inevitable and even good while others are grossly unfair. A general failure to analyze these distinctions allows injustice to masquerade as diversity, so it is worth briefly examining.

During the huge post-war social housing spurt in bombed-out London, for example, architects often found themselves measuring the dimensions of balconies with great precision to ensure each occupant had the same share of space and of Sun. There is no doubt that this push for equality began with a desire for justice. But it ended in a soul-destroying uniformity.

It’s the kind of stifling equality derided by Kurt Vonnegut in his short satire Harrison Bergeron, where the ballerinas are weighted so as not to make them better than the others. Such forced equality is bad, suggests Vonnegut, because it militates against talent, excellence and difference.

Vonnegut’s story is generally seen as a critique of communism’s enforced equality. But creeping inequalities are just as dangerous, especially when they are designed to free up not talent but markets. It is ironic, given that the logic of the free market is to allow for diversity, that the resulting inequality so often produces poor uniformity.

Indeed, markets, unlike talent, myopically seek profit. This obsession, intensified by the freedom of the market, leads to a relentless race to the bottom.

That is why the inner cities of Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Sydney are now virtually indistinguishable from each other, and from the appalling eruption of cheap, glassy residential towers that now line London’s South Bank, from Battersea to Vauxhall Bridge. The more unequal our economy, the more uniform our cities. This is cookie-cutter globalism at work.

Inequality has skyrocketed in recent decades, especially in Western economies dominated by liberal neoliberalism. Indeed, the free market demands a level of poverty and unemployment to feed the machine – even as it demonizes that same poverty, viewing it as evidence of moral failure and making welfare recipients look like Bludgers. In these societies, social mobility wanes and both inherited wealth and intergenerational poverty are perceived as “earned”.

It is a caste system.

In 1970, in terms of income inequality, Australia was roughly alongside Norway and the United Kingdom. America, of course, was far ahead in the inequality stakes. Now, half a century later, Norway has remained roughly at the same level, but in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, inequality has risen sharply.

Plenty of evidence, if you need it, lies in the housing crisis currently hitting cities in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In Australia, according to tax authority figures from last year, 20% of households own at least one investment property. At the same time, 80% of first-time home buyers are locked out of home ownership, possibly forever; rents have skyrocketed and tenant protections remain dismal, especially in our most populous cities, Melbourne and Sydney.

This generates a form of wealth apartheid. As famous French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal recently told a Sydney audience, our cities are fast becoming ‘ghettos of the rich’. Sydney offers a classic example. As prices in Redfern and Surry Hills topped the $3 million mark, the streets became proportionately drab. Try grabbing a meal now after 9pm in what was once the bustling heart of Sydney’s street life and you’ll see why the city’s nightlife was recently rated the second worst in the world.

Of course, there are other factors at play here, including the now-repealed lockdown laws and the Covid-19 lockdown, but the influx of the well-heeled whiners has also been a major beige-ifier. As city center living became fashionable, alongside free market dogma, the plague of the rich spread from Paddington, all the way down Oxford Street into the heart of the old grunge art district. from downtown Sydney.

We have accepted inequality as necessary to the so-called “natural” state of market freedom. But this has unintended consequences.

There are manifest injustices inherent in the distortion of our urban patterns by the free market. Once upon a time, access to services, transport and education underpinned the provision of social housing in city centres. The free market decrees, however, that these assets must be sold for a large profit.

This dynamic, despite the attractiveness of its track record, allows the wealthy – many of whom have two or three or more homes – to take over the best areas of the city, already richly endowed with centers of power, institutions, beaches , mature parks, transport and services built over time. Meanwhile, the young, the creative and the poor – who need these amenities far more and many of whom will never own a home – are exiled to the urban periphery where amenities barely exist and bustling urban proximity remains a distant dream.

Graphic evidence can be found in the maps, which show an alarming geographic congruence between flood-prone housing areas in Sydney, multiple 45-degree summer days, public transport drought, trapped air pollution, educational disadvantage and people who have to pay $26 each way to private toll operators for commuting. This makes class injustice all but inescapable and sterilizes the once bustling center. And while that may seem acceptable to those responsible, it insidiously trickles down to all of us.

The book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett The spirit level: why equality is better for everyone, lays bare the social corrosivity of extreme inequalities. The most unequal societies – and here the US is the clear winner, with Portugal and the UK leading and Australia not far behind – also score highest on all measures of social dysfunction: mental illness , illegal drug use, obesity, infant mortality, violence and homicide, teenage pregnancies, imprisonment, poor self-reported well-being, and poor educational outcomes. Inequality is also correlated with low levels of interpersonal trust.

And this is where the city is most deeply affected. Both living in the city and creating the city are exercises in trust. Every time you cross a road, you trust the rules that prohibit the wanton flattening of pedestrians. Every time you peek into a downtown courtyard or library, you accept a stranger’s invitation. They are the threads of trust that good cities weave into their fabric.

When governments exclude the public from decision-making but give easy access to developers; when they promise certain height and volume limits but gradually, gradually double them; when they obediently offer public land for private purposes; when courts uphold Crown Casino’s rights of sight to secure billion-dollar windfall wins, but ignore the same rights supposedly enjoyed by the public domain – that trust is gradually eroded.

The wealthy can exercise control, which rarely favors the city. Cities are not sets of buildings but spaces: interconnected streets, squares, parks, alleys and piazzas. These are our common lounges. They give the city a porosity and their liveliness is the key to a good city. Good cities are not clean, orderly and obedient. They are unpredictable, full of drama, humor, difference and surprise. Control, by person, class, government or market, is the enemy.

Lacaton and Vassal warn that cities are becoming “speculative spaces” of high cost and low quality, “places reserved for tourists”. But in truth, even tourists are easily bored in neighborhoods with no people, flavor or authentic energy. What is the answer?

In creating the city, we could go a long way just by planning like we mean it, with a simple but unbiased rule: set height limits and stick to them, set tenant protections and rent caps, end shame the negative gear and demand 20% affordable housing in all developments. Ultimately, to foster a creatively collaborative society, we must close the obscene gap between haves and have-nots.

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Saturday Paper on August 13, 2022 under the title “Caste in concrete”.

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