Baron Haussmann’s Paris was the first modern city to enshrine its social strata in architecture, with upper class quarters, bourgeois boulevards and proletarian districts each separated out. It is undoubtedly one of the stunning capitals, but its heart, more than ever in an age of austerity, is accessible only to the wealthy.
London has always been something else; scrappy, incoherent, mixed and flexible. But that may be about to change. In its recent spending review, Britain’s Conservative-led coalition government announced changes to housing benefit payments that may soon force some 82,000 low income families to move out of the city centre. So severe are the coming cuts that Boris Johnson, London’s Conservative Mayor, caused a political firestorm this week taking on his own party as he warned of “Kosovo-style social cleansing”, as poorer residents were forced to flee to the suburbs.
It is, of course, a little extreme to liken Britain’s post-credit-crunch city centres to Balkan ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. But such benefits cuts are not the only incidence of austerity measures now creating new tensions in our urban landscapes. Throughout the developed world worries are being expressed that shrinking state services risk turning diverse centres into deadening ghettos of wealth. Worse, the same trend may cripple the capacity of global cities to do what they do best: change, adapt and mould themselves to each new age.
That Paris was conceived as a monumental city and London was never really conceived at all, points to the impossibility of planning an ideal urban area. The most beautiful cities, Venice or Rome, for instance, often remain stuck in the glories of their past precisely because their beauty renders them hostile to change. Those places deemed most “livable” in global surveys often come in the second tier – with Vancouver, Copenhagen and Zurich all avoiding the exhausting burden of massive size, complex infrastructure and population churn.
Even in the downturn New York and London seem to prove most resilient, precisely because they adapt quickly. Despite the economic challenge of reunification, Berlin also became a buzzing cultural centre. But now both it and New York have been going the way of Paris. The latter’s garment and industrial districts gentrified, while the centres of both are being given over as playgrounds for bankers, designers and tourists. Authenticity has been squeezed out.
The question is: in an era of savage savings, will the same happen to London? In Britain, political arguments against welfare recipients, often immigrants living in swanky post-codes at taxpayers’ expense, are easy to make. Yet they arise not just because of cuts to benefit bills, but from a deeper malaise; a failure to build homes. In a city whose average dwelling costs around £400,000, but whose average wage is around one tenth of that, the effects of limited housing supply in poorer areas have been severe.
Rich and poor have long rubbed together in London’s centre. Charles Booth’s extraordinary poverty map, begun in 1886, showed rich areas in yellow, often next to black quarters of “street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals”. The blackest spot of all was the Old Nichol slum, its edge nuzzling the City, the pumping heart of an Empire at its height. Today it is a cosmopolitan melee of galleries and technology start-ups, but social housing still dominates the backstreets.
By contrast, as Mr Johnson made clear this week, the Parisian poor have long been shunted to the banlieues, beyond the concrete moat of the Périphérique. Mr Haussmann’s city, planned with an eye to avoiding revolution, is now surrounded by discontent, isolation, and unemployment – and radicalisation, given it is Muslim north African immigrants who largely find themselves confined there.
Elsewhere a generation of urban planners have worried about America’s mix of “doughnut effect” and “white flight”, as the middle classes fled to safer suburbs leaving a deprived post-industrial core for poor minorities. The phenomenon devastated Baltimore and Detroit, where some houses ended up worth more as agricultural land than dwellings. But the trend is now moving quickly in the other direction, with the monopolisation of city centres by the wealthy.
This is a crisis in which the middle classes get blamed either way, for fleeing or for gentrifying. Yet neither explains London’s true terminal problem; its lack of housing. Mr Johnson failed to mention that this problem began when Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” plans dismantled the infrastructure of social housing in the 1980s, a trend exacerbated by pitiful rates of social house building since. Housing benefit was increased as an ad-hoc alternative, creating the very bills that now must be cut back.
If London is to remain a vibrant city – the kind of socially and racially diverse centre praised by thinkers like Richard Sennett and Richard Florida – its housing cannot entirely be left to the market. Back in 1961 the influential American urbanist Jane Jacobs defended New York’s traditional streetscape – a world of mom’n’pop stores, kids playing in the street and old folk watching from their stoops. Hers was a community gradually being killed by planners pushing high-rise housing and city centre freeways. But Ms Jacobs also wrote that “our cities contain people too poor to pay for the quality of shelter that our public conscience (quite rightly, I think) tells us they should have”.
Mr Johnson may have been speaking for political reasons. He faces re-election in 2012 and has long had a prickly relationship with David Cameron, the prime minister. But he is right to speak out. In the wake of our great recession, Ms Jacobs’ vision is still one to which we should pay more heed.
The writer is the FT’s architecture critic