05.04 Poverty inequality and disaffection

Expectations are the most overlooked element regarding poverty, when considering its importance in industrially developed countries. When it is claimed that poverty is intrinsically linked to certain behaviour patterns (as I am about to do in the article); it is often sighted that (a) we live in a ‘relatively’ rich country and (b) poverty is not an excuse for creating crime, disorder or apparent acts of wilful neglect.

The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that poverty is relative and not absolute. An often sighted example is that in today’s society we have material goods which we could barely conceive of 10, 20 or 50 years ago. However true; sighting the technological advancements is a red herring. The introduction of the washing machine, mobile phone or an internet connection has (over time) changed from being considered luxuries available to the few; to be considered necessities as they become mass consumed items. This changes their function within society. One is at a disadvantage if they do not possess one of these items. So a direct material comparison to the past is trite as it misunderstands the expectations that are associated with technological advancements within a society. Those who refer to the trainers or mobile phones that those who are economical poor seem to own, miss the point that these same people often do not own other; less ostentatious, even practical material goods.

We have to look at the problems facing those who are economically poor in relation to others in their social context; to understand how (essentially) a lack of access to funds is prohibitive in both life ambitions and aspirations.

The problem with poverty is that it excludes individuals from activities, experiences and lifestyles which they are surrounded by. Those babies born into poorer families are unhealthier and die younger. They achieve worse results in school (primary and secondary), and are less likely to go onto further education. They are more likely to be victims of crime, and to find themselves in fuel poverty or indeed be the perpetrator of crime and subsequently find themselves in prison. These facts are not a sign of recent trends nor are they limited to the UK. So why there are these intrinsic links to reduced life choices and why does it happen?


Quite simply finance creates contingency. Even if there is not a global economic crisis those with fewer finances at their disposal are more likely to be restricted in a consumer led, capitalist free market society. If you own a small shop; your contingencies are small and if there is a change in tariffs you are likely to struggle to make profits. If you are a part time employee your rights (or lack of them) mean that you are more likely to have your hours cut or loose your job. If you are on the minimum wage that wage just bought you less than it did before and if you are unemployed there are fewer resources that you can access. You have no contingency, no financial ability to change your current life condition.

We live in a country where food, hot water, heating, gas and electricity are services expected by all but are provided at a charge. This means that those who find themselves in ‘fuel poverty’ (those who spend 10% or more of their salary on heating) – are at a position of relative poverty. There are over 5 million households who are in this position (over 15 million people). That’s 15 million people who for a variety of different reasons have no financial contingency, who have almost no ability to change, improve or adapt their living or life conditions. These financial restrictions help to create a mind-set where people are more susceptible than the average* person to changes made by powerful forces in our society.

Authority figures

This creates a feeling of animosity and frustration especially when dealing with the authorities. To take just one example of how financial situations can create a negative/defensive mind-set – let’s take a brief look at benefits. When those who would earn more by receiving benefits than they would in paid work are criticised; it should be remembered that if the minimum wage pays less than an individual would receive on benefits then perhaps the minimum wage has been set too low! The vast majority of benefit recipients receive less than £100 a week (taking into account concessions in rent) plus another £13 to £20 per child (depending on age). If you earn the minimum wage (are over 21 and work a 30 hour week) then you’ll earn around £180 a week (before tax). So you can see that the figures can be remarkably – or worryingly similar as well as despairingly low. Try taking an annual holiday abroad, owning a car, making a down payment on a home, paying for childcare or a degree.

Poverty and living in a consumer society

So what happens when you are economically poor and unable to change or improve that situation? What if you live in an area of high crime, low employment or wages? What if most or all of your family and friends are in a similar situation? What if you have never worked, most of your family have never worked or left your estate, borough or city? And crucially what if the only time you encounter authorities or law enforcement officers is when they are taking something away from you… taking away the little personal or social space which you have. Adding complexity to already congested and contested territories.

Some wonder why there is a body of people – many of them young, who feel disenfranchised in the UK today. They wonder why some people resent authority figures or seem to have little or no respect for the communities that they live in – and little time for discussion or reflective thought. I don’t wonder why; but I do wonder why as a society we do so little to change the ever prevalent status quo by supporting constructs of a tiered society.

This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time

05.03 What is poverty in the UK?

Good questions can never be asked too often. In the light of recent events in London and other cities in the UK where the term poverty has been used as a banner for discontent it seems relevant to define poverty more precisely. A vague terminology is misleading and fragments focus and momentum.

By any typical standards I was poor growing up and I lived with serious illnesses in my near family from the age of 10 and alcohol abuse but I lived in a great neighbourhood, I went to a medium school and I was surrounded by love, so in regarding what mattered to me; I was not poor but rich. Finding happiness in what I had instead of unhappiness, frustration and anger in what I did not have – came natural to me. We do not all react the same, which is why I think poverty is either much more multi-layered and complex or not relevant as a reason for violent outrage.

When we discuss poverty I think we have to first of all make a separation between (1)individual poverty and (2)community poverty. Although both span the same categories of issues; the specific nature of poverty for each, require very different measures to be considered.

(1)Individual poverty I will for now subdivide into (1a)financial, (2a)emotional and (3a)knowledge & Skills poverty. The first one is what is commonly used to define poverty as it seems fairly straight forward to agree that if a household earns less than what is considered possible to live on; then they are poor. However it is not that simple.  A family on a higher income forced to rent from a private landlord if they don’t qualify for social housing can be just as financially poor as a family in a council flat, if one compares disposable income (once bills are paid). The family renting from a private landlord has the added stress that their rent is likely to be volatile and move with market forces. The cost of accommodation relative to income is the largest external impact on the financial health of a household. As such it is surprising that there are not more housing models available, which span the entire range of price scales much more gradually.

(2a)Emotional poverty is when there is no family or support network, daily exclusion and segregation and perhaps struggles with abuse and long-term illnesses. These are all tough psychological factors, which can happen across all financial layers of society and severely impact the individual’s ability to cope in life. These issues are much more unpredictable and harder to pre-empt.

Both financial and emotional poverty are generators of stress.

(3a)Knowledge & Skills poverty is the problem of various forms of ignorance, which is as much due to lack of formal as well as informal education. Recognising that our TV channels, newspapers, after school activities and dinner table conversations etc. These are as responsible as formal education is they are important social constructs. As much as it is about the individual’s prospect in life it is also about friction created by the difference of knowledge and skills, which creates a gulf that sets people apart from each other across age, gender, race and religion.

(2)Community poverty I have subdivided into (2a)economic, (2b)social and (2c)spatial poverty. Street crime is often a product of poverty and it adds fear across all layers of society. Well to do neighbourhoods suffer as well as the poorer ones.

Lack of social mobility is often referred to in the same sentence as poverty here in the UK and although it is right to aspire to a society of equal opportunities it is also worth acknowledging that people of all means have a place in society.

This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time

05.02 A broken rhetoric

So David Cameron is at it again; a new rhetoric of meaningless powder-puff substance. His recent applauding of the ‘tough’ sentencing being handed down to those participating or in-sighting the riots of August were followed by a deluge of populist musings. More Knee jerk reactions – the plan to evict parents of rioters from their council homes – were top if this list.

This charge however pails in significance when compared to the repeated rhetoric of ‘a broken Britain’ like the antiquated notions as expressed by exponents of the literary ‘crumbling castle’ Theory; this viewpoint bases its logic on foundations which never existed.

For a society to be broken there has to be a point at which it was fixed, complete, whole. A society free from deviance, corruption, nepotism, demonization and the products if ignorance. This society has never existed. Often coupled with this narrow way if thinking is the notion that society on the whole is worse; taxes, health and safety, corruption and the behaviour of young people come top of the list or things which are getting worse.

Thus thought process of analysis is not a recent phenomenon; throughout the 20th, 19th, 18th centuries there is a consistent outcry against the emerging behaviour if those not (yet) in power. In fact the Romans and ancient Greeks complained with equal fervency in regards to feral youths. Every adult population believes that the next generation behaves in an inappropriate manner.

What all this lazy thinking creates is misplaced demonization. Yes Britain has a section of society which is disaffected and plays out their resentment in the public realm; and this is problematic. However, this is pre-existing and perhaps an imbedded reality of ‘society’ as we conventionally conceive it. It will not be addressed by alliteration, a perverse happiness index, a localism bill or tougher sentencing. However, this narrow minded ideology will create is greater disaffection as it polarises the discussion into over specific encampments.

This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time

05.01 The return of UK riots

05-01So the riots in England and for a brief moment Wales; are over… for now at least, and the evaluation of how, why, who to blame has begun. In the general expression of outrage and rightful condemnation of the violence; the political opportunism has begun; with the resurrection of ideologies from the incumbent politicians aiming to reinforce control measures within the public realm before the activities are truly understood in their socio-political and economic context.

Recent history

Much talk has been made of links between the Toxteth and Brixton riots (of 1981), for me these connections are an oversimplification based on geographic specificity, and most importantly misunderstands the subtlety of the context behind those particular riots. The Brixton Riots were a critical time when assessing the issue of the power of political protest. Although spontaneous these riots were a reaction against the new ‘sus’ laws which allowed low enforcement officers to arrest individuals on the ‘suspicion’ that they might commit a crime in the future (not so dissimilar to the terror laws introduced from 2000 onwards). However, the riots were an expression of public outrage and led to the repealing of that law. There is no such political context here in 2011.

This is not to dismiss the fact that the communities in Toxteth (Liverpool) and Brixton (South London) were active in the most recent riots. However, this has more to do with the fact that their communities still live in areas of general disaffection and relative poverty. For me the stronger lines of continuity should be extended to the disturbances in France in 2005. Here two young men (Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré) from the Banlieue of Clichy-Sous-Bois died as a result of electrocution as they hid in a substation from police officers. This tragic but relatively innocuous event sparked 20 nights of rioting across France, moving from HLM to HLM (habitation à loyer modéré – poor housing projects), vehicles were ceremoniously torched, property was destroyed, social media was used to not only to insight the violence but to create a series of digital shrines; showing homage to the actions of those (predominantly young) men involved. It was said at the time that these were the actions of the French underclass expressing their fury against segregation, disaffection under representation and general; relative poverty. fast forward 6 years and a short trip across the channel and there are parallels, but the lessons to be learnt are very different.

Emancipatory consciousness

Although triggered by the similarly tragic but again seemingly innocuous event (the killing of Mark Duggan by police on the streets of Tottenham), the 4 days of what commentators were first calling protests was rapidly modified to riots and before the end of the disorders had regressed to the loaded term of mindless violence. This development misses the complexity of what took place; and in particular misunderstands the importance of the actions of those so often described as bystanders.

Clearly there is a perception prevalent within certain communities that they are treated unfairly and disproportionately targeted by law enforcement officials. As such, the peaceful protest by the Duggan family which was high jacked and subsequently spiralled into violence perpetrated by others in that community; fast became an expression of deep seated discontent as these wilful acts of violence had the role of liberation from the perceived repressive status quo.

This effect was made more apparent to me when I visited the immediate aftermath of the riots as they swept through Hackney. Four hours after the first reports of rioting on Mare street; cars where still burning on the back streets of Clapton. The streets were populated by hundreds of people, these people were not looting, many of who were residents, some were passers-by and some had arrived as spectators. This had led to an atmosphere which was cordial and strangely calm. Whilst police officers remained conspicuous by their absence on the edges of the activity / destruction zone; the clearly visceral post-apocalyptic glow of liberation is one that could only have been seen in an air of general disaffection brought on by recession and impending cuts. It was as if the careless activities of the few had culminated in sympathetic feelings from the many.

My argument is simply this; that the activities of the rioters emerge from feelings of disenfranchisement which are latent issues created by continual cycles of poverty; unrelated to the latest economic events. However, the willingness of many to observe and not intervene and by that offer support and indeed to partake as onlookers was one triggered by a growing consciousness of unhappiness surrounding the most recent economic activities and impending cuts.

Commercial consumption

The greatest distinction between the Franco and Anglo activities lies in the targets for the actions. Although there is a danger in oversimplifying the disparate and individual actions of thousands of people; there is a clear difference in target and tone between the Chanel, even within these related acts of wanted violence. In France; actions were ostensibly targeted at the police; this often culminated in actions as poignant as attacks on town halls, police stations and vehicles. This was not the case in the UK, fast food outlets and clothes stores popular with young people were repeatedly targeted. These were as much misguided acts of protest against the system as acts of commercial opportunism with no clear conceptual boundary between the two.

Balance of power

Just as Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency which was continually extended during the France riots; David Cameron has expressed a wish to introduce his own set of draconian measures including the suspension of social networking sites during times of ‘emergency’ granting police officers powers to force people to remove facial coverings garments, the loss of benefit entitlements to those who partake in acts of civil disobedience (which extends to their children). Of course none of these proposals deal with the endemic issues which create the social divisions which trigger activities which unearth latent tensions.

In fact it is inevitable that there will be more protests and riots, the context will change, and the link to August 2011 will be seen as tenuous, but the existence of a discontented populous will be there.

The tragedy is that each protest is at is essence an attempt and opportunity to force the powers that be to reassess their actions and to divert their current trajectory. Whether they are elected officials, law enforcement officers or powerful commercial companies. If a group of civilians want officials to change their behaviour, or to highlight failings in their current operational practices; then ‘a form of protest’ will have to be engaged with as a way to highlight and contest this issue. That was the point and the potential power of the peaceful protest by the Duggan family.

Ironically everything that followed has only served to strengthen the resolve of the police and the government in the way they control the contested space of the public realm. In a mere 96 hours events have culminated to create a momentum to have greater restrictions on the public realm without addressing any of the causes of the riots.

This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time

04.04 Rice, Bulgar, Spinach and Automatic Cars

I have recently been concerned with the cost of spinach.

I like spinach but I find that I must always buy at least three bags to meet my appetite for one meal. Greed is not the issue. However devalue, or ‘shrinkage’ during the preparation process. I was so disappointed by the rate of shrinkage in a particular brand of spinach that I resorted to my own research to find some conclusive results to this problem. The results were startling; it made buying a pack of kettle chips feel like a poor investment in air. Some spinach seems to shrink to less than 1/3 of its previous mass. An outrage.

I should state however that my suffering reached an equilibrium as I was eating spinach and bulgur wheat (a meal fit for a king).For those of you who are unfamiliar with Bulgur wheat, you will be happy to know that it responds in a complementary way to spinach, creating a growth when boiled with water, sometimes up to 3X if you buy the coarse variety. The air is trapped, giving the impression of gaining a greater quality of food than at the time of purchase. I’ve decided that it is the perception that feeds my stomach as much as the reality.

I’m reminded of a terrible film that I once saw, where the main character retells the story of two outlaws who steal a ride on one of those slow moving trains that a multitude of unmanned wagons trailing behind. Well, these two jumped onto the back and hastily forced the door of the first available carriage and quickly shut it behind them again. It was the freezer compartment. As their predicament dawned on them, they attempted to force the lock, but to no avail, they looked for anything that could be used for warm, but again to no avail, so they resigned themselves to long and painful death which awaited them.

When the train reached its final destination, the guard unlocked the door and looked inside and saw two dead corpses. A forensic report later proved that they had frozen to death. This fact surprised the guard as he hadn’t engaged the freezer system; in fact the system was such that a temperature below that of 22 degrees Celsius could not be achieved as the freezer system couldn’t operate whilst the train was in transit.

Well, despite all the continuity floors in that story it does make me feel the same can be said regarding bulgur and spinach… tenuous?

At least with spinach there’s a balance, you can eat bulgur, automatic cars however leave you high and dry. They cost more money to buy than manuals; because they’re not ‘standard,’ but because they operate on marginally more complicated systems they have a greater tendency to go wrong. Then there’s the devaluation. I’m not even going to talk about white trainers; you know the ones that are displayed in shop windows with the cellophane still tightly wrapped around them?

This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time

04.03 Protest, Britain, Planning and Legislation

The UK’s current model of planning looks towards increased levels of privatisation without considering their consequences beyond the immediate financial returns. The effect on society (most noticeably the restrictions placed on protest and therefore democracy) are not considered. There are also political, social and economic conditions which coincide to increase both the propensity and the necessity to protest. Coupled with the recent changes to legislation governing the public realm, the UK has reached a point where protest democracy and the public realm are undermining each other at a time when their importance needs to be placed at the top of the political agenda.

So who deal with issues of societal control, the ‘right to the city’ the power and transfer of knowledge? Considering the fact that levels of societal control have increased since the 1970s and 80s which has in turn coincided with the citizen’s perceived reduction and consequential actual reduction in access to the city and its control mechanisms (specifically in the UK). Ironically this has all happened in the context of a society which have increased their basic knowledge base (we currently live in the ‘information age’) whilst doing little to advance this knowledge to inform, empower, liberate or democratise.

So what is the value of ‘direct action’ strike action, the use of derives. I would argue that the value of analysis of protest is to encourage of protest activity where individuals or groups feel unrepresented, to escape the gaze of the society of the spectacle. This is more relevant today than it was in the late 50s and 60s due in part to mass commercialisation and institutionalisation. What is problematically ‘overlooked’ are the activities of the public realm and their translation to the built environment.

Haussmann’s wholesale redevelopment of Paris to quell revolution, coupled with the desires of John Nash to create a show piece for the power of a nation in projects such as Trafalgar Square and Marble arch give evidence to this. However, over time the very spacial constructs which have historically signified the power of the state, have been utilised by protests and revolutionaries to undermine that very power, the ever changing role of the iconic.

What is the role of protest in today’s society?

How can protest allow us to achieve a greater sense of representative democracy?

Could iconic acts of protest from the past be executed in today’s Britain? Indeed what are the constructs which would restrict (or indeed promote) them.

The danger when living through a zeitgeist is that one is unaware of the restrictions of that epoch. The protest file aims to shine a light on this with an end to focusing on the changes which need to occur to create a more democratic society through protest in the public realm.

This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time

04.02 Global Barriers

There are almost 200 countries on the planet today. Over 30 have decided to build physical barriers to separate their nation from another. An additional three are being proposed (by Greece, Russia and Afghanistan). I have spoken to some who have said that these are logical and somewhat inevitable constructs, designed and built to control the ‘problematic’ migration of people. A logical argument if you conveniently forget that a state boundary is an arbitrary construct of political social or economic circumstance. There is a ‘passport free travel zone’ within the EU which ranges from areas as diverse as Czech Republic, Sweden, Italy, Austria, France, and Germany (to name a few). Throughout the 19th Century these countries along with the united Kingdom and the USA were the most destructive territories ever to act in human history, killing millions; now there are bound by treaties which, guarantee a certain freedom of movement.

04-02Walled cities and barriers have played their part in that history. But they lack the sophistication necessary to deal with the inevitability of mass human exodus which readily occurs due to, ideological differences, war, famine persecution or simple economic migration is never resolved via these methods.

Economic migration has been (and will continue to be a logical cause of an unequal global society); it would seem to be trite in the extreme to attempt to quell this movement with such an antiquated technology.

Every wall construct in history fails, from the great wall of China to the Berlin wall.

The problem is that they are immobile. They lack the ability to move change and adapt as the social issues which they prohibit. They stop, after a time being relevant, people are too ingenious in finding alternative routes across, under through or over them. The US / Mexican border is a prime example. Covering an area which is too large to patrol without the cost becoming counterproductive (almost 2000 miles – the distance from the North Eastern tip of Spain to Russia – via Belarus); there is always the potential to cross for those who are desperate enough to attempt to do so. But the problem is simply one of economics. When you have an area where its citizens have greater economic opportunities aligned with an area who offer its citizen’s less; then migration will ensue, legal or otherwise. It is telling that the world’s largest and ‘greatest’ democracy resorts to such primitive measures to deal with a complex issue… and fails.

Despite this there seems to be little / no desire to reverse this trend, in today’s post 9/11 world terrorism is so often cited as a threat thwarted by the erection of these structures, and has become such a globally accepted ‘fear’ under which to act – that the sight of electrified fences patrolled by soldiers and mined with explosives are an image which we are fleeing from all too slowly.

04.01 Protest, France, segregation and Corbusier

The protest of 2005 in France have a lesson that runs concurrently back and forward in time, they are an event with a socio political relevance beyond their direct cultural reference.

All protests have a trigger. Whether they develop into legal or illegal actions there is always a catalyst which changes an ordinary event into one that engages the minds of many to act in unity. The death of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré following pursuit by police officers was such an event.

However, what no one expected was the identification that other disenfranchised descendants of French migrants would make with these two young men. It is startling to see in retrospect that not only were these protests / riots confined to HLM (high rise housing) but to high rise housing in in decentralised, and arguably disenfranchised areas. The only exception this this is in Paris, where protests were specifically targeted in central areas to gather the attention of the authorities, and attract the attention of the media.

So what significance to architecture?

04-01The planning policy of creating specific districts to focus on particular economic or social requirements was pursued by French governments for the best part of 3 decades. It worked well when the factories located in the ‘suburbs’ on the outskirts on the cities thrived in the economic expansion and baby boom era of the 50s and 60s. Fast forward 60 years, adding the failing of the industrial industries on Western countries, you end up with economically poor, descendants of migrants marginalised by society… and all living not only in similar conditions but in buildings constructed in the same way. With public space constructed in the same way.

In short the planning of the public and private realm had failed these citizens leaving them in homes and communities which were (and still are) segregated from main stream society.

The architecture didn’t cause this segregation but has become its agent. Some have written that this is Corbusier’s legacy. Missing the fact that his tableau is richer than the event occurring in France in 2005. That said; it is impossible to untie the threads which combine that ideology and the resultant disturbances. However the real question; is how successive governments can allow an ideology generated in the furnaces of the 1920s and 30s to remain so relevant that they negatively influence a population living in an incomparable world some 80 years later.

This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time

03.04 The Apathy Triange

Unimaginatively the apathy triangle is a combination of the problems created by out societies approach to the three outlined issues, the passive consumer, global inactivity concerning climate change and political avoidance regarding responsibility and ideology in the face of another economic contraction.

These three different issues portray an inability or unwillingness to challenge and change the status quo. The idea that there is no need for true change because we have exhausted all ideological or political alternatives. That things could be better but they could be allot worse, so let’s not push too hard for too much change too soon.

I refer to this phenomenon as a triangle because it is self-serving stability. As long as we remain inactive as citizens; state bodies and politicians remain without true ideology and no one acts for on behalf of a global good then we remain stable in a passive status quo.

This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time