There is much debate at present about future solutions to the housing crisis in Ireland. This is a crisis of an unprecedented scale, which has been produced through the structural inadequacies of the previous boom and bust cycle and, indeed, the long tail of housing provision in Ireland. Following from such discussions, there is a necessity to examine the relationship between planning, urban regeneration, housing, and social justice.
To greater or lesser extents, design professionals have a strong role to play in the promotion of more socially inclusive and just cities. However, their potential for impact is situated within the wider economic, social and cultural arenas in which they are embedded and have to operate. All too often, whether it be in a design magazine or glossy property section, there appears an article hailing how a building or even an entire area that was once dilapidated has been revitalised with the historic fabric of the city now restored to its former glory. For all the worth of such projects, they can often serve to gloss over and render vastly unequal processes of urban transformation almost invisible. While it is understandable that many will celebrate how an area has been turned around etc., a great level of care is needed in order not to simply reproduce a set of highly unequal processes at various different scales over time.
Debates within the realms of urban design and planning are not, however, short on theories of alleviating urban injustices. One of the dominant approaches of current policy is to introduce social mix to locations predominated by poorer residents. In short, the ideal is that mixing different social groups allows for better life opportunities, particularly for poorer residents. Such approaches thus have significant implications for questions of, and realities of, social justice, but are not without certain shortcomings, particularly in the context of the increasingly marketised urban reality. For example, in advocating for a more just solution to housing, planning theorist, Peter Marcuse takes care not to submit to notions of inclusion that are biased by the housing market: ‘Diversity, for instance, has specific benefits in itself, in permitting mixing, mutual enrichment, solidarity and mutual support; but diversifying public housing by introducing higher income household at the expense of those intended to be served by it, with the result of benefiting higher over low-income families, is not a just objective of public policy.’
Such sentiments are therefore not opposed to the mixing of social groups but the assumption that it automatically results in a more ‘just’ outcome. For Marcuse, such strategies can either have the impact of primary displacement, whereby residents of what was once social housing are directly displaced in favour of a socially mixed development, or secondary displacement, whereby families are displaced via increase in land values brought about in a surrounding area. Furthermore, there is little understanding of how this impacts upon people’s lives in terms of displacement to other parts of a city or city region.
Within wider urban discourse, one of the more predominant means of engagement in such theories at present is via the lens of gentrification. For defenders of gentrification, it is heralded as providing much needed reinvestment into an area. Yet, in the context of such radical shifts taking place via large-scale disinvestment and sudden influx of investment, important social questions arise. Notions embedded within policy-oriented gentrification assume that there will be a trickle-down impact for the surrounding community. This is often given a further sheen via the use of names like Jane Jacobs and associated notions of well designed and serviced streets. More often than not, these ideals are presented as though promoting inherently inclusive places. Such perspectives rarely engage in the processes operating under the surface, particularly the role of finance in dictating the reality of contemporary cities. In reality, gentrified areas are often dominated by ‘social tectonics’ at various scales with an end game of furthering residential differentiation and social segregation. Yet, more often than not, media debates end up discussing gentrification via notions of ‘improvement’, with the more necessary discussion of social justice either sidelined or taken for granted.
Seeking to understand these processes involves taking a more long-term view of urban change. Thus, in drawing on key authors such as Neil Smith, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of gentrification as a long-term outcome of both disinvestment and reinvestment. Indeed, both disinvestment and reinvestment have negative impacts upon the less well off in society. As an area is disinvested, residents are forced to deal with far reaching consequences, ranging from the physical degradation of the built environment to withdrawal of the state in terms of upkeep of the public domain. That the gradual decline of such neighbourhoods introduces the potential of future profitability to an area can also be problematic. Although an area is now being transformed via new forms of investment, very often this investment has little to do with long-term residents and is more to do with the search for profit and the closely linked shift in social realities of an area. While often dressed up as saving a neighbourhood from urban blight, the solutions are thus far removed from the issues to which they purport to address. A zero sum game is played out upon a city as though it is a chessboard. Different actors compete for different parcels, with disinvestment moving from place to place for future profitability. It continues to reproduce a scenario whereby its very own progress is reliant upon wide swings between disinvestment and reinvestment. Thus, while some might deem protest of the Cereal Killer Café in London as unfair, such venues become symbolic of just how imbalanced these processes have become. High-priced cafes are of little use to those in severe food poverty.
With the above in mind, it becomes important to think through ways of addressing the factors producing such unequal realities within cities. To take one example, historic buildings in poor condition are cheaper to rent, but almost self-evidently, in poorer condition. In choosing to live in such locations, tenants very often have less choice about where they will locate in a city. Choice becomes a factor that is largely dictated by other factors outside of ones control. Thus, in advocating for urban regeneration within historic contexts, pertinent questions arise as to how tenants can afford to continue living in an area after regeneration is complete. The detailed historical rejuvenation of a building should not mean the displacement of tenants for the sake of architectural celebration. After all, should we really be celebrating urban regeneration if those whom it should serve can no longer afford to live there after reinvestment has taken place? It is not that there is a problem to seek new uses for old structures, but the manner in which this re-use becomes embedded within pervading societal structures needs a greater level of attention.
There is a need for policy makers to seek alternative provisions of housing within the context of regeneration areas. This can be brought about through more engagement with alternative means of provision such as community land trusts, housing associations and state-led housing. In order to achieve this, strong government intervention is necessitated, whereby local government use legislation such as compulsory purchase orders as a means of providing housing for wider societal benefit. With increased calls on the state to intervene in the current housing crisis, historic centres provide an ideal environment in which a significant amount of small parcels of land could be taken out of the hands of speculators and used as a means of promoting the common good. Here, there is the potential to promote architectural heritage as making a strong social contribution that goes beyond the market-led reinvestment in urban space. Such approaches would necessitate intensification in the power of public land management to ensure that, from both a spatial and temporal perspective, the speculative disinvestment and reinvestment in land does not continue to dictate very real outcomes in people’s social lives. This would require a sea change in how cities are viewed and treated within policies at various scales of engagement.