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  • Author or Editor: Rob Imrie x
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Why We Need to Build Differently
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This accessible critique of urban construction reimagines city development and life in an era of unprecedented building.

Exploring the proliferation of building and construction, Imrie sets out its many degrading impacts on both people and the environment. Using examples from around the world, he illustrates how construction is motivated by economic and political ideologies rather than actual need, and calls for a more sensitive, humane and nature-focused culture of construction.

This compelling book calls for radical changes to city living and environments by building less, but better.

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The future of a global city
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How is London responding to social and economic crises, and to the challenges of sustaining its population, economy and global status?

Sustainable development discourse has come to permeate different policy fields, including transport, housing, property development and education. In this exciting book, authors highlight the uneven impacts and effects of these policies in London, including the creation of new social and economic inequalities. The contributors seek to move sustainable city debates and policies in London towards a progressive, socially just future that advances the public good.

The book is essential reading for urban practitioners and policy makers, and students in social, urban and environmental geography, sociology and urban studies.

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New Labour, community and urban policy
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This book documents and assesses the core of New Labour’s approach to the revitalisation of cities, that is, the revival of citizenship, democratic renewal, and the participation of communities to spear head urban change. In doing so, the book explores the meaning, and relevance, of ‘community’ as a focus for urban renaissance. It interrogates the conceptual and ideological content of New Labour’s conceptions of community and, through the use of case studies, evaluates how far, and with what effects, such conceptions are shaping contemporary urban policy and practice.

The book is an important text for students and researchers in geography, urban studies, planning, sociology, and related disciplines. It will also be of interest to officers working in local and central government, voluntary organisations, community groups, and those with a stake in seeking to enhance democracy and community involvement in urban policy and practice.

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In July 2015, I was based in Japan and had been spending most of my time working in Tokyo. While Tokyo is a spectacular city, it is the epitome of a concrete jungle and so an invitation by a colleague to visit the southern Japanese island of Kyushu seemed like the opportune time to experience some of Japan’s green spaces. The train ride from Tokyo to the main city in Kyushu, Fukuoka, is 1,100 km and takes six hours to complete. The route traverses the populated south coast of Japan that, as was evident from my journey to Fukuoka, is dominated by a strip of major urban settlements. The views from the train’s window were fleeting glimpses of urban Japan interspersed with ‘blackouts’ as the train rapidly entered and exited numerous tunnels. The experience was like looking through a kaleidoscope with a bewildering array of ‘quick-fire’ glimpses of buildings and urban infrastructure. There were rare sights of green spaces, though these were never without buildings in view. By the time I arrived in Fukuoka, I could have been forgiven for thinking that countryside does not exist in Japan.

My Japanese experience is illustrative of most of the contemporary world, in which the built environment is integral to our everyday lives and fundamental in influencing how we interact with one another and patterns of living and habitation. There are few places left untouched by the excavation of the earth’s resources for construction and this, along with the combination of materials to create new structures, ranging widely from houses to roads, and dams to water pipelines, is the defining feature of people’s domination of the planet.

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Since the beginning of human occupation on the earth, roughly 200,000 years ago, building and construction have been part of people’s activities to create habitable and liveable environments. Building is necessary in enabling human beings to function, ranging from the provision of shelter, or nurturing spaces that provide the means for people to reproduce themselves, to the construction of public buildings that support everyday life. Construction has gone well beyond the (re)production of the built environment purely as a means of subsistence, or to assure basic reproduction, to become the defining, ecological and environmental imprint of people upon the earth. In contrast to other species, which (re)produce constructed artefacts as a survival strategy, humans have evolved construction to create a culture and political economy of building, in which what is constructed far exceeds, and is often irrelevant for, subsistence and species survival.

The world we live in has changed from one where until the 18th century, building was relatively sparse, to one where it is now difficult to find a place that has not been built upon. Everywhere has the imprint of human intervention in nature and bears the marks of a world (re)made by people combining materials to create constructed artefacts. What many regard as wilderness areas, such as Amazonia and the polar regions, have long been places of industrial and infrastructural construction, and reflect what Fry (2009: 1) describes as ‘our anthropocentric mode of worldly habitation’.

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Building is indivisible from the actions of governments, and there is no construction that is not simultaneously shaped by state policy programmes, particularly relating to the promotion of economic development. Gordillo (2014) recounts the emergence of state-sponsored investments in the Chaco region in Northern Argentina, in which building and construction are characterised by waves of ‘disruption by bulldozers’ as countless villages are destroyed to make way for new buildings, roads, bridges and towns as part of opening up the region to cattle ranching and agribusiness. For Gordillo (2014), the emergent built environment in Chaco is part of the destruction and spatial obliteration of indigenous communities, a process similar in many other areas. Thus, in Chinese cities like Shanghai, government policy encourages the demolition of traditional lilong housing and alleyways as part of the city’s modernisation, a process that involves the displacement of people and their removal to often peripheral, semi-suburban estates.

Both examples illustrate the power of construction to transform space and the social fabric of places, while drawing attention to the role of the state in shaping the (re)production of the built environment. Construction is a highly organised, and institutionalised, process involving many actors, and foremost is the state, which has a major stake in ensuring the supply of buildings and infrastructure. In this chapter, I develop the understanding that the political stratagems of states are linked to the proliferation of building and construction. States, and supranational bodies like the World Bank, support a growthist agenda that, while claiming to benefit all, is part of a politicised strategy that encourages ‘building without limits’.

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Speculation is a dominant feature of contemporary land and property markets and is significant in fuelling the rise in building and construction activity. It is most obvious in the changing vistas of major cities that, since the late 20th century, have spawned numerous tall or vertical buildings, often replacing land uses that command low rental values (Graham, 2016). Goldman (2011) suggests that we are living in an era of speculative urbanism, in which an objective of politicians is to transform land deemed to be of marginal use into lucrative real estate, primarily by attracting flows of global investment to fund the construction of new buildings and infrastructure. From the skylines of Shanghai and Mumbai to those of Lahore and London, the evidence of speculative construction consists of ever-escalating rates of urban development, shaped by the core logic of capitalist urbanisation in which the appropriation and redevelopment of land is intrinsic to the (re)production of economic value.

Speculation is not only the staple diet of capitalist land and property markets, and the driving force behind the building booms of the early 21st century, but also an enduring feature of human society. Investors looking to make lucrative gains from the purchase of land will take a risk on its development, with the expectation that, over the course of time, its market value will increase. Such developments are described by Shin (2013) as ‘pre-emptive’, or part of an anticipatory mode of acting in which actors tend to supply more than ‘can be consumed and with the expectation that demand will follow’.

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Construction is a positive action insofar that it involves the creation of objects, or the crafting of materials to produce an artefact that has value, whether that is a dwelling to enable people to live well, or a road or rail system to facilitate people’s ease of mobility and movement. There is, though, a paradox at the heart of all building activity, in that for all that is crafted and created by construction, the process, necessarily, involves disruption to people, places and ecologies. This can range from the excavation and movement of earth to create groundworks for new building, in which local ecologies may be damaged or destroyed, to government officials serving compulsory purchase orders, requiring people to leave where they live to make way for comprehensive rebuilding programmes. In both instances, the building process can be conceived as inherently disruptive and implicated in transforming the nature of habitation and the environment.

One of the more unusual instances of localised disruption to social life is the fad for subterranean excavation to construct residential basements (Baldwin et al, 2019). Baldwin et al (2019) note that between 2008 and 2017, planning applications for the construction of 4,650 basements were granted permission in the seven most affluent boroughs in London. While the majority were one storey, or 3 m, in depth and occupied the footprint of the house, 112 were classified as mega-basements or three storeys in height (Baldwin et al, 2019: 8).

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On a Sunday morning in May 2016, 5 Norfolk Court, high-rise social housing located in the Gorbals, one of Glasgow’s inner-city neighbourhoods, was blown up. It was the last demolition in a neighbourhood that, over the years, had become synonymous with poverty and poor housing, and its destruction seemed symbolic of the dismantling of a community’s social fabric. The demolition of Norfolk Court can be viewed in many different ways. For some local residents, it was the welcome clearance of buildings that had failed to provide basic amenities, which were delipidated and where the wind whistled through cracks in the facades (Daily Record, 2013: 1). The poor quality of construction, and the lack of maintenance by the council, meant that the buildings suffered from chronic dampness, and the breakdown of facilities such as lifts was commonplace. As a member of the Gallagher family said, ‘the buildings were old, and had a lot of problems. It was for the best that they come down’ (quoted in New Gorbals Housing Association, 2016: 1).

Other residents were less happy, as they saw the destruction of Norfolk Court as the loss of social ties in their local community and the onset of an uncertain future. As one local resident, Katrin Reedik, recalled just before the demolition of number 66 Norfolk Court in 2013: ‘I just wish that they would refurbish the blocks instead of destroying them…. If they were well-maintained and in good order, I would happily stay. I don’t want to go’ (Daily Record, 2013: 1). Another resident, Betty Olsen, felt unhappy about having to leave and lose close contact with neighbours and friends: ‘We all looked out for each other.

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On a recent train journey through the English West Country, my views of the beautiful countryside were interrupted by the sight of newly constructed housing estates at the edge of villages and towns. What were once green fields and open countryside were being converted into building sites and rows of uniform housing as part of the intensification of suburban and ex-urban development that has its roots in the early 20th century. This latest round of building is part of a new offensive encouraged by successive British governments in the belief that the best way to provide housing for all is to increase the rates of private house building and construction. The views of many politicians and social commentators are that Britain’s housing crisis is the product of a deficit in the supply of properties, and that this is resulting in house price inflation that is pricing out many people from gaining access to decent, affordable dwellings. The remedy is to build more, primarily private market housing so that supply will overtake demand and, so it is alleged, depress the price of dwellings and make them more affordable.

In the chapter, I take issue with this market logic and the ‘building more’ argument, and critique its simplistic model of housing that does not convey how markets are manipulated and controlled in ways whereby prices are not simply responses to movements in supply and demand. I note that encouraging the speculative construction of dwellings is not a panacea for the housing crisis. Rather, speculative house building does no more than (re)produce housing that will sell at prices well beyond what many people can afford, and that is often located in places where it is not needed.

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