Are our greatest cities destroying their greatest assets? / by Tom Oliver Payne


Around the world, city authorities are developing unstructured creative spaces into more lucrative commercial or residential zones – but the ability to generate more income from these areas comes at a cultural cost.

London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong are just some of the world’s ‘global cities’. Not only are they major nodes of political and economic power, but they have the ability to disseminate ideas, trends and technologies across the world. Sadly, recent economic and physical changes in such cities are leading to the destruction of some of their most important assets. London’sSouthbank Undercroft is the latest to come under the knife.

Youthful, creative spaces are being razed around the world to make way for ritzy apartments, “kitchy” cafes and manicured public spaces. In order to appeal to the world’s elite, these cities create new places of consumption at the expense of existing inner city spaces.

The shabby buildings and public spaces that don’t fit into the glossy and glamorous ideal of what cities should look like also happen to be the last remaining inner city places that young people have to hang out. As places of mass consumption are created for people with mass salaries, cities are losing their ability to cater to diversity. Young urban populations are losing important spaces they require to create ideas and build networks.

Once places where music was born, new art forms were embraced and young people felt they could create something from nothing, cities like London andNew York are restricting the growth of skills, knowledge and creativity. Isn’t it precisely these aspects that made these cities so great in the first place?

It’s become common for authorities to hire expensive consultants to ‘make’ places and come up with new ways to stimulate urban creativity. How often is this really achieved? Ideas occur organically, and so do great places. Most redevelopment projects and new public spaces couldn’t feel less human if they tried.

Authorities are eager to jump on the ‘creative city’ bandwagon by investing in upscale galleries and design programs, but what they forget to realise is that ideas are generated through the collaboration of like-minded people doing similar things, not through cultural development policies. After all, Banksy didn’t learn to paint in a gallery; he learned from hanging out with his mates in the street. And he’s probably achieved more for marketing London to the world than decades of publicly funded ad campaigns could ever do.

I’m not suggesting that gentrification is a plague that must be stopped. Nor am I suggesting that the government should stop investing in the arts. What I am suggesting is that we have the most creative, skilled, able members of society already living in our cities, but the processes of gentrification are jeopardizing young people’s ability to thrive. By losing important sites of collaboration, we’re acting to deprive downtown cores of the diversity that once made them so special. How can cities be cultural icons if they’re culture-less?

There are some major tensions present in the world’s greatest cities right now. In addition to Southbank, New York City’s famous 5-pointz graffiti site is being developed into multi-storey apartments and Sydney’s historic Annandale Hotel music venue is still facing closure over noise complaints. Hoxton’s Macbeth Hotel faces a similar fate.

London’s Southbank is the oldest skate spot in the world and is hailed as the birthplace of British skateboarding. Seeing it on the front pages of magazines back in the 90s gave me a mental image of the city that I’ll never forget. Walls plastered with graffiti, charcoal coloured concrete and dingy lighting create a particular character that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else in the world.

Henry Edwards-Wood, spokesperson for the Long Live Southbank campaign, explained to me that Southbank attracts “pilgrimages from skateboarders and culture fans across the globe”. For the London scene in particular, “it is a proving ground, training facility, community hub and literally the pillar of the scene”, he said.

On any day, Southbank can be filled with the most impressive skaterboarders in the world, or the kids that live down the street. Free and accessible, skaters can come together and collaborate in a global setting, regardless of how much money they have, or where in society they ‘fit’. Just like London itself, it represents a wonderfully liberal and diverse society. But just like the city, this wonderful diversity is being replaced by a new corporate and consumerist landscape.

Henry explained to me that if destroyed, the skate scene will be irreversibly damaged. In addition to inextricable linkages with the physical space, skateboarders are drawn to the history that Southbank represents. “The spot’s folklore literally drips from the walls and is perpetually cultivating the next generation of skateboarders who take inspiration from its history and in turn create their own”, he said.

From Henry’s words, it’s easy to see that Southbank is far more than just a skate spot. Rather, it represents the global diffusion of skate history and youth culture. If London wants to retain its ‘global city’ status, perhaps it should start by protecting its most global spaces? What could be more global than the Southbank Undercroft? Not only do people travel the world to see the original attraction, but it also acts to sell London’s culture to the world. As Henry explains, “this is a truly unique asset in a city rapidly losing its historic and creative identity”.

As cities compete with each other, they construct bigger buildings, host more events, attract larger investments and market themselves as the greenest, healthiest, most liveable and most global. At the same time, they’re destroying what actually makes them special—the organic spaces that breed creativity and spread culture across the globe.

Without these spaces, global cities aren’t special at all; they look, feel and behave just like one another. By razing spaces like the Southbank Undercroft, cities like London lose the very asset that makes them unique.

Check out this article on the Urban Times here.

Feature image: London - one of the world's most powerful and influential cities. (Image: Piero/Flickr)