It’s very much obvious for anyone following public discourse in economics that Thomas Piketty’s best-seller Capital in the Twenty-first Century has brought the problem of inequality to the forefront, with mixed results.
US President Barack Obama vowed to make it a central issue for his administration before backing down and doing absolutely nothing. The British government has been trying its best to play down the fact that it’s a problem for Britain, blaming immigrants instead.
They ignore the plethora of evidence offered by, among others, the Office of National Statistics, which revealed in May that the wealthiest 10 percent of households in the UK own 44 percent of the country’s total aggregate household wealth while the least wealthy half own just nine percent.
But inequality has entered the conversation and there’s very little governments can do to hide what is self-evident. As a result of this change in consciousness, a new-found awareness has grown among the public and the media, who are now very quick to pick up on, and scrutinise examples of the ever-growing income disparity across the globe.
It has also brought to light the many ways in which our societies grow hostile towards the less fortunate. There is now a vast array of ways in which social classes try their best to keep those underneath them completely out of sight, a desire hard-wired in city planning and architecture.
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Such an example was reported by the New York Post last month, the last in a chain of eyebrow-raising news on the subject. The city council gave the green light to plans for a block of luxury apartments, coming with a selection of “affordable units”, a way for the developer to get some substantial tax cuts and for some lucky, less well-off families, to get houses in “a fantastic new building”.
But it also came with something else: a separate entrance for those families.
The entrance, now dubbed “the poor door”, will be located in the opposite side of the building and it will basically make sure that the two categories of residents never meet.
There is a practical argument to this: It is to exempt the less well-off families from the really high maintenance costs the richer residents will be paying for the various amenities.
While it’s true that you shouldn’t burden affordable apartments with high costs, essentially negating the point of them, let us ponder on the wolds “poor” and “affordable” for a second.
For a working class family, like the one I grew up in, there is nothing affordable about most affordable apartments. If the UK – where poor doors are quite widespread – is anything to go by, these properties cost 80 percent of the average rent in the area they are in, according to the latest ruling . That translates to an average of £18,000 ($30,300) per year for a three bedroom apartment, when families who consider themselves middle class in Britain make on average £43,592 ($73,000).
This is an optimistic scenario, as the bar of entry for new, “affordable” housing, is thought to be around £70,000 ($117,800) for a family, while last year, even the Conservative Westminster council warned London Mayor Boris Johnson that plans to set new rent levels at up to 80 percent of market rent would require council tenants in a three-bedroom home in the borough to have an annual income of £109,000 ($180,000) in order to be considered affordable, reported The Guardian .
Just how far have the rich pulled away from the rest of us? With Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the US defining middle class as anyone with household incomes up to $250,000, our views on the issue may have become more than a little skewed.
This is not of course the only instance of something that was built to exclude. The “poor door” may enflame liberal sensibilities, but it’s a distinctly middle class issue. Other dramatic changes are reshaping our environment in ways that project extreme hostility towards the less fortunate.
What goes on behind walls
Hail the rise of the gated community. While not as inhumane as those meant to keep people in, like the Roma ghettos in Slovakia, we have witnessed the proliferation of such developments across the globe. The rich shut themselves away in safety and luxury. They are a definitive sign of how far income inequality has taken our societies in the past three decades.
From luxurious condos resting next to the slums of Rio and other big South American cities, to the new developments in Spain, the US, India, Russia, South Africa and elsewhere, all examples of the haves removing themselves from society, declaring not only that the poor “are not like us” but that “they will never be like us”.
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Even Greece, a relatively classless and overwhelmingly safe society, saw the opening of the first such community in Crete, an event that conveniently escaped the Greek media.
When the haves can’t remove themselves due to lack of space, plans are put in place to remove the unwashed masses from sight. In Singapore, they are considering floating neighbourhoods for foreign workers only, to keep them away from their cities.
Do all of these countries face such grave security issues that require the most affluent to hide away behind walls or sending the poor away? Surely not. If not in all countries, crime is definitely on the decline in most of the world, so is poverty. But what is on the rise is inequality and the unwillingness of those who benefit from it, to cohort with those that don’t.
Tom Clark, author of Hard Times: The Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump , wrote recently : “Among those substantially hit by austerity, 62 percent told YouGov last year that they rejected the coalition’s cuts as too hasty; among those not much affected, a similar majority of 65 percent felt that the cutting should be maintained or stepped up.”
This change in speeds has taken hold across the spectrum and across the globe, shaping the way classes interact with public space and subsequently its evolution. It is the subtle ways in which our urban landscapes are changing that show the true cruelty born out of the slump.
Hostility as the new normal
In what used to be the gritty side of Southwark in South London, now newly gentrified, anti-homeless spikes were installed outside a building where homeless people took shelter at night. A picture of it was posted online and the reaction was strong enough to make the owner of the building promise to remove them.
The number of rough-sleepers has swollen since the UK introduced severe penalties, including imprisonment, for anyone squatting empty properties. In parallel, so have measures such as anti-homeless spikes. Bus stops with arm rests designed to discourage sleeping. Benches with a tilt such as those installed in London’s Camden district – asymmetrical surfaces made out of small stones, disguised as decoration, pointy blocks of cement underneath bridges.
All these are weapons against the already most hard-hit category of people, the homeless, who already suffer disproportionately from addiction, mental health issues and malnutrition,in some of the richest countries in the world.
As Rowland Atkinson, co-director of the Centre for Urban Research at the University of York, told The Guardian : “If you were being a bit cynical but also realistic, it is a kind of assault on the poor, a way of trying to displace their distress. You have various processes coming together, including economic processes that are making people vulnerable in the first place, like the bedroom tax and thresholds on welfare, but the next step seems to be to say: ‘We are not even going to allow you to accommodate yourself in the most desperate way possible.'”
This trend, visibly present since the 1990s, is dubbed “hostile architecture”.
Where more inclusive societies, like that of Denmark, build parks and public spaces with a view to invite and be enjoyed by as many as possible, countries where extreme inequality is becoming the norm, such as the UK and the US, opt for hostile and disengaging urban scenery.
We are right to be worried about these new realities. Gated communities and hostile architecture are brushed aside as temporary issues at best, to be fixed when “times are better”. But what we should be worried about is not solely if we are building a world to be enjoyed only by the rich in the short term, but also what that world might look like in the long term.
To us, such city furniture may look simply as a temporary manifestation of bad character, brought on by a prolonged economic crisis. But to those that will inherit them, they may look like no more than war zones; financial battlefields, from which humanity is totally absent.
Yiannis Baboulias is a journalist, writer and founding member of Precarious Europe, examining issues of precariousness, new nationalisms and independence movements across Europe. His work has been featured in the New Statesman, Vice and The Guardian among others.
Follow him on Twitter: @yiannisbab