In London's sociopathic property market, where house prices rose 18 percent in just one year, and thousands of poorer families are being forced out of London, developers have to do much more than just build and sell flats to stay competitive – instead, they're selling a lifestyle. "We don't think it's good enough to build a lovely flat," says Richard Fagg, Regional Director for London and the South East for property giant Bouygues Development. "Anyone can build a lovely flat anywhere." The challenge, he tells me, is to look beyond the walls of the property and offer more: and that's where the dark art of "place-making" comes in.
And how better to make a place than through an absurd marketing video, promoting areas as cash cows rather than real communities? One corporate video, telling people to invest in Deptford, South London, provoked such a howl of public anguish in the last few weeks that the company behind it, Cathedral, have taken it offline and are refusing to talk to the press about it (fortunately, one public-spirited citizen has re-uploaded it to YouTube). These videos are the calling cards of London's gentrifiers, forecasting a depressing, heavily branded vision of London's future as an agglomeration of exclusive "urban villages".
Clip from "Rise @ Deptford" video by IP Global. Full video here
The video, which you can see above, is a giddy broadcast about the "unrivalled investment opportunities" in Deptford. The horrors are abundant. More concerning even than the T4 style music, or the fact that what they're building looks like a storage crate covered in post-it notes, are the zealous salarymen salivating over the money-making opportunities offered by an area bursting with "creatives".
"You can just sense this really has a young, sort of trendy feel to it," says Tim Murphy, CEO of IP Global. "The artists are here. It's got that real vibe about it." The artists are the honey trap, of course, of merit not because they make a place nice, but because they're a harbinger of gentrification that's just around the corner. "People that buy real estate, they know about property – that's when you get in."
"They're calling Deptford the new Shoreditch!" beams Murphy, as an endorsement, not a warning. The people who they actually want to live in the Deptford Project – the only people who could afford to do so – are "young urban professionals, high earning individuals who probably work in the City".
Richard Fagg told me how the "creatives" are the ultimate lure – in fact, there's not even enough of them to go around. "It's that magical something that [London boroughs] all want. They all want IT businesses and they all want creative industries, because it gives them that young, hip vibe. People take it very seriously, because it creates value."
Much like decades old communities that end up displaced, the artists and creatives don't get to enjoy an area once their vibe has been established for long enough to drive up prices. "Of course, by the time they're successful, the place has been established, the property's gone up massively in value, and the owners have gone 'right, I'm turfing these people out, I want to convert it to resi'[dential]," said Fagg.
The video's key moment (watch from 33 seconds in the clip above) is in fact a single split second when you can actually see the cogs whirring in the brain of Cathedral's Creative Director Martyn Evans. "Over the past five or six years [Deptford]'s turned," he says, "from being one of those –" and that's when he suddenly has to find a euphemism for the word his brain wants him to use. Shitty. Decrepit. Desperate. Unliveable. Fortunately, his brain kicks into gear: "from being one of those – new areas, to being absolutely right there, at the apex of fashionability."
Clip from Welcome to Kidbrooke Village video by Berkley Group Plc. Full video here
The Deptford video has caused a stir, but there are so many more out there like it. The Kidbrooke Village sales video perfectly demonstrates the amnesiac quality of place-making: it's selling an urban village conceived in a marketing department to people who've never set foot in the area, and doing so as if nothing had ever existed there before.
For years, South-East London's massive Ferrier Estate was one of the most deprived in the country – but don't worry kids, it's not there anymore! Instead, here's a few grinning goons in a wine bar and a trestle table of overpriced on the vine tomatoes. Demolition of the Ferrier was finally completed in 2012, as part of one of Europe's largest regeneration schemes.
By the time the stirring string section kicks in in the Kidbrooke Village marketing video, all memories of the Ferrier are buried in a flurry of revealed brickwork and awful I'm-having-the-actual-time-of-my-life-here acting.
For developers Berkeley Homes, the poverty affecting the residents of the Ferrier Estate was not the problem – the residents themselves were. Berkeley Chairman John Anderson made the distinction clear in this 2013 Financial Times fluff piece, while standing next to a "Champagne fridge" (is this distinct from a normal fridge which happens to contain Champagne?), in one of Kidbrooke Village's new £1 million town houses: refurbishment of the Ferrier blocks for its existing residents was off the table – any such renovation, "would have got sucked into the sink estate". Instead, he said, "it's about changing the whole social dynamic".
Only a very small proportion of Kidbrooke Village's new properties are social rented; the majority of Ferrier residents were "decanted" (AKA kicked out of their homes and moved far away – y'know, like fine wine) during the 2000s to other council-owned blocks, often places further afield like Thamesmead. If the video is anything to go by, they have been replaced by tablet wielding businessmen striking deals and couples indulging in nauseating PDAs by idyllic sunset, which is obviously much nicer.
"There are," glowed the FT, "few greater signs of its transformative regeneration than when you stand beneath the chandeliers in one of the high-end designed bedrooms, catching a glimpse of those remaining Ferrier blocks, their facades ripped off to reveal rundown interiors."
In the video we see the tragic irony in this transformation, and who it benefits. An on-message new resident enthuses that the "sense of community" within the village is its major selling point, that "you can really feel how friendly" the neighbours are. The presence of pubs, cafes, restaurants, gyms and shops within Kidbrooke Village mean you need never actually leave, he says in the voiceover – like it's some kind of regeneration Butlins, a closed-off and holistic world where you can work, rest and play. Kidbrooke Village offers community, stability and permanence as saleable commodities – the very things denied to the social housing tenants decanted from the Ferrier. Kidbrooke Village's tag-line, "A new village for London. For everyone," is devoid of meaning.
Clip from Queens Park Place video by London Newcastle. Full video here
Kidbrooke Village isn't the only place that evokes a match.com advert in the minds of people who make ads for new developments – welcome to Queens Park Place. It is, says the website, a hidden gem, an "urban village" that offers "metropolitan living in a Manhattan style".
The video is without narration or interviews, because the twinkling piano music and the visual language says it all. In fact it doesn't show you anything that is identifiably the development at all – it's all about the blissed out ambience. Their ideal residents seem to be scarf models. Here are the lifestyle accoutrements and habits of the urban village: laptops out for a working lunch, mobile phones and bar stools, nice wine glasses, street food stalls, new skirt, tennis courts, early morning jogging, working dad, nice hat, fresh produce, family time.
Go for the burn in the City then unwind with friends back in the urban village. You work hard all day – you deserve this. Oh yeah, one more thing: would you mind buying a flat from us please?
Of course, not everybody truly deserves it. The project caused a stir in July when someone spotted that the 28 "affordable" (i.e. 80 percent of market rate; i.e. not remotely affordable) properties in the development would have a separate entrance, AKA a "poor door". The FAQ on the Queens Park Place website spelled out this perfect microcosm of a divided city, JG Ballard's High Rise brought to life: "Affordable tenants will not have use of the main private residential entrance, private courtyard gardens or basement car and cycle parking. Services including postal delivery and refuse storage are also divided."
There are so many more of these videos, and projects. There's Hackney Square, Hallsville Quarter, Meridian Water, City Island, Bow Quarter, Clapham One. This is what gentrification is, right? Poorer people are being pushed further and further to London's outer boroughs, as these new, expensive developments replace social housing in places like Elephant, Lewisham, Peckham, Bow, Hackney.
Richard Fagg of Bouygues doesn't see it that way. "No, our position is absolutely not. These larger schemes, particularly those that are being led by the GLA and some of the big boroughs, they are very much sticking to their guns in terms of Section 106 [affordable housing] provision, so hopefully we are getting blended communities. In the poor parts of London where we've been working in the past, they have been – and I use this term politely – but they have been social enclaves. No one buys homes there, because your money will probably depreciate. But that's changing. It's not gentrification, it's just becoming a more balanced community."
It's difficult to talk to the property industry about gentrification, because they either won't talk to you at all (VICE are still waiting to hear back from four or five of Bouygues's rivals), or they speak in euphemisms, or they just flat out deny it's happening. It's not gentrification, they say, we're just carefully engineering a situation where there are fewer poor people here, and more rich people.
"It could become a whole new part of South East London!" says one of the talking heads in the Deptford Project video, which inadvertently highlights another sinister aspect of place-making. Specifically: was Deptford not there already? It treats our cities as mere landing sites for urban villages, conceived by marketing departments and dropped from on high. The property industry talks of mixed communities, but has nothing to say to the social housing tenants splatted underneath and displaced. Housing that poor people can genuinely afford never materialises and they have to move to zone six. The "social enclaves" are then out of sight and out of mind, until they get a vibe of their own and, who knows, perhaps become the next locations to drop new urban villages on.
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