Robin Hood Gardens – who is regenerating what?

It is a basic irony of neighbourhood renewal that the best way to create the impression that you have improved the lot of local people is to import a large number of new, more affluent residents into the area.

Whether this happens through the gradual acquisition of run down period properties by professional owner-occupiers (gentrification) or the construction of high-end apartments on “underused” sites (property-led regeneration), the effect is the same – by some process of alchemy the life chances of the existing disadvantaged inhabitants have been suddenly transformed.  I mean just look at the improvements in all the indicators of average income, educational attainment and health!

This has always struck me as one of the obvious limitations of the key aim of the Olympic Host Boroughs Strategic Regeneration Framework – to reduce the socio-economic gap between themselves and the rest of the capital.  A target which they are generally on track to meet.

And as I walked on through Tower Hamlets, Britain’s fastest growing Borough, away from Canary Wharf, the subject of my previous blog-post, to the Thames at Cubitt Town I got a very clear sense of one of the main drivers of this change.  I had the massive towers of the Pan Peninsula and Ability Place apartments behind me, another line of luxury buildings with their riverside balconies all around me, and the O2, with the Emirates cable-car ride linking it to the north bank of the Thames, to the front.  And down river at the mouth of the River Lea was another concentration of high rise apartments, extending into neighbouring Newham, while upstream I knew I would find Wapping, the ancestral home of the “yuppie flat”.

Now don’t misunderstand me.  When I left East London fifteen years ago a key reason was that I wanted to live somewhere with a rather better concentration of the professional classes.  So if all of this had been there then – together with the likes of John Lewis’s at Westfield Stratford – I might have had more desire to stay.  But it does leave me with a nagging doubt as to what it has actually done for the existing inhabitants.

So as an antidote to my Olympic Fever I’m currently reading Iain Sinclair’s anti-games polemic “Ghost Milk”.  A long-time resident of neighbouring Hackney, Sinclair sees the whole endeavour as an anti-democratic corporate plot to replace the counter-cultural oasis of Hackney with yet another line-toeing, un-rebellious middle class suburb.  An argument that got him into trouble with the local apparatchiks, but no doubt increased his sales, when the launch of his previous book, “Hackney – that Rose-Red Empire”, originally intended to take place at Stoke Newington public library, was banned on the express orders of the Mayor (allegedly).

From a “Sinclairist” point of view, the next casualty on this inexorable journey is to be Robin Hood Gardens, a place both 400 metres and about 1,000,000 miles from Canary Wharf all at once.   For as soon as I left the gleaming towers of the old dock estate the change was profound.  Gone were the be-suited city traders and private security guards, and in their place came pushchair wielding mums wearing hijabs, and public buildings adorned with notices in Bengali as well as English.  And once I was through the peace and quiet of the low-rise 1960’s Council estates of Cubitt Town, with their busy neighbourhood shopping parades of general stores, barbers and halal butchers, and their pocket parks, there was also the maelstrom of the A13 and the Blackwall Tunnel approach road.

Robin Hood Gardens was a modernist response to this sensory assault by traffic.  A concrete curtain wall of apartments, eight to ten storeys high, encloses a green oasis where children could play safely and residents of all ages could commune with nature and recharge their batteries.  In fact sitting there on a weekday afternoon, with the shouts of youngsters coming from the playground of the nearby primary school, it reminded me very much of the communal areas in Vauban, the green model suburb of Freiburg which I wrote about earlier this year.

Now this may be a rose-tinted view.  The gardens are not what you would call “defensible space”, and after dark might well be a haven for drug users and dealers, and about as safe to cross as Blackheath, which I could glimpse across the river, in the days of 17th century highwaymen.  Added to which the flats themselves are in need of improvements.  And in fact the original Council consultation found most residents favour demolition, although this was then contradicted by a residents’ survey in 2009 that showed 80% preferring to have their flats refurbished.

Redevelopment has won the day though.  The area is to be renamed Blackwall Reach and the existing 200 flats demolished and replaced by around 1500 new ones, creating a few more giant redwoods in the forest of tall buildings which already surround them.  CABE were not impressed with the design (and it takes more than a few high-rise blocks to worry them), but the Council granted planning permission anyway, and Robin Hood Gardens is now not long for this world.

Walking round the area there is no doubt that what started out as the creation of a few tall apartment buildings with spectacular views over water – either the enclosed docks or the river itself – has now changed into a general aspiration to build tall buildings pretty much everywhere.  And after the peace of the watersides the immediate environment of the new blocks along the A13 is frankly pretty grim, but many more are planned, and clearly they must sell (to investors and housing associations mainly), or they wouldn’t go ahead.

Another 1000 privately owned flats on Robin Hood Gardens to go alongside the replacement affordable housing will of course be another fillip for the Olympic Boroughs convergence target.  And I am sure they will all be “tenure-blind”, with no external indication of which ones accommodate the poor unfortunates renting from a social landlord, something you can’t say about the current estate, which of course screams “Council” at you as soon as you see it.  But is Iain Sinclair right?  Is this part of the destruction of a counter-cultural community and its replacement by a conformist one?

Well the cultural identity of the Council estates of Poplar and the Isle of Dogs has of course changed significantly over the past forty years, even while the buildings have remained the same.  The families of dock workers have been steadily replaced by Bengali families migrating out from their stronghold around Brick Lane.   And, given that it is people that make a place not bricks and mortar, this is just as dramatic a change as all the construction work at Canary Wharf.  One close-knit community, the dockers and their families, has been replaced by another, which, as of course we all would, want to keep their culture intact, through essentials like their language, their shops and their mosques, while choosing how much to assimilate themselves into the surrounding area.

This current generation of residents can take heart from the fact that most public housing in the area is of more conventional construction, in better condition and doesn’t afford the opportunity for major redevelopment that Robin Hood Gardens does.  I think they (and their homes) will be here for a while yet.  And their needs and aspirations will remain, whatever the statistical averages tell you…