A society can be judged by many things but few are as insightful and immediate as the physical spaces where we live. Be it the houses and apartments that house us, the public areas where we engage as a community, or the transportation networks that take us to where we need to go, the image of the city is a window to a society’s soul. Not all would agree, though. For Margaret Thatcher and the conservative revolution which she spawned, there was no such thing as society in the first place. But in Britain, the ritualistic destruction of society through bad urban design began well before the “Iron Lady” spoke that infamous line. This destruction, of course, was not limited to Britain: it was through the noxious spread of Le Corbusier modernism which blighted urban landscapes across the world with monolithic and brutalist obscenities whose only saving grace was that it they were one small step ahead of the slums which they replaced. But I’m not here to rant about the failure of social housing (I recently read the wonderful “Estates: An Intimate History” by Lynsey Hansey, and I doubt one can find a better left-wing critique out there), I’m here to rant about the failure of the private housing which replaced it in the 80s. And there’s no better place to start, than the little corner of London where I lived for three of my four years in Britain: Canada Water.
“Oh, that’s where the Decathlon is, right?”
It is fair to say that most Londoners have probably never been to Canada Water despite not being particularly far from the city center. It is, after all, about as far from Charing Cross (London’s historical reference point) as Notting Hill, Kentish Town or Shoreditch, places not usually referred to by people as being “too far away”. For those few Londoners who actually have ventured to the area, it is mostly to visit the giant Decathlon store which sells stuff for more sports than there are Olympic events. Truth is, there’s not many other reasons to visit. But having lived in a council flat during my first year of student-inspired poverty in an area even farther away (Stratford), Canada Water became a refreshing and modern-looking escape from the grime of East London, or the pretty but weathered Georgian or Victorian homes that many of my friends lived in. After all, Canada Water is relatively new: designed as an appendix to Canary Wharf in the 1980s (sans the office blocks), it was built on former docks on the south side of the river which by the 1970s had fallen into disuse. Now it’s a showcase of contemporary “docklands-style” flats with a string of converted wharves and warehouses along the river, and with the occasional council flats mixed in. And if you were lucky like me to live along one of the docks, the views of Canary Wharf were quite stunning to say the least and the tranquillity offered by the water, refreshing to the spirit.
But the fact of the matter is that there’s absolutely nothing to do. Taking a cue from American suburbia, the area’s entertainment outlets are limited to a cinema and a bowling alley with a trickle of casual dining joints surrounded by an enormous parking lot. Not a single outdoor café even. One would have at least hoped that the pubs would make up for this dearth of social spaces but boy, was I in for a big disillusionment. You see, Canada Water happens to be right next to Bermondsey, home of Millwall F.C., perhaps the most notorious hooligan-infested football team in Britain (if not the world). And as far as staking a claim on their surroundings, Canada Water is Millwall territory all the way. You will excuse me if I don’t find a pub with a giant England flag with “Millwall” written on it to be particularly inviting, nor the shaven-headed tattooed thugs drinking their days away and shouting at each other in their incomprehensible cockney drawl. Ok, maybe it wasn’t as bad as it sounds (the pubs on Bermondsey’s main street, however, looked like something straight out of a 17th century pirate town in all its toothless, vulgar splendor right before a Millwall home game), but let’s just say I did not find it the most welcoming and cozy of atmospheres.
You might wonder then, why I stayed there so long. The answer is: it was actually cheap. Given the state of London housing (I’ve never lived in a city where housing was so expensive and so bad at the same time), it was a rare combination to get a decent price out of a modern looking flat. Never mind that these modern flats break down just as much as the old ones, and that they are terribly small as well. In fact, the words “new build” in Britain in most cases should be seen as a warning sign for claustrophobics: behind the pretty and modern facades, the fact is that British new houses are the smallest in Western Europe. Just how small? 75 square meters small on average and density is not an excuse for this aberration: houses in the Netherlands are over 50% bigger despite the fact that the country has almost twice as many people per square kilometre. Nevertheless, for the price I was paying I could not complain but in the three years since I moved into Canada Water, rent prices have skyrocketed. I remember the average price for a room back in late 2008 was probably around the £500-600 a month mark but now it ranges around £800. And as nice as it is to boast of dockside living and a picture-perfect view of the Wharf, it just ain’t worth it anymore.
The other reasons I stayed in Canada Water was, in retrospective, a summary of all that was wrong with it: it was an easy commute to central London (at least in theory; in practice, having to endure the woeful Jubilee Line made transportation anything but easy). Think about that for a second. Shouldn’t the area you live in be good enough to spend an occasional weekend without getting bored out of your mind? Granted, most of us will prefer the hustle of bustle of cosmopolitan London than staying at home, but there should be at least some options for local entertainment. There’s no museums in Canada Water, no theaters, the best that it can get is a movie the cinema and dinner at Frankie & Benny’s. Which leads me to my last critique of my former neighborhood: it was too planned, and the planners never cared about the people they duped into living there. It’s easy to fool a prospective homeowner with a modern-looking waterside flat, a nearby shopping center, and a giant Tesco but it’s only after that homeowner moves in does he realize that the area is devoid of all the small pleasures (the local shopping, the entertainment, the culture) that in the long run, truly define whether a neighbourhood has soul. And in the end, these feelings grow on you. Even the middle/upper-middle class people living along the pricier dwellings looked rather jaded and uncouth.
Epilogue: time to flee
Alas, a week ago I decided to head for greener pastures, much greener ones if slightly farther away. Greenwich is now my home, and it could not be any happier about the new neighbourhood. Gone is the lifeless shopping centre with the typical chain stores which blight most main streets (the New Economics Foundation, where I briefly interned in back in 2009, called this phenomenon “Clone Town Britain”), replaced by innumerable picturesque local stores, a lovely market, and an even lovelier park. I’ve been there for over two weeks now and still haven’t seen chavs or yobs loitering around looking for trouble. It’s touristy, studenty, and it seems to reinforce the idea that I’ve had for so long, and which reading Ms Hansey’s book confirmed: that a beautiful place to live in makes us better people too. And that if there’s no such thing as society, then there’s no such thing as humanity either. Until housing policy (both public and private) reflects this, we’ll always be asking ourselves why modern society is going down the gutter.