Opinion

Utopian visions of living are neglecting public housing. That must change

High-tech and flashy plans for future cities might grab the headlines but they rarely consider the realities of housing working people

How a city of the future might look

Illustration: Big Issue Image: Shutterstock

Late last summer, I went to Venice to see an exhibition about the future of urban living. The exhibition was focused on The Line, a hyper-futuristic, wholly new city being built in the north-west desert of Saudi Arabia.  

To create the space, two enormous, parallel, mirrored walls, each 30 metres high, 200 metres apart, and 170 kilometres long, will be built. In the space between, a city of nine million people is – even now – beginning to take shape. At the show in Venice, promotional material talked about things like ‘enhanced liveability’ and ‘access to nature’. The exhibition featured experimental 3D models, lots of pictures of trees, and a huge, weird demonstration of where ships would dock in The Line (in a huge hole, in the middle, it turns out, like a belly button).

What I couldn’t see, though, was a great deal of interest in where and how, exactly, these nine million people were going to live. Underneath all the talk of ‘hyper connectivity’ and ‘vertical forests’, the rather boring, everyday question of housing was left somewhat dangling.  

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This is odd. If you were to ask people to identify the one major crisis in urban living that a new city might plausibly solve, the first thing many would point to is housing. In many cities today, failure by the market to keep up with a rising demand, as well as regulators’ inability to ensure that what does get built is meaningfully available at affordable rates, has meant that millions are unable to move beyond often low-quality, small, expensive private rentals at the edges of cities. In 2021/22, for example, about 38,000 new homes were built in London, while the city’s population increased by 130,000 (72,000 of whom were people newly moving there, in addition to births).  

This growing pressure is good news for homeowners and landlords. But it’s disastrous for everyone else. The housing charity Shelter points out that beyond issues of supply, homes that do exist are often overcrowded, poorly maintained and unstable. In addition to individual misery, this crisis is ultimately fatal to the very idea of the open and cosmopolitan city. As the sociologist David Madden points out, the worst effects of the housing crisis are ultimately borne by new migrants and members of working-class communities, many of whom are simply pushed out of the city altogether.  

It was hard to see enormous interest in any of this in Venice – nor does one see much in any of the other new cities currently being built or talked about. But it is a major problem that, rather than focus on this mundane and boring but very real crisis in existing cities, so much investment, as well as so much fancy work by architects and urban designers, is directed at entirely made-up places where the imagined resident is some kind of globally mobile, upper-middle-class knowledge worker.  

It’s an even bigger problem that, amid all this talk of liveability, there is so little interest in the conditions in which very real, current urban people are living. I don’t think this is an error or a coincidence. Indeed, we should pay close attention, amid a global crisis of urban housing, to the fact that the most prominent urban visions of our age are so often focused on wholly new green and sustainable cities, where people currently under rental stress, or indeed the urban working class as such, are rendered largely absent.

I don’t think this is forgetfulness. Rather it marks a new front in the international class politics of urban housing, where the terms of sustainability and liveability are not set by democratic and diverse urban communities, but rather by an authoritarian petro-state like Saudi Arabia – where, according to Amnesty, migrant workers “continue to be abused and exploited”.  

A real urban utopia isn’t some high-tech, flashy, tree-covered, science-fiction paradise. It’s a place where, instead, the boring bureaucratic and political work of public housing is finally taken seriously – a place where liveability means somewhere that people from all backgrounds can comfortably and sustainably come to live. 

The City of Today is a Dying Thing by Des Fitzgerald is out now (Faber & Faber, £18.99)

You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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