London is in the midst of a housing crisis that has become so dire that Londoners are moving onto boats. The Canal & River Trust (CRT) reports that the number of constant cruising licences increased from 4,400 in 2012 to 5,400, with east London bearing an 85% increase in boaters. I was one of London’s boaters for 18 months and lived within modest means: four solar panels to provide my electricity use, a water tank that needed to be refilled every fortnight, and the possibility of living in London part of the year with an annual cruising license that costs less than most Londoner’s monthly rent. And while not everyone can move onto boats as a last resort, the options for housing in London are looking dismal as rents increase, salaries stagnate, and the options for spaces available are physically limited.
Last week, members of Tower Hamlets council’s strategic development committee approved the proposals for a development which is to deliver 19 mixed-use buildings with 643 homes in the centre of Chrisp Street. Yet, the lower income earners have not been substantially considered, with this development being a stone’s throw away from the affluent trading firms of Canary Wharf and Shoreditch. What could be an opportunity to bring together the poor and the middle class appears very much to be a project for the elite as protestors from the local community to shopkeepers made their voices heard.
Short of demolishing existing structures and renovating heritage buildings, what is the answer to London’s housing crisis aside from much needed land reform? And how can the poor and lower-middle class afford the rent in new buildings as London faces one of the greatest housing crises in its history, what some call “the greatest transfer of wealth in living memory”? Clearly the answers are very much related to the problems that Marx and Engels wrote above over 130 years ago: who owns the land and means of production and how do we level the playing field so that everyone is able to live peacefully with access to affordable housing?
One of the solutions to the housing crisis being experimented with throughout the UK and beyond are “satellite towns,” a concept in urban planning which refers to a smaller metropolitan area that is located somewhat near to—but independent of—a larger metropolitan areas. Yes, this means leaving cities like London and Manchester and settling outside of them. Satellite towns have developed over the past several decades all over the world with varying degrees of success. Their creations correspond to the problems of urban overcrowding, pollution, economic centralisation, and socioeconomic inequality, especially where large urban centres are limited in space for housing development and the prices of housing continually shoot upward. Quite often these towns will incorporate ecological practices to include renewable energy, garden allotments, and various technologies that allow the inhabitants to create communities while having quick access to the larger city where many will daily commute to work and as quick an access to green spaces with the family.
Since having worked on a satellite town project in Huai’an, China I have been fascinated by the principle of time and proximity which are the centre of these towns’ designs and their success. Like Chengdu Great City, Huai’an is designed such that any location within town is reachable within 15 minutes of walking. Cars are not prioritised and given only 50% of the street space, the remaining street space being allotted to cyclists and pedestrians. In Palava, India, one of Mumbai’s satellite towns, for example, the proximity formula used is 5-10-15 indicating: daily needs should be within a five-minute walk; errands due every few days a ten minute walk; and months tasks should be no more than 15 minutes away. And if we think about how many hours a year we spend running errands, the satellite town is certainly the eco-revolution of the future along with other models like the transition town.
Why has it taken the UK so long to realise that technological innovation and satellite towns were the most efficient methods to resolve the mounting housing crisis? While prefabricated houses are viable solutions in rural areas, they won’t cut it in London. And for many who work in urban planning, decentralisation through satellite towns is the most logical, practical, and ecological response to the housing crisis.
I moved out of London last year after realising that I didn’t really need to be there. As a writer, I can work pretty much anywhere and I sought a quality of life that would best be met by a smaller town. Ask yourselves if perhaps you need London any more than London needs you.