Monday, October 30, 2006

French Riots and Related Issues

The banlieues in Pairs provide an example of bad urban planning as well as poverty and racism.

There is only one place on the outskirts of London that bears a resemblance to the grim suburbs of Paris, that would be Thamesmead. The only suburb I can think of which is within sufficient distance from the capital, and consisting almost solely of post war social housing, to merit a comparison.

Like most of London's post war developments for the working class who formerly inhabited the Dickensian slums it has been a disaster. The creation of tower blocks has replaced one set of slums with another. My friends lived in a block in the aforementioned area when the lift rarely worked (and if it happened to break down while you were in it nobody would respond to the alarm as children were always setting it off as a hoax). You didn't walk up the stairs at night - you ran.

The creation of walkways linking developments simply provides escape routes for criminals and handy sites for muggings, as has been noted about the notorious estates around the Elephant Castle area.

Do tower blocks create anti social behaviour or is it simply the people who reside there are inclined that way? I'd say it's a combination. The people who live in these developments are usually poor or underclass to begin with, with everything attached to that. But a depressing living environment only adds to hopelessness, which can manifest in anti social or criminal behaviour. If you have no stake in society and are forced to live in squalor you have nothing to lose.

Back to Paris - much of this is just as true for the suburbs there as it is for London's poor dwellings, perhaps more so. And of course there is the added problem of racism and blatant discrimination based on one's postcode. Action must be taken before it spirals further. I am not one to romanticise the French riots or believe they have any revolutionary potential to change society in any drastic way - this is not 1968. However, the youths in the banlieues are right in discerning that the current system has nothing to offer them. But their actions are of an apolitical and nihilistic nature. Although I'm not a big advocate of affirmative action generally, I believe there is a case for it here. This must go along with regeneration of the districts concerned (local activities and housing revampment) , with democratically controlled and accountable policing. Racism is rife among the French police, and the youths are right to distrust them. They are totally alienated from the communities they are supposed to serve.

But don't let us forget that it wasn't that long ago London had it's own riots in it's depleted estates that were predominately inhabited by Black citizens. The motivations were not unsimiliar - youths felt victimised by racism and poverty, and the feeling of persecution by an institutionally racist police force.

Meanwhile lessons can be learnt about the shortfalls of social housing both in Britain and in France. Places like Thamesmead (which not that long ago described on a billboard as a 'place of London's future') will hopefully one day be monuments to it's past, as will the banlieues of Paris to it's own. The working class and immigrants should not be forced to live among crime and squalor. But until the British government drops it's policy against social housing (preventing the building of new council property) an improvement in people's lives is unlikely to happen. Meanwhile decent social housing should be campaigned for in both cities. Some existing properties have been regenerated (such as the Broadwater Farm area where the Tottenham riots took place) but this is not good enough. As a few of the elderly Elephant and Castle residents pointed out in a documentary, the development behind the shopping mall was not designed well for a good community spirit. Social problems and crime continue to plague the area. Let not the disaster of the post war tower blocks be repeated in any new projects.

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