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The year 2007 marked the global demographic transition to the urban age. Although still vastly disparate between regions, levels of urbanisation are expected to increase overall across the globe over the next few decades. Urban governance thus constitutes a crucial area of interest for social scientists, as urban policy-making processes affect a growing number of the world’s population and urban space unfolds as a playing-field for clashing interests. In this article, I will examine the ways in which urban planning and regeneration schemes potentially exacerbate growing inequalities in cities. Indeed, city restructuring schemes can both engender and reveal systemic discrimination along the lines of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. In light of this, I hope to address the ways in which integrating a human and cultural rights perspective into urban governance can simultaneously ensure more inclusive policy-making and expand our understanding of cultural rights. In this article, I will examine the intersection of cultural rights and urban regeneration programmes through the case study of Seven Sisters Market in North London. A regeneration scheme targeting the Seven Sisters area has been contested for over a decade, in part because it has not taken into account the market traders’ cultural rights. This case study demonstrates the high stakes of omitting a cultural rights perspective from regeneration schemes, and invites us to reconsider and develop our comprehension of what constitutes a cultural right.
Urban regeneration: for whom?
Although redevelopment schemes decided upon on a governmental scale, often in public-private partnerships, and gentrification are distinct phenomena, they often intersect and sometimes have similar outcomes. ‘Gentrification’ was coined by sociologist Ruth Glass in the 1960s to denote the change of social character in an urban area brought about by the gradual out-pricing and displacement of its working class occupants. Urban improvement schemes can result in gentrification and the displacement of communities by aiming to attract more affluent residents. This displacement is often accompanied by the replacement of local businesses catering to and employing lower-income users with services accommodating the consumer tastes of the incoming middle class. This consequentially can increase spatial fragmentation in cities and social divisiveness by pushing certain communities to city outskirts. Human geographer Loretta Lees has written extensively on gentrification in contemporary Britain, revealing the ways in which government-led urban regeneration programmes often reproduce the class dynamics of gentrification but veil this process by coating it in the language of ‘urban renaissance’. She posits these policies create social polarisation and exclude the working class from fully participating in urban life. Indeed, geographer Neil Smith describes how the language of urban revitalisation and renaissance casts working-class neighbourhoods as devitalised. Describing areas as ‘run down’, ‘crime ridden’ and ‘decaying’, the vocabulary used in urban renewal programming draws on imaginaries of modernity to create an ideal future to move toward, casting present and past into dirt and backwardness. According to Michel Foucault, ‘In discourse, power and knowledge are joined together’: discourse is a productive force, establishing objects as subject to power relations. In this vein, the discourse of regeneration reifies certain areas as specific sets of problems with a clearly delineated solution: regeneration. It can therefore be argued that the discourse of regeneration is capable of depoliticising social issues of poverty and crime by transforming them into technical problems for which formulaic investment building schemes are the answer. This type of discursive framing thus obscures the frequently exclusionary effects of these processes, the realities of evictions and the displacement of entire communities.
Examples of mass-scale development schemes pushing more exclusionary visions of cities can be found across the globe. Anthropologist Li Zhang has written about the displacement of thousands of families in China’s city of Kunming following a spatial restructuring of the city aimed at catering to new types of consumerist behaviour and high-end real estate developments. The vision of Kinshasa’s future outlined in the governmental ‘Cinq Chantiers’ programme is examined in anthropologist Filip de Boeck’s work. He describes the tensions between official planning schemes, which focus on regularising the city and advancing the interests of urban elites, and large swaths of society that rely on informal economic structures and are excluded from the vision of future Kinshasa. Although these processes of urban regeneration share certain similar drives, it is important to note that local geographical contexts are defined by vastly different circumstances and thus carry different consequences. In the rest of this article I focus on the policies of urban regeneration in the United Kingdom to highlight the ways in which public-private partnerships in renewal programmes have failed to take into account the human and cultural rights of targeted areas’ residents. I hope to demonstrate how integrating such a perspective can lead to more inclusive urban-policy making and can expand the very notion of cultural rights.
Rights to and in the city
The exclusion of certain groups of urban dwellers from profiting from urban regeneration schemes can also lead to the homogenization of cityscapes and to the loss of cultural diversity in urban centres. In major European and North American cities, neighbourhoods home to Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) populations are overwhelmingly the target of regeneration programmes. This leads to the increased outpricing and displacement of BAME populations and their replacement with white upper-middle class inhabitants and services catering to their consumer habits and tastes. There is thus an urgent need to rethink the ways in which urban renewal projects are conceived in order to eliminate exclusion and discrimination in urban planning. In her examination of urban transformations in Spitalfields, the urbanist Jane Jacobs argues that various groups ‘mobilised often contradictory notions’ of what the neighbourhood stood for and who its ‘rightful’ community was, leading to a struggle marked by conflictual identity politics. Urban redevelopment thus sets off debates around belonging and the right to the city.
Philosopher Henri Lefebvre is a seminal figure in first articulating ‘the right to the city’ in 1968, characterised as the right to participate in the city, to appropriate the city, ‘to habitat and to inhabit’. Since then, scholars have drawn on and complicated Lefebvre’s work, cultural geographer Don Mitchell for instance positing that struggle is foundational to public space and thus that the ‘right to the city’ is continuously contested and reestablished. However the contested nature of the ‘right to the city’ does not exclude it from forming the conceptual basis for legal instruments meant to institutionalise power relations around public space. International organisations have demonstrated interest in the idea of the ‘right to the city’. The European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City was ratified by 359 cities in 21 countries by 2006, and it encompasses both the right to the city and rights in the city. These broadly range from the right to political participation to the right to culture. In this case, the idea of the ‘right to culture’ follows an early model of conceptualising the intersection of human rights and culture articulated in the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1954), which focused on the right of individuals to access culture (i.e. cultural life and products). However, I am more interested in later understandings of cultural rights as the right to difference and to practice culture without fear of discrimination, as outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to Ethnic or National, Linguistic and Religious Minorities (1992). This definition of cultural rights I wish to examine more closely in conjunction with the type of urban regeneration programmes described above, to extrapolate how it can contribute to more inclusive models of urban redevelopment and in turn how urban regeneration settings force us to expand our grasp of cultural rights.
Many anthropologists argue cultural rights should confer the right to cultural difference, specifically referring to indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination. Although debates on the definition of ‘culture’, and therefore on what is conceptualised as constituting cultural rights, are ongoing in anthropology, there has been a demonstrated interest in the strategic reification of ‘culture’ by groups aiming for the collective recognition of their rights. To reify or essentialise culture refers to presenting cultures as bounded defined realities when in fact cultural activity is far more fluid, allowing for contradictions and change. The strategic reification of ‘culture’ is often necessary when claiming rights that are protected in international law according to cultural and ethnic categories or to status as minority or indigenous groups. Because the law tends to rely on ‘essentialising proclivities’, activists must strategically essentialise culturally defined groups to claim political visibility and be heard by the state and policy-makers. Thus, cultural rights claims often demand a bounded and limited image of a given culture: what do such claims look like in urban settings?
Markets: contested urban space and the claim to cultural rights
Urban regeneration schemes in the United Kingdom in recent decades have often targeted local markets in wider efforts to attract higher income residents and cater to their consumption tastes. Notable cases of markets threatened by regeneration schemes in London alone include Queen’s Market in Newham, Ridley Road Market in Hackney, and Seven Sisters Market in Haringey. It is useful to examine markets to analyse urban regeneration as a cultural rights issue, as they function as spaces for many communities to practice their right to cultural difference. Anthropologists Rachel Black and Carlo Petrini’s work analyses the marketplace as a public space essential to transnational and migrant experiences, offering a nodal access point to economic and social life in the arrival country. Similarly, referring to contemporary London, Professor of Urban Form Laura Vaughan claims that ethnic marketplaces represent ‘a new form of social integration’ into the super-diverse environment of the global city. At first it may seem that although local markets are essential to protecting the livelihoods of BAME communities, their super-diversity could make framing their case as one of ‘cultural rights’ difficult, for as we have discussed previously the concept of cultural rights still relies on an essentialist understanding of ‘culture’. I hope to demonstrate how in fact the cultural rights discourse in super-diverse urban settings can help us depart from an essentialist understanding of culture to more fluid and comprehensive definitions of cultural activity. To do so, I turn to a current campaign to save Seven Sisters Market in North London.
Seven Sisters Market houses forty units which include shops selling everything from meat to textiles, barbers and nail salons, and many cafes and restaurants. Seven Sisters Market, nicknamed ‘Latin village’, is the United Kingdom’s second largest concentration of Latin businesses after Elephant and Castle, currently also campaigning against a redevelopment scheme. The campaign to save Seven Sisters Market has been ongoing for over ten years, fighting a regeneration proposal for the Seven Sisters area led by Haringey council and property developer Grainger plc. The developer’s initial planning application did not accommodate Seven Sisters Market and was legally challenged by the Save Latin Village campaign. This pushback ultimately led to the inclusion of Section 106 in the regeneration proposal, which legally binds Grainger to rehouse Seven Sisters Market in the new development and provide an alternative location during the construction period. Despite the legally secured future of the market, the campaign believes Grainger’s current plan would entail the displacement of Seven Sisters Market’s traders through a process of gentrification. In 2017, experts from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a statement in support of Seven Sisters Market, proclaiming that Grainger’s planned regeneration scheme would have a ‘disproportionate impact on people belonging to minorities and their right to equal participation in economic, social and cultural rights’. This intervention gave immense political weight and media momentum to the Save Latin Village campaign by defining the imminent demolition and displacement of the market as a human and cultural rights issue.
Seven Sisters Market is a cultural and social cornerstone of Latin American life in the United Kingdom and the campaign arguing for the vital importance of its survival centres upon its role in serving the Latin American community. Walking around the indoor market, it is undeniable that the space has a myriad of purposes. The freezers stockpile Colombian produce unavailable fresh on this side of the Atlantic, such as tomate arbol and lulo fruits. Restaurants serve homely portions of regional specialties such as bandeja paisa and their open seating areas are spaces of heightened sociality where people are constantly plopping down on a bench for a quick chat with a friend or looking up from their soups to wave hello to acquaintances passing by. Legal counselling in Spanish is available and bulletin boards hanging around the market list accommodation for rent and employment opportunities. The experience of shopping at SSM is accompanied by an audible voyage through various eras of the Latin American soundscape, as units blast bachata compilations and traditional love ballads or the newest reggaeton hits.
The discursive framing of the regeneration as threatening the practice of ‘Latin culture’ entails the reification of ‘Latin culture’, which is a concept open to contestation. Indeed, London’s Latin community and the market itself are subject to super-diversity, encompassing an internal range of nationalities, immigration statuses and arrival years. Furthermore, although the majority of traders and clients are Latin American, some businesses are run by Nigerian, Iranian, and Senegalese traders and the market serves as a meeting space for the neighbourhood’s diverse residents too. Thus invoking cultural rights runs the risk of homogenising a space under a particular idea of a reified ‘Latin culture’. However, I argue the cultural rights talk does not limit itself to a reified understanding of an ethnic minority and its ‘bounded culture’. In fact, the emphasis on location in both UN statements and the Save Latin Village campaign point to an imagining of community not bound to an essentialist ‘Latin culture’, but to the cultural ecosystem of the market itself. The discourse of cultural rights invoked by the Save Latin Village campaign frames the market as an ecosystem tied to its current location, potentially suffering irreversibly from relocation. By framing the threat as the relocation of the market and the subsequent displacement of its traders, they draw on an articulation of community in time and space and on the culture that emerges from this particular constellation. Traders’ anxieties around Seven Sisters Market’s relocation are linked to the possible loss of a special place and atmosphere created over the years. This leads me to argue that what is thought to be put at risk by the regeneration scheme is not necessarily reducible to a reified idea of ‘Latin culture’, but the particular setting of Seven Sisters Market in which many imaginings of community and culture coexist and co-constitute each other. The lens of cultural rights can invite us to consider the market’s cultural aspects cherished by traders that do not map onto an essentialist ‘Latin culture’. These for instance include the market’s crucial function as a space of childcare: the majority of traders are women, and when speaking with them many brought up the ways in which the market makes their lives easier by facilitating childcare, as it enables them to earn a living without neglecting family life. The indoor market’s physical containment, solid fire-entrance doors, and the strong relations between traders means children can play safely, allowing their mothers to run their businesses free of worry. I argue this function of childcare contributes to the market’s specific ‘culture’ through the generation of ‘cultural identities’. Approaching the markets’ survival as a cultural rights issue thus also opens the concept of cultural rights to a more fluid and emerging definition not relying on essentialist concepts of any bounded culture, but open to the super-diverse urban spaces of contemporary societies.
At this point I would like to flag an added layer of complexity, for the concept of super-diverse multiculturalism can be commodified by regeneration and gentrification processes. This trend reflects white middle-class consumer preferences in which ‘diversity’ and access to a wide range of ‘cultural goods’ are considered profitable assets, but on the white gentrifiers’ terms, not the gentrified communities’. Urbanist Nick Dines outlines this phenomena in his work on another London market, Queen’s Market in East London. He notes how diversity can be taken out of its context, i.e. separated from the BAME communities it is associated with, and abstracted as a concept sellable to higher-income users. This gentrification of diversity could take many forms, for instance promoting a ‘multi-cultural refurbished market’ selling Latin American delicacies, but sold to and by an entirely different crowd following the original traders’ outpricing in the process. We must therefore be careful when integrating a cultural rights angle into urban planning to protect communities and people, not particular ideals of multicultural super-diverse consumption patterns.
Serious considerations of the traders’ cultural rights were not taken in Grainger’s redevelopment proposal and many aspects crucial to Seven Sisters Market’s identity have been omitted from their plans. Traders have been successful in securing various guarantees, including a new market in the finished development scheme, a temporary market with three rent-free months during the construction works, and the property developer taking over moving costs. However, even these guarantees are steeped in uncertainty: the terms and conditions around covered moving costs are for instance blurry, and rising rents in the long term cannot be excluded. Some traders have described the consultation steering group set up by the property developer as a ‘ticking box exercise’, a PR front established to diverge critique which has repeatedly failed to address raised concerns on the future of the market (for example the distribution of stalls or the loss of precious mezzanine space excluded from the new design of the market). Furthermore, there have been no efforts to conserve the special characteristics of the market: the historic building currently housing the market will be demolished and replaced by a modern glass and brick construction which will house high-street retailers as well (thinly veiled as ‘Coste Coffee’ in the CGI representation available on the development’s website). The market’s rich history will effectively be erased and architectonic features which have been central to Seven Sisters Market multi-purpose functionality are not present in the developer’s vision.
From an urban policy perspective, this example highlights the potential shortfalls of the UK local government and councils’ reliance on public-private partnerships and corporate stakeholders to carry out these costly schemes. They often fail to either themselves consult concerned communities or to hold their private sector partners accountable to do so effectively and to integrate the outcomes of these consultations in their plans. This failure led to the conceptualisation of regeneration for the area in breach of the community’s cultural rights, threatening to both obliterate the market’s character and slowly replace its traders by way of rising rents in the long run. In contrast, the Save Latin Village has been developing their own community plan for the renovation of the Edwardian-era building housing the market. They hope to get Grainger’s development scheme revoked and to instead have their plan which is based on community consultation approved by the council. The community plan focuses on ameliorating and tailoring Seven Sisters Market to the current needs of market traders and users. When presenting it to the council, activists argued the market functions as its own fluid cultural ecosystem and emphasised that their alternative to Grainger’s plan builds on these cultural aspects, and is conducive to and inviting of these practices. It for instance centres on the market continuing to serve as a safe space for children. The community plan draws on what has made the market successful over the years, namely the freedom traders have enjoyed in running their units, and hopes to empower traders further by moving away from the risks of intrusive management. To achieve this, the planners are working closely with a business consultant to elaborate their vision of Seven Sisters Market as a collectively managed space.
Alternative urban regeneration programmes that center human and cultural rights are possible although still mostly absent from the UK’s urban policy-making processes. The fire at Grenfell tower revealed how the UK’s regeneration policy is nowhere near integrating a cultural rights perspective into its project development as it has failed to ensure the basic human right to safe housing for all. Grenfell is an example of the prioritisation of white middle-class sensibilities over BAME lives: the 2016 refurbishment of the high-rise residential tower was driven by aesthetic demands for it to better blend into the surrounding upper-class borough of Kensington. The tower’s exterior was clad with highly flammable panels which led to the tragic death of a (contested) estimate of 72 deaths after a fire broke out on the 14 June 2017 and the tower went up in flames. A public inquiry into the fire is investigating the refurbishment and external cladding and has already concluded the use of combustible materials on high-rise towers was in breach of building regulations. The investigation is ongoing but it is clear that the manifold stakeholders of the redevelopment of Grenfell are all keen to blame each other, and that the private-public partnership model has complicated the much needed search for accountability. The event reinforced the urgent need to rethink how regeneration and refurbishment projects are conducted, and to ensure local and national governments are accountable for the basic human rights, and the cultural rights, of their citizens.
The future of cities will be shaped by many challenges which demand change and innovation. The climate crisis has pushed urban governance experts around the globe to imagine greener more sustainable cities. Demographic pressure will create housing shortages that will have to be addressed in creative ways. In light of these challenges, we can expect urban spaces to change significantly over the decades to come. I argue integrating a cultural rights perspective into the urban policy-making and planning consultations of our changing cityscapes is a crucial step in pushing for truly more inclusive and equal societies and cities.
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