From Water to Home: Permeability as Social Inclusion (and Exclusion) in Contemporary London

London under lockdown. Photo: Evening Standard
Anna Viola Sborgi considers how recent documentary films reconfigure porosity as permeability, and reflects on questions of social inclusion in the city under lockdown.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Porousness and Cities.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In my previous post I explored formal and thematic porosity in a series of films that trace the history of the London Docklands regeneration from the 1980s to the present. In this post I want to reflect on how, in the contemporary discourse on the ongoing transformation of London’s riverside and the city as a whole, porosity is reconfigured as permeability, firstly in terms of water management and secondly in relation to social inclusion. Finally, I will consider how within this discourse, the home becomes a privileged site of reflection on questions of social permeability, an aspect which particularly resonates with the present moment.

In recent documentary films, permeability in planning is offered as a solution to both flood risks and water scarcity. Water & Architecture (2014), a three-part documentary produced by The Architectural Review and the Old Royal Naval College, explores these concerns through a series of interviews with architects and urban designers. Collectively, they envision a city where water is mobilized as a resource rather than a threat. The future city must be permeable and retain water rather than pushing it out as in a Victorian conception of the hydric system. This approach to water infrastructure design is attuned to what Cornelia Redeker identifies as a wider paradigm change in the urban agenda internationally, which “entails a shift from hard, static, and defensive structures toward mitigating green interventions which add a new buffer, a new permissiveness and softness to our networks of subsurface pipes, canals, dikes, and impermeable surfaces.” As Redeker suggests, “the word permeability becomes interchangeable with ‘porosity’”. 1Cornelia Redeker, “A New Water Metabolism: Porosity and Decentralization,” in Porous City: From Metaphor to Urban Agenda, ed. Sophie Wolfrum(Basel: Birkhäuser, 2018), 204. Permeability should not only apply to water management but also be used to envision a more symbiotic relation between urban dwellers and waterways, the documentary interviewees also argue. Londoners should have a chance to be in closer contact with water: they should be able to live and walk in the river’s proximity, to cross it on foot more frequently and even swim in it. In the future vision of the city conveyed by the documentary, water is not just a resource the city needs to function or a spectacle to look at from a distance: it becomes public space.

While this approach might seem new, Londoners’ access to the waterfront is actually a long-standing concern in city planning, which has taken different shapes at different moments in time. In

The Proud City: A Plan for London (Ralph Keen, 1946)

The Proud City: A Plan for London (Ralph Keen, 1946), a short film illustrating Patrick Abercrombie and John Henry Forshaw’s proposed post-war reconstruction of London, two planners examine a Port of London Authority map featuring the Isle of Dogs and observe: “we’d like Londoners to see more of the rivers than they currently see: it’s nearly all shut in by commerce, industry and so on…but there’s a very good reason for that you know…in the view of the PLA, trade considerations must come first”. These words are visually reinforced towards the end of the film by a sequence shot from the point of view of the river, where the camera pans over miles of what the voiceover describes as a “confusion of warehouses, slums and derelict streets, a mess that is even worse since the Blitz”. For post-war planners, therefore, the barrier preventing ordinary Londoners’ access to water was the increasingly damaged and disorderly industrial architecture on the riverside.

These same buildings became prey to further dereliction after the Docks closed in the late 1960s. While in the 1970s some were appropriated as artist-lofts or squats, from the 1980s many were reconverted into luxury housing. Once again, access to the riverside was blocked to most Londoners. In London – The Modern Babylon (2012), which I examined in the previous post, the technique of collage conveys the different moments in this transformation. Footage of the active docks in the past are juxtaposed with a film sequence in which a local inhabitant approaches a riverside development whose locked gate prevents access to the river. The resident wistfully comments: “People feel that they’re being excluded, from what, after all, many of us regard as ‘our’ river”. These images are then juxtaposed with a 1980s real estate video where an agent shows a riverside apartment to a potential yuppie client, enumerating all the advantages of riverside living. The flat, a £350,000 penthouse, is made in the shape of a ship with its portholes, the agent highlights, and conveys the sensation of “being on an expensive yacht”. The former warehouses are now luxury homes.

Water & Architecture returns to this problem in the early 21st century, when gated communities pepper the banks of Thames and riverside living is certainly not an option for the many, considering London’s escalating property prices. Architect John Robertson, interviewed in the documentary, argues that one of the main problems is that these developments are separate from the rest of the urban fabric around them and that “over-development causes roadblock buildings between the river and the streets behind”. Permeability, therefore, is counter-proposed as a way to clear these blockages, building a wider social texture around housing itself. This would imply attracting a wider range of people to these areas for leisure and commerce, but also building mixed development living solutions. Permeability becomes social mixing.

In her second introduction to this round table Sabine invites us to consider the question of urban porosity as a strategy for social inclusion. I would like to rephrase this question: is there really a space for social permeability in contemporary London, a city whose media image is predicated on social mixing, connectivity and openness but which is, at the same time, riven by a dramatic, structural inequality? While these questions were already relevant before the COVID-19 crisis, they have become even more resonant within the present emergency, which forces us to ask ourselves whether the inequality of London life in in the 21st century is going to be addressed or exacerbated.

Within a rampant and long-standing housing crisis, where safety, overcrowding and homelessness are frequent concerns, domestic space does not necessarily provide a safe and stable shelter. As well as in the film examples above, which address the question of social inclusion by tracing the conversion of sites of labour into luxury housing, the precarious status of the home in contemporary London has been at the centre of documentary production in recent years from a wide range of activist documentaries to the production surrounding the Grenfell Tower Fire.2Anna Viola Sborgi, “Grenfell on Screen”, in After Grenfell: Violence,  Resistance and Response, ed. Dan Bulley, Jenny Edkins, and Nadine El-Enany (London: Pluto Press, 2019), 97-118; Anna Viola Sborgi, “Housing problems: Britain’s housing crisis and documentary”, in Cinema of Crisis: Film and Contemporary Europe, ed. Thomas Austin and Angelos Koutsourakis (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2020), 180-197.

The opening of Enrica Colusso’s 2012 documentary Home Sweet Home is particularly resonant in times of global lockdown. A time-lapse video of a burning London at the time of the 2011 riots flickers on the director’s mobile screen as she watches it from her parents’ home in Italy. Apart from this initial scene the film is set in London, where Colusso recorded a four-year visual diary of the demise of the Heygate Estate in Southwark, the biggest regeneration project in Europe – and at the same time, one of the biggest displacement cases in the city in recent years – taking place outside her window. Images from different countries and homes interconnect to provide different vantage points on radical urban change and upheaval.

Still from Home Sweet Home (Enrica Colusso, 2012)

The present moment offers the chance for a similar refraction of perspectives. Disoriented as we all are, while we try to take the measure of the new boundaries of our daily activities and interactions, different kinds of home – more or less precarious, more or less safe – provide the vantage point from which we observe our surreally empty streets and city centres. The shape of film in the lockdown cities is still to emerge. Will films reflect more on the question of the home, which has been so central in London documentaries in recent years? Will the camera turn inward, within domestic space, or show the world outside through our windows – the realm of the street, the neighbourhood? Will film further reflect on the place of the local within the wider system of the city? At the same time, film is part of the texture of London not only in terms of representation but also as a site of production and circulation. Film and media contribute to our experience of the city as open and connective, and originate human relationships in their many sites and venues. As cinemas shut their doors and creative labour in its many forms appears to be threatened, we cannot help wondering whether they will open again (we hope so) or whether the experience of media within the city will be changed forever.

What is certain is that an image of the city which is predicated on openness will be radically reconfigured as we move from porosity to a state of closure3This shift is certainly not automatic and conflicting messages were given in previous weeks on the city’s need to remain open and continue “business as usual”.But because this configuration of openness is far more nuanced than what appeared so far in the city media campaigns, the question of who London is open for and who has a right to the city has always been there.

In a 2017 essay, Myria Georgiou analysed the #LondonIsOpen media campaign launched by Mayor Sadiq Khan in response to the 2016 EU Membership Referendum. The ambivalences in the responses to the campaign she observed suggested a coexistence within the city of a “neoliberal” and a “vernacular” cosmopolitanism. She noted that “against neoliberal cosmopolitanism’s blindness to inequalities, the unease of vernacular responses invites readings of cosmopolitanism as a site of moral and political possibilities. The ethics of hospitality that vernacular cosmopolitanism incorporates is fragile in its conviction, but precisely because of that, it reveals a collective vision and a politics of care, perhaps even a hope for a politics of solidarity: solidarity for those who are increasingly marginalized on the city’s material and digital streets.”4Myria Georgiou, “Is  London  Open?  Mediating and Ordering Cosmopolitanism in Crisis”, International Communication Gazette 79, nos. 6-7 (2017): 652. Only time will tell whether the current reconfiguration of London will acknowledge its pre-existent strictures and its blockages, limits, and boundaries, and establish different forms of material and digital connectivity that are equal and sustainable, but certainly “the politics of care” are vitally needed in the lockdown city.


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