Future Slum

[Image: New flats, part of the AHMM master plan in Barking, England, specifically cited by the BBC as being so small that they’re mere slums in the making; via Building Design].

“Are the gleaming new apartment buildings of the past decade the inner-city slums of tomorrow?” the BBC asks this morning in an interesting, if insufficiently argued, opinion piece about the state of private housing in England.
New, privately developed apartment complexes there – the exact same apartment complexes of visual interest to architecture magazines such as the one for which I work – might, in the end, simply be too small and too cramped to become anything other than the slums of tomorrow.
Affordable now, ghettoized later.
The problem, the essay argues, is that there are no real minimum space standards for private housing developments in England. Tiny flats suitable only for single men and women, or for weekend getaways, are filling up valuable land in city centers – which is great for the duration of a real estate boom, but which might have sociologically frightening future implications.
“Alone in the UK,” the BBC points out, “Scotland does have legislation on minimum sizes for homes in the commercial sector. Northern Ireland has rules on social housing – while in England and Wales many local authorities also have size regulations for affordable housing. But none of this covers private sector developments.”
One point, by no means minor, that goes totally unexplored comes from the BBC‘s own table of apartment space data. There we see that the average apartment size in Italy is actually smaller than the average apartment size in England.
So why all the scare talk about future slums and ghettos? Is there a legitimate concern here that smaller living spaces might become crime-infested labyrinths when the economy dries up – or is this simply fear of other forms of social organization?
Nuclear families living in several comfortable rooms = good.
Single men and women living alone in small apartments = moral hazard.
In any case, I thought suburbs were the next slums?
In fact, it’d be interesting to do a kind of comparative slum futurology: to see what building types different countries and cultures fear will become the “next slum.” What does it say about you, politically? On the left, perhaps, you think it’s the suburbs, waiting to be taken over by wildcats and gangs; on the right, you think it’s affordable housing.
But who’s got the data on their side?

18 thoughts on “Future Slum”

  1. UK suburbs are unlikely to be subject to the same depopulation (if that occurs) as the US since many evolved in the Twenties and Thirties, have more amenities as a result and aren’t as car-oriented.

    Regarding slums and size, the largest place I lived in was a slum apartment in a run-down Sixties “project” in Manchester. Loads of space inside (two floors with two big rooms on each floor left empty since we had no use for them), the only drawback was the urban wasteland outside.

  2. Arguable, Italy might not need larger apartments due the climate there. People presumably spend more time outside in a warmer climate?

  3. The argument that the building typology (well, not even that – housing typology) alone is the genesis of slums is reckless and shallow.

    Slum conditions form via a multitude of actions and inactions. Consider the demographic (which you briefly alluded to – singles versus families). The location plays a large role in attracting residents who will find value in maintaining and preserving not only their living space but their neighborhood.

    What kinds of amenities and employment opportunities does this area offer? Is the neighborhood safe? And there are thousands more characteristics that influence whether or not a residential district or neighborhood succeeds (or fails).

    Thanks but no thanks for the thoughts, BBC.

  4. A slum is made by the people who live in it. The architecture is not important. Sorry, dudes.
    There are former slums in every city that have been gentrified. There are highrises in Hong Kong that nice, and not “human filing cabinets.”
    Culture and income trumps architecture.

  5. This same column points out that high land prices and regulatory barriers are preventing builders from selling larger homes. If there were minimum space requirements, these apartments might not be built at all.

    If that were the case, where would all the people who live here go? It seems to me that limiting the supply of housing even further would be a bigger force towards creating new slums.

  6. I grew up in the suburbs of Miami. As Californian readers may no doubt already know from their own cities, some of the biggest “slums” are in areas that would meet any definition of suburban — drug and gang infested areas where it is unsafe to go out at night, despite the decently-sized houses. “Urban” malaise has long ago found a natural home in the suburbs.

    The BBC article seems like bunk for the reasons that Benny, Anonymous, and others have already pointed out.

  7. My father and stepmother just moved into a smaller sized highrise condo in the middle of downtown Ottawa. It was pricey, small, and came with the view that they wanted. They plan to live there until long after their retirement. They used the small size as an excuse to get rid of all of their old crap and they do not regret it. I don’t understand people who move into large houses just to realize that they need to go out and buy furniture and more crap to fill it. Small, but sparingly furnished spaces does not mean poverty. 🙂

  8. It’s a fact of life that there will always be those who have and those who have not. As long as one man is rich, there will be another man poor. If you have money you have choice. If you don’t you live were you can afford or where you are told. As a result, you have different levels of communities in terms of income but just because the inhabitants of a particular community are poor in relation to other communities does not mean that they will end up living in slums. Community pride must be achieved. While good architecture and urban design can help (and I believe it can) it is ultimately down to the inhabitants. So can these small private developments become future slums?
    If they are remote and unconnected to the urban fabic – Maybe!
    If public and private space is undefined – Maybe!
    If they have no local facilities – Maybe!
    If they are not robust – maybe!

    At the same time – Developers are only building small properties to fit more on site and hence increase profits – that really annoys me!

  9. A key point in this is that it is the private dwellings that are relatively unregulated, not the “affordable” ones, such that new homes on the private market are far more likely to be restricted in space terms than allocated housing association stock. The latter are often designed in accordance with a whole range of advisory and mandatory policy documents, tied in to funding sources.

    The private market however has been running so fast in recent years, particularly in places like London, that new homes in an urban context can be shoeboxes and still be viable purchases. People are, or were at least, buying them.

    In which case, arguably:
    Private slums, public palaces.
    …if you’re the BBC!

    I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing recently, so sorry for the plug but it is I hope relevant:


  10. I know the development referred to and pictured very well, and have used it as part of a housing exemplar project i am invlved in – not i hasten to add as a good example! This development had 1 bed apartments where the bedroom is less than the dimensions of a king size bed – it is trading on peoples desire to buy apartments and being forced to buy what ever is on the market at a price they can afford for fear of never being ablr to buy if they wait and the market keeps rising. This development went bust once, and had to be bailed out by a second developer who crammed in as many units as possible – but of course these units lose their value first when the market falls, and people will rent them out rather than sell, and that is when people with no buy-in to the area and no long term interst move in and the slow deteriation begins.

  11. This is very interesting. If there are no minimun space standards for private housing development in the UK, does anyone have the data whether there are, however, any regulations on the average size of new flats?

    I’m from Finland myself, and in Helsinki, where the average apartment sizes have generally been very small, the city council came up few years back with a regulation to have an average apartment size of 75 m2 in all new residential projects. The idea was nice: to provide enough big flats for nuclear families so as to keep them in the city (as tax payers) and prevent them from moving to the surrounding municipalities where the appartments are cheaper. However, the end result was that the production of new small flats – also vital for students etc. – stopped almost completely, as under the new regulations, these would have needed to be compensated with several really big flats, these being way too expensive for the buyers. For this reason the regulation was just recently abolished.

    Guessing the true outcome of regulations can be tricky sometimes…

  12. I think it boils down to middle class snobbery on the part of the BBC. However, having seen some of these developments I can’t say that I’d like to live there. I think in the UK, middle England in particular we’re too used to the traditional, for here at least, semi-detached house. Anything else to us seems, well, foreign even though across the channel apartment style living is definitely more prevelant.

  13. It sounds like they are building SROs. Manhattan used to be full of Single Room Occupancy units. They weren’t much, but they were affordable, and those that are still available are highly coveted. They defined certain neighborhoods: around Times Square, the Upper West side. Since the 1980s most of them have been remodeled or rebuilt as the neighborhoods moved upmarket.

    The neighborhoods were never exactly slums like the Lower East Side or the South Bronx, both places where my grandparents once lived before moving on. In fact, the Upper West Side, with Columbia University, had a certain cachet. Sure, there were some louche blocks, but the area was generally vibrant and attractive, especially if you could afford a straight six.

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