Cities and gentrification

There is nothing new about cities being centres of money, power and activism – places where heritage and change exist side by side. Over the last 50 years gentrification has gained notoriety as a modern, global force for change at the cutting edge of urban policy. It’s a phenomenon that is having a huge impact on cities.

Simply put, gentrification is the change that happens to an area when it becomes a property hot spot. The influx of wealthier residents displaces older generations, attracts ‘yuppie’ businesses, pushes up rents and causes segregation.

There are many voices to be heard on this subject – from protesters to property developers – but many settle for the grey area between the sharply defined political colours. So what, if born-and-bred locals walk to the shops in disbelief beneath advertising hoardings that shout about the new desirability of their community … aren’t there some good things about ‘going upmarket’? The vintage shops, ale bars and cafes create tax and wealth for local councils to spend in the local area. The crime rate drops. Green spaces are regenerated. Who wants to live in a tower block that’s been earmarked for demolition, anyway?

Gentrification is a provocative subject

Here are some of the sentiments you’ll hear expressed about suburbs that are undergoing gentrification:

This place is a victim of its own success

What’s happening here is social cleansing

Blended communities are what you get from gentrification

A city is a force of nature, it will change whether we like it or not

Gentrification is a boost for everyone

Quirkiness, individuality and working-class prices will be lost

People around here have been priced out of their own home

This area is safer now.

Every sphere of life is affected by gentrification. However, those of us who are passionate about transforming and re-imagining cities don’t want to be negative or nostalgic about processes of change – but we do want to be realistic. We’re asking, what is driving these changes? We want to challenge the enterprise argument that says that money makes things grow, that growth is good and that more growth means more money.

If you think that money is the key, you are opening the wrong door

The economic argument says that everything has to grow and that it’s only money that pushes creativity further. But, using a Christian value ethic, we believe that money exists as a means to serve the planet, not run it. When money is used ‘fruitfully’ for the common good, people and places are replenished. So there’s an eco argument for genuine, shared transformation in cities that we would like to make heard. The planet will give more if we interact with it in responsible, creative and caring ways.

In this ethic for the world, money is not the evil, although the way that we spend it can be. We want investors who invest with good economic sense but also with long-term community sustainability in mind. City to City is looking to sow the seeds of an economy that is not focused on money but on growing diverse communities sustainably. We don’t want to see money ‘grown’ but money ‘spread’. Money that is spread will see everyone benefit.

Seeking the common good

Who cares for the common good? We believe that there are people who seek the good of everyone. Every place, organisation or community group needs a few people like this who will be advocates for integration. That’s where we see City to City working best – we put the ideas out and ask, who’s up for this?

When we seek the common good we start to find something that is not attached to our own material conditions. 

For City to City, intervention in the processes of gentrification starts in the micro context, in small localities where communities are under pressure. We want to hold on to a city’s multicultural, multigenerational identity – and we believe that we have to fight for it. Now is the time to act, to make some inroads, before genuine communities – artistic communities, lower-income communities, intergenerational communities – disappear. We want to resist gentrification as the norm in our cities.

Protecting creativity

Every sphere of life is influenced by gentrification. The artistic and creative industries in our cities, places where edginess, prophecy and politics thrive, will be knocked back, if not knocked out by gentrification because our society puts a higher value on money than it does on creative energy.

Our hope is that creativity will be nurtured and empowered as alternative ways to live together are explored. Creative people are those who say that without much money they will throw open the window of new possibilities – workshops, small operations for community activism, affordable retail units and food outlets. When these enterprises are run by local people, prices are lower because the people running them know what is affordable to other locals.

What does creative energy need to thrive? It needs a realistic business base with a realistic price freeze. It also needs space – physical, communal spaces for hire. We can all picture the shabby community venue, the prefab Scout Hut or the converted manufacturing unit. They’re not necessarily places of beauty but their available communal space is where creativity and relationships can thrive.

Protecting the power of relationships

Gentrification exposes fundamental questions of home, identity and community. City to City believes that there is a tangible quality to relationships in longstanding communities that is damaged by the influence of economic forces and individualism. What is important about community life is relationships, and what is important about relationships is the presence of possibility.

What we love about cities is the way that they define us, and we define them. City to City aims to encourage all of us to be intentional about our actions to support communities in the face of gentrification. Whether we pray, gather together in a City to City conversation, form a cooperative or campaign for amendments to the Housing Bill, we need to be intentional – otherwise nothing will happen.

A man living in Newcastle in the UK was recently interviewed about the massive changes he had witnessed over the last 10 years in the Byker Bridge area of the city. Protesting against the huge investment in this part of Tyneside, he said that the community had ‘organic potential’ of its own, for its own development and progression. To him, gentrification resembled a bad sci-fi movie: … ‘local people invaded by aliens’. There’s cynicism here but we also hear in his words a powerful call for humanity to prevail. Let’s work for the re-making of cities around principles of justice, integration and relationship.

Simon Thomas is the CEO of J49 housing, a registered social housing provider in London,UK.

Posted on Categories Housing & community, Re-imaginings

Challenging the culture of home ownership

On the edge of mainstream thinking, some amazing innovations are quietly taking place – challenging the culture of low affordability, price inflation and market-led housing.

The housing market is a friend to investment but a threat to relational-living. The collective direction of housing policy over the past 100 years has meant that a house has become an investment that you can live in rather than a home that could provide generational stability for the future of families.

Past, present and future

In the UK of the 1920s the picture was quite different. A significant majority of housing – 80% – was rented. In the years that followed there were periods of council home construction, a growing ownership market and, in the Thatcher era, the sale of council properties.

In 2016, 64% of housing is privately owned and 32% is rented either privately or through housing association/council provision.

The housing market has created highly inflated prices in cities that few can afford. In rural areas the affordability of houses is jeopardised by fewer jobs and lower wages and this brings a complex mixture of pressures for individuals and family groups. The average multiplier for affordability in England and Wales is 5 x a person’s wage and that rises to 10 x in urban centres such as London.

It is projected that an extra 250,000 households are required per year until 2033 in the UK. Yet the country is only building 100,000 to 150,000 houses each year.

So what could change this? A political u-turn? We might be waiting a long time. Another economic crash? This would quieten the current market but may only provide opportunities for vulture capitalists ready to exploit the down turn.

Yet despite these negative indications, some amazing innovations are taking place quietly on the edges of mainstream thinking, building upon a legacy of creative philanthropy and cementing stable, multi-generational communities.

Living on the water

Although living on the water paints a nomadic picture of existence that few can contemplate, we have an unbelievable supply of rivers, lakes and sea moorings. We don’t advocate spoiling beautiful vistas and environmental eco systems, but residential accommodation on waterways is a chance to turn a static leisure industry into a living community. Boats, barges and other vessels are relatively cheap and have provided an incredibly eco-friendly lifestyle and strong communities in places like The Netherlands and parts of Scandinavia.

Given the environmental shifts that are happening and increased weather instability (i.e. higher rainfall), living on water is both sustainable and basic common sense in the light of the increasing climatic shifts we are experiencing. Waterways have the potential to be living communities in urban and rural settings, and in some places they are revitalising parts of the country and the countryside that struggle to survive economical and socially.

In one example of water-based living in south-east London, 175 people live alongside each other, sharing a system of walkways between boats, joint laundries and showers. The importance of these communal spaces provides strong motivation to manage the environment well, grow small business infrastructures, small eco-communities and mini economic hubs.

Community building

We tend to think of self-builders either as ‘eco warriors’ or ‘grand designers’, but beyond these stereotypes ‘community build’ provides an altogether different set of possibilities.

Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are local organisations that are set up and run by ordinary people to combine their finances and skills and develop homes as well as other assets important to that community, for example, community enterprises, food growing or workspaces. They build on land that might be council or brown-site designated, given as a gift or bought by a community group.

This is a sustainable alternative to private rental or private ownership. You can get a flavour of a CLT in action in a feature in the Guardian newspaper and a TV interview for London Live:

CLTs make homes affordable by removing the cost of land from the cost of a new home. This materials-only model could empower many more community builds. “We aim to establish a new precedent, a replicable model in community-led housing that will benefit people currently unable to access housing on the open market”, says Kareem Dayes.

There are multiple advantages to a CLT. Those who build together usually stay together over longer periods – this has been statistically proved through early and more recent ‘Walter Segal‘ builds. These communities are more socially diverse, multi-generational, stable and safe. They are literally built on interaction and community cohesion and they have proved to be great places for more holistic community care.

Sustainable low-income housing

Another example is Habitat for Humanity who build sustainable low-income housing globally and are also active in the UK. The organisation has successfully transformed the housing conditions for individuals and families from sub-standard housing conditions into sustainable housing solutions through ‘community builds’. This has provided long-term community stability and empowered individuals within those communities to reach for their life goals and aspirations.

One single mother in a re-built community housing scheme said “My daughter barely went to school when we were housed in a tower block in SE London … but she has now qualified to go to university to train as an architect’. Community housing is more than the fabric of the building but the essence of a more cohesive, safe and creative community.

Long-term vision rather than short-term solutions

The pressure is on for more housing at affordable pricing. However, the kind of quick, easy-build, non-eco housing that is being rushed into construction is only a short-term illusion. It gives no thought to the future community and long-term sustainability in terms of materials and environmental credentials.

We could be repeating the housing nightmare of the 1970s. It is important for architects, planners, environmentalists, housing experts and potential residents to sit down together to plan and dream the communities of the future. These are not pie-in-the-sky ideals but innovations that harness the creative skills of individuals and multiply them through collaboration.

Simon Thomas is the CEO of J49 housing, a registered social housing provider in London, UK.

Posted on Categories Housing & community, Re-imaginings


The ‘liquid gift’ illustrates creativity, change and connection.

I have had the opportunity to travel to many countries on this planet earth over the past 30 years. I have never really liked the idea of being a tourist, and whenever I have accidentally found myself in such a guise, I rush to hide it in some obscure and often hilarious (to my travelling companions, at least) way. What I really want is for any journey to give me opportunities to literally experience life and death, suffering and grief, poverty and prosperity, fear and violence, laughter and beauty, order and chaos in all their extreme forms. What a remarkable place we inhabit that carries such contrasts and yet delivers such extremes in every human emotion.

I have thought on so many occasions what it would be like to be born in a different culture, time, background, gender, economic demographic, and this childish thought alone has shaped my passion and unrelenting desire to learn more and be challenged – changed by the encounters, each day, year, month (yes, time is an area of exploration in this project) brings.

One of the almost obsessive desires I have everywhere I go, is to find water, and the question I ask first is – where is the nearest river? Specifically, I search for rivers because rivers shape lives. A river never stays the same. A body of water that stays the same is nothing – at best it is a nice pond; at worst it is a stagnant puddle.

Most of the world’s major cities were built on or around areas of fresh water. Our ancestors chose to settle near these areas as rivers were a means of supplying drinking water for their families and livestock, as a food supply, used for irrigating crops, and as a means of transport in order to aid commerce. Most of the world’s capital cities, have their respective main areas of fresh water, be it either a river, a lake, a canal or an oasis.

As transport has moved from boats to planes, trains and multiple vehicles, the geographic norm of fresh water at the heart of communities has changed, but the climate emergency is sending everyone back to simplicity, locality, sustainability and reality. Water will become the new oil and gas and its scarcity or abundance the new contention and bargaining tool of nations and cultures of the world.

Thinking across boundaries

The world’s longest river flows through Egypt’s capital city Cairo, but the river which flows through the most capital cities is Europe’s River Danube, which runs through the four cities of Belgrade, which is the capital of Serbia, Bratislava the capital of Slovakia, Budapest which is the capital of Hungary and Vienna the capital of Austria.

Rivers are remarkable illustrations of so many things. Time, rhythm, direction, strength, tranquility, rage, and so much more. They seemingly start from nothing and yet, during the course of their journey, can create whole new places, locations and landscapes. Their ability to endlessly capture our attention and to still pulsating thoughts is a remarkable phenomenon. When we are actively engaging in timeless moments in life, we are following nature’s design for rivers. Rivers seem neither rushed or bothered by holding to set patterns but can ebb and flow as they please to their own existential paradigm. They can flow gently or cut new paths and forge new places, locations and even habitats. Their unrestrained nature speaks of freedom and release, beauty and devastation, new worlds and ancient paths. Some rivers are shifted by tides in certain patterns but that is a small restraint to a larger and more profound existence. 

A river is a clear way to illustrate change

Rivers exist to change everything and to sustain everything. They turn nothing to everything. They start with rain, ice and melting snow, a trickle that can’t be called a river. Led by gravity, the trickle follows cracks and folds in the land as it descends. A river sustains and erodes. It carries sediment, soil and rocks; it deposits sediment, soil and rocks. It reshapes the land and cuts into the soil to form channels. Rivers merge and diversify, creating wider stretches of water, streams and islands. They are fast-moving and slow-moving, young and old.

The river bed, the river and the river bank are important breeding sites for many creatures. Human life, too, has gathered around rivers. Clearly, humans needed access to water for drinking and growing crops. A location near to a large body of water is also useful for transportation, communication and trade. Local access to a plethora of natural resources is obviously highly beneficial, because we need this stuff to build cities. Rivers bring life; they are designed to move and create.

Egypt’s first known settlements occurred mostly around the Nile River at around 5000 BC. Egypt’s naturally hot and arid climate drew people towards the Nile’s lush flood plains to begin farming and building a community. Its 6693 kilometres are a resource shared by 11 African countries.

Hidden rivers

Although it is often rivers that attract people, the development of that population can also make rivers a victim of the successful conurbation. Rapid industrialisation in Yonkers, New York, meant that a succession of bigger and bigger bridges were built, eventually covering the river completely. In some cities, Moscow, for example, the river has posed a threat to the city and attempts to tame it have led to intervention to divert it to a new course or force the river into tunnels. ‘Lost’ rivers like these show us how the power of a river to change the landscape has been matched by the power of humans to change the river.

In these hidden rivers we encounter paths and histories that occasionally emerge for a brief moment then hide again to take their path and their destiny in new directions. Have we lost something fundamental when a river is lost like this?

Okavango Delta

The National Geographic film ‘The Mission to Save Africa’s Okavango Delta’ charts the incredible journey of one of the world’s greatest delta regions. The filmmakers say,

The water comes almost entirely from Angola, Botswana’s complicated neighbor, two countries away. It begins in the moist highlands of Angola’s rainy center and flows toward the country’s southeast, quickly in one major drainage, the Cubango, and more slowly in another, the Cuito, where it pools into source lakes; percolates slowly through grassy floodplains, peat deposits, and underlying sand; and seeps into tributaries.

It continues:

Take away that liquid gift, rendered by Angola to Botswana each year, and the Okavango Delta would cease to exist. It would become something else, and that something would not include hippos, sitatungas, or African fish eagles. If southern Africa were a vast golf course, Okavango with the faucets closed would be one of its sand traps.

These kind of vast changes on landscapes, river systems and delta regions, change life forever. Large sections of human, ecological and living species either cease to exist or adapt to new possibilities somewhere else.

  • About 70% of the earth’s surface is made up of water
  • At least 40 major cities around the world have rivers that run through them
  • Rivers pass through not only the geographic boundaries of the related country, but often move on to cross multiple city and country borders
  • Rivers are the cross-fertilisers and boundary-crossing phenomena of the natural world.

Rivers capture a way of thinking across boundaries

At the start of this project, let’s exemplify this picture of a river as a creative channel and force. A river enables us to make connections between past and present, nature and need, gravity and generosity, artifice and repetition, wilderness and domesticity. By studying rivers we are not applauding a simpler past but celebrating how the river captures a way of thinking and acting across boundaries.

Water is an elemental root of the universe, along with fire, earth, and air, nature, ice, light and darkness. These elements are strong illustrations of very deep-rooted things in our psyche.

  • The wind is always moving, going where it likes, complex, invisible and unpredictable;
  • fire’s inability to be restrained has led to a human fascination with heat that combines its devastating power and its domestic comfort;
  • earth is the essence of who we are – 90% carbon;
  • water represents an ‘in between’ (transitional) state between ice and steam/air.

It’s not surprising that those elements fascinated early Zorastrian understanding of the planet.

Each element has incredible capacity for unleashing the power of nature. They illustrate life and the earth’s power. They all exist and co-exist as elemental parts of our planet.

Living more wild-ly

In the UK and many parts of the world, there is a move towards re-wilding. Isabella Tree in her excellent book Wilding, talks of saving her farm by a process of ecology, conservation and the reintroduction of wildlife and livestock. The Knepp estate in Sussex has turned from a semi-barren piece of farmland into 2000 acres of wild trees, plants, streams, ponds, rivers – all wonderfully connecting wildlife and multitudes of inquisitive tourists. Again, this is a metaphor of boundary-crossing; multiple and complex layers all interacting, seemingly serving one another with complimentary planting – all gifting each other to live more wild-ly and live more adventurously, to thrive and co-exist for the benefit of each other.

This might seem a rather romantic notion of how things can work but maybe it also unravels the possibility of boundary-crossing as we begin to unlock this further in this series of thoughts and observations, as we call out ‘nothing is everything’. Perhaps when we get to ‘nothing’ anything else seems a long way away out of reach, an impossibility, a dream of another world. Yet in Isabella’s case, the appearance of untamed, unfarmed ‘nothing’ – wilderness – shows us the possibility of ‘everything’.

Simon Thomas is the CEO of J49 housing, a registered social housing provider in London, UK.

Posted on Categories Creativity, Re-imaginings

Nothing is everything

This series of re-imaginings is linked by the hope that we can unravel assumptions about completeness, satisfaction and achievement in search of paths towards a relational existence

Nothing is everything – what do we mean?

The idea of the explorations in this project is to unravel, unwrap and even, using a current phrase in our COVID-19 world, unlock the lockdown. Perhaps, just as in our worst moments of lockdown in 2020, these explorations play with the idea of freedom and what we have assumed it to be. Do we need physical freedom to be convinced of the reality and purpose of our lives? Do we need friendships, touch, space, colleagues, routines and a social life to define us? Have we been forced to face something much deeper inside our minds or thoughts or souls as we grapple with the issues that bubble up as we stare into the screen of another virtual meeting?

The explorations in this project use many synonyms for ‘nothing’ but the events of 2020 offer us ‘isolation’ as another way of thinking about nothing. The word speaks of something we used to have which we are now separated from. The ideas for this project were shaped and written in a pre-Covid world but it is interesting to reflect that the paradoxical realities of the title make more sense now that we have been through (or are still in) a global pandemic. There will be time in this project to reflect on a pre- and post-Covid world, but we will stick to many of the ideas conceived and suggested before 2019, with reflections that capture the very essence of this world – and they will no doubt emerge with more challenges and possibilities.

‘Nothing is everything’ presents two extremes. Extremes are usually illustrations of a more ‘normal’ reality. They show us that those extremes can’t possibly be true (for most of us), and are even over inflated extensions of reality, but they may help us to find what really is true. We may ask the question, ‘If I could have everything, what would that look like?’ We could also ask the question the other way and say, ‘If I had nothing, how would that make me feel?’ Both are probably not where any of us would choose to be but thinking about those extremes drives us towards the acknowledgement of what is meaningful or real or even what is a mentally stable and sustainable place to live. ‘Nothing’ may well be the starting point because it presents us with an open canvas, open possibilities, ‘blue sky thinking’ or whatever your way is to describe it. Having ‘everything’ leaves us in the end with nowhere else to go, nothing more to explore; it leaves us with too much choice, too many possibilities and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. We can’t, to use the well-known phrase, see the wood for the trees.

What makes you tick?

Until we have understood the extremes it is hard to find the true ground on which we are really standing and what the ground should really be. Now that we have lived (or are living) through the Covid crisis. it’s probably good to try and think back to what you originally thought about yourself before time stopped and everything changed. In doing so it might bring to light some of the meanings in the phrase that we are exploiting – if you have more affinity with the idea that ‘nothing is everything’ now than you had six months ago, then you may well have faced, wrestled with or dismissed the idea that it is not materials and ownership that validates your existence, but that it is the abstracts of touch, relationship and belonging that makes you tick. This is a poignant and not unfamiliar set of circumstances that we have all been through at various places in various points on planet Earth.

Safety in science

Mathematical modelling has been one of the new phrases fresh on everybody’s lips during this current season of life. It seems a very safe and possible place: we can work out the science and then bring a finish to all this. However, deep inside we probably feel very unsafe, very unfinished, very like the possibilities could go anywhere. It’s not that science has no relevance and no help to give during this time – in fact quite the opposite. However, again we seem to move from one extreme to another: from extremes of fear to extremes of hope as we scientificate all possible outcomes and irrational thoughts – that this pandemic might never end and COVID 19 will be the new ruling force of planet earth. How strange and unusual that a virus or even a protein would seem to have such power to change the thinking, views and possibly even economic forces of the whole planet in the space of a few months. It would seem like everything has suddenly become nothing and that, in fact, we might have to start the whole thing again with some new ideas and paradigms.

Provoking conversations

So despite the birth of the many strands of this project before Covid-19, we now see a fresh and urgent context for our search for paths towards a relational existence. As has already been said, this project will contain synonyms for different kinds of ‘nothing’, like ‘stripping away’ and ‘peeling back’. At its core is a deliberate movement away from the bastions of certainty and status quo. It suggests that we have to lay everything bare, embrace the unknown and rediscover the potential and creativity in nothingness. We have to go back in order to make room to go forward in a new way. Only when we are in this vulnerable position – leaving behind certainties and labels and hierarchies – can we have room for other possibilities. If we don’t do this, we will forever be full of and preoccupied with and committed to everything that we already know. This project aims to challenge the idea that stasis is acceptable or ideal. It questions the complacent attitude that says we don’t have to change.

Of course people will look at this and say it is idealistic. But idealism always starts somewhere. We are hoping to provoke conversations, discussions that will be catalysts for new thinking. It doesn’t so much matter which conversation we are part of but which one really changes us and our locality.

The idea of this series of thoughts in this project is to get us to think more deeply about what really matters, what drives us, and to ask what can we let go of in order to re-define another way of living, building community and existing on our planet? The observations that formed to bring this material together look at different aspects of poetry, art, housing, community, business, science and education in the context of twenty-first century life and cities (my own perspective), but with a close eye on the planet and its future challenges and stunning resources.

We have ask ourselves, can we redefine in small and varied ways space, place, people and purpose? Can we grapple with the questions that could be posed and the possibilities that exist for future generations? We hope this book will stimulate, challenge and re-define, but most of all help us to live better and fuller lives on this amazing planet. Like Francis of Assisi’s paradox, our aim has been to illustrate ideas that are contrary to the accepted ways of doing things. Paradoxes are, after all, the product of innovative thinking; thinking in which the obvious is juxtaposed with the surprising.

About the Authors

Simon Thomas is the CEO of J49, a social housing provider. Over the years, Simon has been involved in a multitude of eclectic roles, ranging from charity founder, international speaker, education consultant and Citytocity founder. 

 After experiencing a completely life-changing season of physical breakdown, Simon tells how his body and mind temporarily separated and he was left in a “chasm of black”. 

“In finding my way back, from this nearly 20 years ago, I discovered a new freshness and way of viewing so many things. At first it was odd to be travelling in unfamiliar territory, but as time went on, new ideas and new thinking emerged.” 

Simon first connected with Ros at a conference which she was hosting and where he was speaking. “She was quiet, chose her words carefully but was a mindfield of explosive thinking, and when we started writing together, she wrote with a willingness to metaphorically ‘walk off a cliff’ in terms of new ideas. I’m passionate about change and how it happens; not in a conventional or perhaps strategic way but in a more organic and creational way. Creation, and I include my faith in that engagement, has embedded in it so much about life’s rhythms and patterns so that as we strain and yearn to make sense of life, it provides us with some beautiful and deep insights that are mind blowing and contrary to many recognised ways of doing things. 

“Ros and I humbly invite you to journey with some of the ideas in Nothing is Everything in the hope that we will all find much more beauty, depth, understanding and compassion in this complex and yet glorious universe we find ourselves walking in.”  

Posted on Categories Nothing is everything