The site I have chosen to study is Regent’s Park Estate, a social housing estate in the borough of Camden, with the aim of identifying the palimpsest of housing redevelopment and subsequent protest politics. In order to do this, I will conduct a background review in three sections. Firstly, a brief historical overview the site will be given. Next, I will look at existing literature that has provided the background theory for my own approach to the site and enabled the identification of three themes of interest. Lastly, I focus on palimpsest, and how it is applicable to Regent’s Park Estate.
Subsequently, I will give an overview of the methods I have used, as well as their limitations, to pursue by following themes. To begin, I first assess the site’s changing built form, looking at how it has changed, to serve whom. Secondly, I will focus on residents; analysing the treatment of space, and senses of belonging and attachment to the site. Thirdly, I will explore the protest of the site redevelopment through the various forms in which this protest has manifested, the reasons for these differences, and the subsequent response, particularly by decision makers.
This research will lead to the conclusion that the palimpsest of the site is more extensive than the superficial layers of physical change, and is one upheld by class divisions. Though there have been some temporary shifts in power within the site at different times, involuting the palimpsest (Dillon, 2005), class politics and overarching power relations have created a palimpsest of social conditions and truths that continue to subordinate and disadvantage less privileged groups of people.
History of Regent’s Park Estate
Regent’s Park Estate is located in the London Borough of Camden. Though I have identified the site by its current use, the site was previously occupied by a series of striking Regency terraces designed by the famed architect John Nash and built alongside Regent’s Park. In the 1950s, a drive led by Labour Party member Eric Cook (North London Press, 1944) led to the demolition of these buildings to make way for new social housing. This movement was highly controversial and contested on various platforms through protest.
Presently, the estate is due to be demolished again to make way for the construction of the High Speed Two (HS2) Railway, as approved by the Conservative government (Chen, 2012). Once again, the site is being redeveloped to serve a completely different group of people, though, the surrounding protest has not occurred in the same ways it has in the past. This is therefore my justification for studying this particular site, as I believe that there is evidence here of a convoluted and layered history, upon which palimpsest concepts can be applied.
Housing redevelopment and protest politics
The themes of I have chosen to apply to the site are based upon a review of existing academic literature as applied to this site and others.
Firstly, Saunders (1969) discusses how the conception and initial construction of the Nash terraces was founded on exclusionary values. Here, it is evidenced how class divisions are embedded within the site, re-emerging in a palimpsest-like manner time and time again. Moreover, Hoskyns (2014) discusses how the built form of the social estates, associated with working class individuals, reduces the respectability of the site and its residents, which Watt (2006) furthers by discussing how class respectability and the perceived roughness of a neighbourhood affects how visible a group is to certain decision making actors. Building upon this idea of visibility and response by decision makers, Read (2003) discusses how housing redevelopment policies in China have brought groups of working class individuals together in order to protest the decisions made by urban planners, though there are implications within the protesting group Keyes and Fellman (1969).
Here, we can see how class divisions and uneven scales of power form the social fabric of a site, affecting the perceptions of a neighbourhood and its residents, meaning that the ways in which protest occurs, and how it is subsequently responded to, vary. By applying these ideas to Regent’s Park Estate, I aim to assess how class divisions have affected the experiences of residents, and the ways in which power has shifted between various actors over time.
The concept of palimpsest traditionally involves the layering of texts over the same piece of parchment, in which the past writings have been erased, but imperfectly so, meaning that indications of their presence can still be seen amongst the newer texts (Crang, 1996). Dillon (2005), explains the palimpsest as a metaphor that can be critically employed across a range of fields of study. To Foucault, the role of the researcher is “the making visible of what was previously unseen” (1980:50), and employing a palimpsestic approach allows the resurrection of the hidden layers of past truths, as Gilbert and Gubar (1979) utilise to understand suppression and oppression of groups of people. These layers interact with one another (Moi, 1985) in a queer and involuted (De Quincey, 2006) manner, as prescribed by overarching, but shifting (Dillon, 2005), power structures.
This project intends to utilise palimpsest to not only uncover the buried layers of the past, but also to see how they intertwine with the present and future. In some cases, the palimpsestic links are clear, though in others, competition between various truths for expression means that the palimpsest is involuted and unclear. Though any site can be analysed through a palimpsestic lens, Regent’s Park Estate in particular demonstrates how past truths can come through to the future, though not always to the same effect. In this site, housing redevelopment has been resurrected from the past to the present, though the reasons for its proposal, effects, and public response have not occurred in the same way. Thus, I intend on identifying how the palimpsestic fabric of class politics and power explain how and why this is.
In order to research the palimpsest of my site, I have chosen to adopt a range of methods of data collection, including archival data, images, and interviews.
The historical and more recent redevelopment of the site has been well documented in the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, where I have been able to access various forms of historical media on the housing redevelopments, and protest surrounding them. Because the physical environment of the site has changed dramatically over time, the use of images to show these is appropriate. Beyond the changing built form, some forms of recent protest exist in visual forms and only images can capture their message fully. Finally, I have conducted interviews on residents to explore micro-scale narratives, asking them about their experiences, and senses of attachment to the space, as well as their views on the upcoming redevelopment. This has provided a deeper understanding of individual perspectives on the ways their neighbourhood is changing.
Though I aim to use this range of methods to study the site, it is imperative to recognise their limitations. Archival and image data is subject to biased interpretation as dictated by my own positionality as an outsider with a research objective. The interview subject matter is also potentially distressing, so I have taken care to ensure I have full informed consent, and am conscious to not appropriate the experiences the residents are going through, from which I am not subject. The information gathered through interviews is also constrained by what residents are willing and able to share with me, which is affected by my positionality once more. Through encompassing a range of methods, and awareness of positionality, I seek to reduce the impact of these limitations, and take an original approach to understanding the site.
Perhaps most immediately apparent about the site over time is its changing physical appearance. The grandeur of the terraces was explicitly stated by Nash (Johnson, 2008) as a desire to express distinction from the surrounding poorer housing and class superiority. Such flamboyances have not recurred as a lack of desire to provide beyond the basic to what was perceived as an undeserving group of people, has resulted in visually unremarkable Zeilenbau social housing flats (Metropolitan Borough of St. Pancras, 1946), described as “sprawling concrete regimental blocks which create loneliness and encourage vandalism” by Camden’s former housing chief, Peter Hilton (North London Press, 1971).
Class divisions within the built form are highly visible within the site, and are not only limited to the homes themselves, but also to their positioning. Exclusionary architecture (Rendell, 2002) has been applied here to mitigate access to Regent’s Park, which historically has been an exclusive product.
“The Park was to be an exclusive self-contained residential area, […] with no proper means of entrance from the poorer estates on either side” (Saunders, 1969: 83)
The positioning and angling of the homes on the perimeter of the park, facing inwards, aimed to create a physical barrier between the privileged commodity and community, and the underprivileged population in the area. Access to green space, which has documented health and wellbeing benefits (Pretty et al., 2007) has long since been held as a privileged right (Wolch et al., 2014), meaning that it has not been considered among the bare necessities required to be provided to the unprivileged classes in social housing. Even along the Outer Circle today, it remains clear that the remaining Nash terraces create a division between the social housing estate, and the park itself, demonstrating how exclusionary values, based on class divisions, are bounded within the site and re-emerge time and time again, in a palimpsest like manner.
The initial construction of Regent’s Park and the regency terraces was commissioned by the Prince Regent, as a symbol of status, power, and opulence (Porter, 2000), with plans to include a palace on the site, as well as villas for nobility close to the crown. Though these plans ultimately did not come to fruition, it is shown how powerful actors are able to manifest their desires in the form of housing, and crucially, select who is able to reap their benefits. Here, housing is serving a small group of extremely privileged individuals.
Eric Cook’s vision to expand the provision of service through his drive to increase the availability of social housing in the site challenged this archetype. This is highlighted by the struggles he faced when lobbying for the construction (Broughton, 2015), which will be expanded on later in this project, showing a resistance to the shifts in power. Thus, we can see how attitudes towards working class individuals, that are entrenched within the site and consistently resurfacing, have led to discontent about the built form of the site serving this disadvantaged community. This period of time in which the site served a working class has disrupted the palimpsest’s equilibrium, and the maintenance of unequal scales of power.
Currently, the upcoming redevelopment of the land one again is changing its form and functionality to serve a different, and more privileged group of people once again. HS2, with its connections between central London and the Midlands is serving a group of people who are already able to afford desirable homes and a mobile commuter lifestyle. In this way, the disrupted equilibrium of the site is being rectified.
Through looking at the changing built form of the site and who its functions are serving, here we have able to view its palimpsest. Though built form does not change in a palimpsestic way, the logic behind the changes does indicate a palimpsest of class divisions, making the overall palimpsest of the site incomplete and involuted. The forms of architecture in the site now do not have the same outward expression of wealth as they have in the past, as a different class of people is people served. The privileges of the Regency houses, such as access to the park, are not present in the council houses, emphasising how palimpsests are not clear, linear structures. The class hierarchies imbued within the site from its original construction, and their exclusionary powers, have come through to the present, where the built form has not. It is clear that Eric Cook’s social movement competed against the natural palimpsest of class division, challenging its nature, and meaning the forthcoming redevelopment for HS2 is a corrective, and predictable change.
Space and belonging
Regarding the rights to access space (Yuval-Davis, 2006), once again, the class divisions that uphold this site’s palimpsest re-emerge in favouring the wealthy occupants as opposed to less privileged ones. The original principles of class exclusion that guided the initial construction of the park and Regency houses have left behind a legacy that is both physical and philosophical. Returning to the Outer Circle, we have seen that the remaining Regency houses create a physical blockade of access from the social tenants.
In a less visible but no less tangible way, the wilful opposition to the construction of social housing upon the basis that working classes were undeserving of living within the site and don’t belong, further evidences the class-based inequality of rights to space. These rights of the wealthy to access the space and have been utilised throughout time, such as through accessing Regent’s Park, and the site for homes, and again now in accessing the site through transport and commuter culture (Church et al., 2000), with those who already have the money to commute into the city being favoured over social tenants with limited opportunities.
During the Second World War, many residents of the Nash terraces chose to evacuate to safer areas, and after the bomb damage suffered by their homes (Welham, 2009), did not return. This residential flight indicates a lack of strong attachment to the site, associated with a highly mobile (Robertson, 2007) class. Despite their lack of attachment to the site, these residents have been granted rights to belonging, whilst residents who do not have these same rights formed different, and stronger, senses of attachment to the site.
Through community initiatives, such as resident-founded organisations taking care of the site’s large elderly population (The Journal Friday, 1973), the first social tenants of the site are demonstrating strong attachment to the site in taking active responsibility to manage long-term community cohesion and the wellbeing of residents. And yet, these residents are not deemed worthy of the right to belong. Views on class respectability affect who is allowed to belong (Hoskyns, 2014), with working class individuals seen as unwanted, and not the desirable ‘good and proper’ residents.
Peter Cunningham is a resident of Eskdale, and has been so for the past 46 years:
“This is my home, […] I’ve raised 2 children here, and this will always be their home too.” Speaking about the local community, he adds; “the area has always been very tight-knit, and they’re tearing the community apart. […] It’s been hard, and there’s been a lot of upset, but I try to spend a lot of time with my neighbours while I can.”
Current residents, are being displaced with little concern about their clear strong attachments to the site, and are taunted by the uncertainty of when this is going to occur, with the demolition date continually changing.
The palimpsest visible here is one of identity, as underpinned by class politics. The community and individual identities of residents in the site is limited by the social conditions that have been present in the site over time, with class divisions disfavouring already disadvantaged groups, and a lack of lasting shifts of power towards them. Nevertheless, there is an ongoing layering of social conditions within the site as identities have become more complex, further involuting the palimpsest. The population of the site has changed since the initial construction of the social housing, with under a quarter remaining social tenants (London Borough of Camden, 2012).
The demographic make-up of the site has changed, and yet, the effective identity of residents is still bound by class constraints. The HS2 redevelopment demonstrates how privileges of belonging are not accessible even by a population who is, overall, less underprivileged than it once was. In this way, we can see how the overarching power structures have meant that though past truths have come through to the present, they have not done so under the same conditions, with the legacy of underprivilege dominating the process of housing redevelopment.
Protesting housing redevelopment
The process of protesting housing redevelopment has not occurred in a clear palimpsestic manner, with the actors involved, and their chosen methods failing to recur over time. The redevelopment of the site from Regency housing to social housing was protested, though not led by residents, who had already deserted the site. Rather, people in positions of power, such as politicians, argued for the value of preserving Nash architecture (Broughton, 2015) in spite of their structural compromise. This protest was heightened when knowledge arose of plans to replace the Regency houses with social housing, highlighting resistance to the shifting power balance.
By prioritising the compromised value of Nash architecture over the servicing values of social housing, here, we are re-familiarised with ideas of unworthiness, as social tenants not being thought of as worthy of residing on a site that once housed wealthy occupants. The protest utilised by these successful and powerful actors manifested in formal forms, with protest emerging through petitions and letters of complaint about the redevelopment.
Present forms of protest against the loss of homes, on the other hand, are mainly being led by the residents due to displaced, with some involvement of more structured grassroots organisations such as STOP HS2. This limited formality within the protest spectrum is indicative of a lack of motivation of larger bodies to becoming involved in protesting the disputes faced by an invisible group of residents. In times of social conflict, it has been shown in other sites (Read, 2003) that disadvantaged groups, with informal networks of structure, are only able to voice their discontent through more forceful forms of protest. This has certainly been the case in Regent’s Park Estate, where the resultant forms of protest have included rallies and public demonstrations.
Click to enlarge
Even so, the lack of recognition of the concerns of this group by decision-makers (Watt, 2006) has led to some more antisocial acts, including vandalism and graffiti within the site. In this way, the distrust and hatred expressed towards governing bodies, with the power to incite change, highlights the scales of power present within the site, with power being withheld from residents of the social housing estate, whether they are social tenants or not.
Through the analysis of the reception of current protest in the site, it is possible to see how elements of the past have and have not come through to the present. The perceived respectability of past protesters meant that their formal forms of protest were acknowledged by decision makers, as shown by the delayed construction of the social estate (North London Press, 1944). Even after the construction of Regent’s Park Estate was completed, the criticisms of the project drew attention (see appendices) and so the reception of protest was more widespread and long-term, exhibiting the greater impact of protest led by respectable individuals (Watt, 2006), even in spite of the redevelopment going ahead.
Present reception of protest, conversely, has been significantly more limited to those directly affected by the redevelopment. STOP HS2 has received some media attention, though this has been limited and attention by news networks has declined. Discounting residents, the general consensus on HS2 is seemingly supportive (Chen, 2012), favouring further serving a highly mobile, privileged commuter class (Robertson, 2007).
Bhadra Sreejith, who lives in Ainsdale, talks on her experiences of protest:
“[…] they’re not listening to us. They listened to them over at Primrose Hill, but they won’t do the same here.”
Here, she makes reference to the initial proposed route of HS2 through Primrose Hill, where resident petitions (Gilligan and Hennessy, 2010) enabled the re-routing of the line from the more affluent area, to this site.
This invisibility of reception is what has led to the more antisocial forms of protest, as individuals with limited alternatives choose to express their anger in the only way they are able (Scambler and Scambler, 2011) with the resources they have. Where mainstream forms of protest fail to gain visibility, a hyper-visible and unignorable form of protest (Ward, 1973) succeeds in being reactionary.
The palimpsestic link here is clear, as there is a layering of different protests over housing redevelopment within the site over history. In some respects, we can see how elements of past protest have come through to the future, in the fact that the protesting voices ultimately are not appeased, with redevelopment unimpeded. Though, in other ways, the past has not re-emerged as the forms of protest and their subsequent reception have varied, with some actors remaining invisible to larger bodies. The ways in which protest has materialised has been a result of differing social and political contexts, but its effects have been consistently to maintain scales of power.
Beyond the superficial layers of the palimpsest in which the past occurrence of housing redevelopment can be seen in the present, we have found that its deeper social fabric is one bound by power balances through the maintenance of class divisions. Class divisions have therefore determined how some elements of the past in these three themes have come through to the present, whilst others have not.
The built form is underpinned by exclusionary values that were embedded within the site from the original Nash constructions. Here, physical class barriers continue to re-emerge over time, and limited service and functionality towards disadvantaged groups evidences a palimpsest whereby when power shifts occur, as through Cook’s social housing construction, they are resisted and soon rectified, demonstrated now with the HS2 redevelopment.
Whilst the privileges to access the space has been withheld from working class residents throughout its history, evidencing a palimpsest, this has not hindered them from forming strong attachments to the site. Nevertheless, attachments, to decision-makers, are meaningless without privileged rights, rendering these involutions of the palimpsest overwritten by power.
Protest has not occurred in a clear palimpsestic manner, as the motivations and means of protest have been dependent on how the protesting group has been able to access the power within the site. Visibility to decision-makers, granted to powerful protesters in the past, has not come through to present protesters, due to lack of perceived respectability and worthiness of residing in a site that fosters a palimpsest of scalar power relations.
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Appendix A: Archival newspaper evidence
North London Press – April 2ND 1971 (page 7)
Regent’s Park Estate a ‘grave mistake’ says housing chief
Camden’s housing chief, Cllr. Peter Hilton, said this week that the building of one of Camden’s biggest housing estates had been a “grave mistake”.
When the Regent’s Park Estate, Euston, was built a friendly community was broken up, he told a meeting of Holborn and St Pancras South Young Conservatives. In its place was constructed “sprawling concrete regimental blocks which create loneliness and encourage vandalism”
At an earlier tenants’ meeting Cllr. Hilton, chairman of the housing committee had said they wouldn’t live on an estate like Regent’s Park “if you paid me a fortune.”
“It is the right of every person to be decently housed,” he added. “Basically it is also sense that people live where they are born and where they work.”
He also said it was terrible if an authority has to move people out of an area in which they had grown up. Such a change, naturally, met deep and bitter resistance, “If you treat the housing problem purely as a costing exercise, then you immediately get a situation similar to that existing in New York. There you have a wealthy area in the centre flanked by large blocks of poor slum houses and an outer ring consisting of middle-class suburban dwellings.
Cllr. Hilton said that because most Camden residents were employed in such service industries as the railways, the milk trade and London Transport, an acute problem rose if they rehoused in Barnet and beyond. Such a move to the outer suburbs created a severe strain both on those areas and on the already hard-pressed transport system.
“The answer is that we must provide adequate housing at a reasonable rent and build communities which should include shops, schools, pubs and recreational facilities.”
This article is indicative of powerful actors freely voicing disapproval of the decision to convert the Nash terraces into social housing, due to perceived degradation of the local area as a consequence. Even twenty years after the redevelopment, such forms of protest were continually heard, evidencing the widespread diffusion of such discontent. Interestingly, Hilton complains here about a “friendly community” being broken up as a result of the estate’s construction, and this same effect is being seen once more in the present, with the current resident population of the site being divided and displaced to yet-unknown locations.
Appendix B: Archival newspaper evidence
The Camden and St. Pancras Chronicle – April 16th 1971 (page 5)
Letters to the Editor-
A Long-Suffering Tenant Complains
What a shambles Regent’s Park Estate is becoming, blocks of damaged filthy flats, unruly children who do what they want. A Harassed Estate Manager who has no backing, and caretakers with the same problem.
For years a block of plats called Rydal Waters, which is in front of my bedroom and living-room has been used as a goal post. There is a goal post chalked up there and it is being pounded night and day by children playing football, or just a “beat the goalie” game. Surely this must be doing some damage to the building? I know it is doing damage to me.
We do not have out breaks when they are at school but there are always a few who are loose. After school it really starts and all weekend too.
It is impossible to open a window for the continued banging tells on you.
Why doesn’t the ruling power and Bidborough House give the Estate Manager proper authority to do something?
I hope they don’t think they have solved the dog problem, for they have not. Have they ever gone into the courtyards of the Crown Estate flats in Redhill-street, run by Mrs. Hearn, who was my estate manager, before the council compulsorily purchased our house in Clarence-gardens? It is a credit there, with plants and so quiet that it is like being in the country. These tenants do have families. I suppose the Crown Commission back Mrs Hearn.et
Waterhead, Varndell-street, NW1.
In the preceding letter of complaint, the author makes it clear that the quality of the estate’s maintenance is poor, with little investment of public capital into such projects. Though she is a resident, Etheridge is outwardly disapproving of apparent delinquent and antisocial behaviour. Returning to ideas discussed by Hoskyns (2014), here it is evidenced that the lack of public and green space within the estate has fostered a site that encourages such behaviour (Wolch et al., 2014), reducing its respectability. Through this, visibility to decision makers is supposedly reduced (Watt, 2006) due to decrease motivation to maintain such a site.