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So where are our homes now, what is London 2014?

an opinion piece from the daily telegraph

is our city all upside down?
is our city all upside down?

‘Cool’ London is dead, and the rich kids are to blame – Telegraph
Telegraph.co.uk · by Alex Proud · April 7, 2014
The cool, creative class has been priced out of London, which means the capital is becoming more bland and boring by the minute, says Alex Proud

I have seen the future – and the future is Paris and Geneva.

The future is a clean, dull city populated by clean, dull rich people and clean, dull old people. The future is joyless Michelin starred restaurants and shops selling £3,000 chandeliers.

In the 1990s, we accidentally stumbled upon the formula for a perfect city. Exactly halfway between East and West, serious history, attractive (but not chocolate-boxy), English-speaking, and a capital for the creative industries and financial services. Better still, years of decline and depopulation had left vast central swathes of the city very affordable. So, the cool kids piled in. And, suddenly, a rather grey, down-at-heel capital, a place that had never quite quite recovered from losing an Empire (and winning a war) began to swing again.

Back then we all lived in central London, because we all could. It was normal to leave university and get a flat with your mates in Marylebone or Maida Vale or Primrose Hill or Notting Hill. Not because we were rich, but because London was cheap. And it felt fantastic. Here was a city whose fortunes were reviving and, as 20-somethings, ready to make our mark on the world, we really were bang in the middle of things.

Two decades on and you can play a nostalgic little game where you remind yourself what groups London’s inner neighbourhoods were known for 20 years ago. Hampstead: intellectuals; Islington: media trendies; Camden: bohemians, goths and punks; Fulham: thick poshos who couldn’t afford Chelsea; Notting Hill: cool kids; Chelsea: rich people. Now, every single one of these is just rich people. If you want to own a house (or often just a flat) in these places, you need a six figure salary or you can forget it. And, for anyone normal, that means working in finance.

As for the bits of London that always were rich – Mayfair, Chelsea and Kensington, they’ve moved up to the next level. Ultra-prime central London is fast becoming a ghost-town where absentee investors park their wealth. As some wag put it, houses in Mayfair are now bitcoins for oligarchs.

So, what does this have to do with Paris and Geneva? The answer is that both are places where the rich have socially cleansed the centres. Inner Paris is a fairytale for wealthy people in their fifties (and outer Paris looks like Stalingrad with ethnic strife) while Geneva has dispensed with the poor altogether. As a result, both cities are safe, pretty and rather boring places to live – and soon London will be too.

Why? Because the financiers who can afford inner London neighbourhoods are not cool. Visit Canary Wharf at on any weekday lunchtime and watch the braying, pink-shirted bankers disporting themselves. Not cool. Peruse the shops at Canary Wharf. From Gap to Tiffany’s, they’re all chains stores and you could be anywhere wealthy, safe and dull in the world. Rich people like making money and spending it on dull, expensive things. That’s what they do – and they’re very good it. But being a high-end cog in the machine is not cool.

READ: Lawless London is keeping its cool, not losing it (Nick Compton replies to Alex Proud)

The international rich – a mixture of Eurotrash and Middle-Eastern Princelings – are worse still. You only have to visit any nightclub in Mayfair to see the Swiss-educated Euro-riche idea of cool. It’s a bit like Jay-Z as reimagined by someone who works at Goldman Sachs. As for the super-rich, the oligarchs, they don’t even bother showing up. They just buy houses and leave them empty.

All of this has pushed the well-off middle classes into Zone 2. And it leaves the really cool kids – the art students and musicians and people starting out in the creative industries in Zone 3, or worse. The 22 year-olds of today don’t walk home from clubbing in Camden like we did. The scruffy squares and terraces that used to house a mixture of squats, bohemians, unreconstructed Marxists and God knows what else now all gleam with Farrow & Ball and the houses sport those identikit Elle Deco interiors that are the end result of bankers’ wives’ “visions”.

These people like high-end chains, expensive restaurants and interiors shops. They don’t like edgy clubs and interesting markets. They are the kind of people who might buy a Damien Hirst, but would never discover the next Damien Hirst. These days, there’s probably more real cool in a single pub near Goldsmiths College (in New Cross) than there is in the whole of Notting Hill.

Of course, they will all tell you that they love cool London – and they gain energy from the urban buzz. But they really are just saying that. From the Wapping Project to the Ministry of Sound there’s a long list of long-established venues that have been shut or threatened with closure by wealthy incomers who didn’t like the noise. Or the rubbish. Or the riff-raff. These people love the idea of living somewhere happening, but they can’t bear the reality. What they really want is a kind of Singapore with Victorian houses where everything works and everyone works and, besides, if you can get that club closed, your property will go up by another 15%.

The other group that likes the way London is going is Britain’s army of amateur landlords – the buy-to-let brigade. I’m sure some of them are perfectly nice, but most of the ones I’ve met sound like the bastard offspring of Kirstie Allsopp and Ayn Rand, secure in the conceit that having been the right age to buy a house in Clapham for peanuts in 1996 makes them investing geniuses.

These groups are a minority. Taken together London’s ultra-high earners, its ultra-wealthy foreigners and its BTL brigade number what, some hundreds of thousand people? Yet the entire city is run for their benefit. Tax empty houses? Why, no. We wouldn’t want to upset some ex-KGB thug who looted the Kazakh treasury in the mid 1990s. We wouldn’t want to annoy a banker who “honestly” didn’t know he was investing the Mexican cartels’ blood-soaked wealth. We wouldn’t even knock a few percentage points off the returns on some latter-day Rachman’s buy-to-let portfolio.

Boris presides over all this like a comedy buffoon. He says he’s maintaining London’s edge as a leading business centre. But all he’s doing is bending over backwards for the rich and the finance industry – and he’s actually starting to harm the creative industries, the media and the arts. He talks about the benefits that being a global magnet for wealth bring to London, but, to adapt a John Stewart joke, when the super-rich appear to do something for your benefit, that’s just the invisible hand of the market giving you a reach-around.

A few months back, I ranted about the Shoreditchification of London’s inner suburbs. But this is what happens when you raise property prices to the point that the cool kids can barely afford Tower Hamlets. Five years ago most of my staff lived within a mile of Proud Camden. Now, none of them live close. Shoreditch may be annoying as a hipster Mecca, but it’ll be much worse in five years’ time when it’s a rich ghetto full of bankers who think they’ve discovered somewhere edgy.

We’re still (just) at a point where we could change things. I’d start with the easy stuff. You bought a house next door to a famous music venue that’s been running for 40 years. Too bad. That was priced into your purchase and you don’t get to close down a local business because you’ve decided that rock music’s annoying when you’re trying to dream up new ways to short the Yen. Ditto, living in urban centres. These places are lively and fun and cool. If you don’t like it, some parts of Zone 4 have the peace and quiet you crave.

Next, build high and build dense. Build over Tube cuttings (like they’ve done in Paris, as it happens) and make a proper percentage of the buildings affordable. Enforce affordability and mixing ruthlessly – don’t allow charades like Mount Pleasant and the Heygate Estate happen again and really punish those who allowed them to happen the first time. Tax the hell out of fourth and fifth and unoccupied homes. Close all the buy-to-let tax loopholes. I’d also shove up stamp duty on places over a million pounds too. Yes, it’s a mansion tax. So what? Your £2m house is part of the greatest transfer of wealth from the young to the old this country has ever seen.

However, as our government is drawn largely from the beneficiaries of the dullification of London rather than its victims, I don’t see much changing soon. Dave is so out of touch he probably thinks that living in Notting Hill gives him an insight into what the cool kids like. Boris is a cheerleader for the rich and loathsome. And 25 year-olds don’t vote.

In the short term, our city’s young creative class will continue to move further and further out. Is New Cross the new Peckham? Is Walthamstow the new Dalston? But there are limits to this: there’s not much of a vibe in Ruislip and there never will be; really, the cool inner suburb ship sailed in 2005. So, when you’re stuck out amongst the pebble-dashed semis of Zone 4, miles from a centre that’s mainly chain shops, boutiques for the tacky rich and restaurants you can’t afford or even book, you might start wondering if the World’s Greatest City (TM) really is for you.

Then maybe you’ll visit friends, somewhere like Bristol or Newcastle or Leeds or Glasgow. And maybe you’ll discover that there you can buy a house that’s walking distance to a centre full of shops that cater to you, restaurants that want your custom and pubs and clubs whose prices wouldn’t make someone in Gstaad blanch.

So there you have it. Perhaps this story has a happy ending of sorts. Perhaps London’s craven fealty to the ghastly rich will finally accomplish what no government policy ever has – it will rejuvenate our provincial cities.
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Telegraph.co.uk · by Alex Proud · April 7, 2014

FACT! Nature reduces agression and depression

Amazing new studies and brain results show nature reduces aggression, fights depression, improves mental function
By Henry Grabar
Parks make us smarter — science proves it! (Credit: Maglara, Vadim Georgiev via Shutterstock/Salon)

Last year, a group of Edinburgh architecture researchers asked a dozen students to take a walk. They began on a tree-lined shopping drag, turned along the tranquil northern edge of the Meadows, one of the city’s larger parks, and wound up in a busy commercial district some half-hour later. The pastoral section of an otherwise urban jaunt, the researchers found, induced a significant increase in meditative thinking.

This may not strike you as a novel discovery. Thanks to Henry Thoreau’s trip to Walden Pond, Teddy Roosevelt’s sojourn in the Badlands, and America’s other legends of retreat, the idea that nature has restorative powers is deeply embedded in our culture. Science is in support: A raft of studies credit bucolic settings with reducing aggression, alleviating depression, and improving mental function.

This is not quite the same old story, though. The results of the Edinburgh study were obtained through mobile electroencephalography (EEG) technology. Participants took their 25-minute walk with a web of electrodes glued to their scalps and a laptop computer in a backpack to record their neural impressions, step by step. When the paper says that the transition to North Meadow Lane was marked by “reductions in arousal, frustration and engagement, and an increase in meditation,” it is not referring to participants’ reactions on a lab-administered survey or test, but to fluctuations in brain activity recorded in situ.

It is, the researchers say, one of the first — if not the first — experiments to record live neural impressions of subjects moving through a city, and it has provocative implications for architecture and urban design. For centuries, philosophers and poets have struggled to define the character of place; to explain why some streets make people feel cozy and some lonely, some squares are friendly and some harsh; to understand what the French sociologist Guy Debord called “the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres.” Mobile neuroscience is about to transcribe our sense of spatial perception, breaking the mystery of urban life into neatly measured surges of cerebral activity.

Electroencephalography tracks voltage flows within the brain. It has been widely used in cognitive science experiments and to diagnose epilepsy and other neural disorders. Though EEG lacks the spatial precision of magnetic resonance imagining (MRI), it has a few advantages over more sophisticated methods of brain analysis. It’s relatively cheap, requires little heavy equipment, and is very forgiving of subject movement. All these make EEG a good technology for measuring brains on the go.

Still, mobile EEGs are relatively new, and their scientific reliability was only established in September 2012, when a paper in the journal Psychophysiology, “How about taking a low-cost, small and wireless EEG for walk?” confirmed that solid data could be obtained from such trials.

In the Edinburgh study, “The Urban Brain: Analyzing Outdoor Physical Activity With Mobile EEG,” which was published in March, the team used a wireless EEG headset made by the Australian electronics company Emotiv. It is essentially a commercial device, rather than a piece of medical equipment, which entails some caveats that might not sit well with neuroscientists. The researchers had to put faith in Emotiv’s algorithm that “translates” raw electric brain data from 14 sensors into user-friendly metrics of frustration, engagement, excitement and meditation.

The results from downtown Edinburgh were clear enough. North Meadow Walk induced a meditative state. Excitement remained high in both the first and second legs of the journey, where social interaction was frequent. Moving from a busy urban environment to a park produced a greater mental change than leaving the park, indicating lingering mental benefits of natural surroundings.

But then the landscape variations were not particularly subtle. Evaluating the emotional impact of more nuanced urban variables, like traffic or light quality, would be more difficult. Can we isolate a subject’s reaction to a bench, a factory building or a tram passing by?

“Some scientists I’ve spoken to since have come back and said, ‘You’re lucky to get a good result, because we couldn’t,’” explains Richard Coyne, a professor of architecture at the University of Edinburgh and one of the paper’s four authors. “The frequencies of nerve impulses can be generated by all sorts of things. Blinking. Squinting. Moving your head. They can be influenced by muscular movements.”

Whence a buzz of excitement? “It could be a thought, a poster, someone who’s just walked past you,” Coyne says. “That’s why it’s important to do multiple tests with multiple people.” Layering dozens of brain impressions of Edinburgh created a chorus of neurological voices, smoothing out the personal highs and lows of a walk around town.

Coyne compared the EEG work to that of the Situationists, the French philosophical movement whose leader, Guy Debord, was one of the first to argue that the emotional quality of urban space was worthy of study. Debord developed a theory of “psychogeography” in a 1955 essay, “Introduction to a critique of urban geography”:

“People are quite aware that some neighborhoods are gloomy and others pleasant. But they generally simply assume that elegant streets cause a feeling of satisfaction and that poor streets are depressing, and let it go at that. In fact, the variety of possible combinations of ambiences, analogous to the blending of pure chemicals in an infinite number of mixtures, gives rise to feelings as differentiated and complex as any other form of spectacle can evoke.”

Debord and his peers, however, had no access to sophisticated neural imaging technology. Rather, he wrote, the research required “bold hypotheses that must be constantly corrected in light of experience, by critique and self-critique.”

In the intervening years, this “soft” analysis of the city has become institutionalized. (It has long been considered proper to evaluate architecture by emotional response.) Kevin Lynch’s “mental maps,” personal interpretations of urban space, are valuable cartographic documents that have spawned a whole line of research. The entire discipline of environmental psychology exists to evaluate how people perceive and interact with their surroundings.

Architects, too, have been trying to integrate neuroscience into their work for years. The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, for example, a California-based group of academics and practitioners, advocates designing classrooms to support learning, hospital rooms to expedite recovery, and offices to encourage productivity, using cutting-edge brain research. Should the windows be smaller? The ceilings higher? The hallways narrower?

Earlier this month, Coyne and his colleagues from the “urban brain” experiment won a $2 million grant for a three-year research project to study how the elderly interact with cities. For the project, “Mobility, Mood, and Place,” led by Catharine Ward Thompson of the University of Edinburgh, over 80 subjects will undergo in situ EEG tests. The hope is that the findings will illuminate the unique urban needs of senior citizens, and inform future design projects for their benefit. Whether architects are interested in adapting their design sensibility to the public’s neuronal impulses remains to be seen.

The rest of us will get our hands on mobile EEGs soon enough. Emotiv obliterated its most recent Kickstarter goal, raising over $1.6 million in 45 days to fund a sleek, wireless headset that will transmit simplified EEG data directly to your smartphone.

The resulting boom in armchair neurological study will be interesting for a thousand reasons, not least for its significance to the urban environment. Will buyers start wearing EEG headsets around town like Google Glass, blogging about how their brain handles driving on the 10 vs. Wilshire Boulevard, or shopping at the Pike Place market vs. Albertsons?

For fun, we can try practicing Debord’s concept of drift, or dérive, which is like stream-of-consciousness for pedestrians. “Drop your usual motives for movement and action, and succumb to the attractions of the terrain,” he advises.

With an EEG strapped to your skull, you’ll be a step closer to identifying those “attractions of the terrain” that make city life so stimulating and enjoyable.