Mount Oswald, seen from South Road, Durham.
Just down the road from my home in Durham the new constellation of houses known as Mount Oswald is taking shape, filling up the space that used to belong to a golf club of the same name. One of the 60 newly built four-or-five bedroom houses could be yours for just £520,000 to £730,000, according to the developer. This in a region where the average salary is just £24,000.
Mount Oswald is not a gated community. Those are, luckily, not that common in this country. But the entrance to the site suggests that this is, even without the existence of an actual gate, a sort of gated community nonetheless. In a street where the cheapest house costs 20 times the average salary, the entrance announces that this is a community of its own, separate from the rest of Durham. To me, they’re sending two messages. To those who live there they’re saying, “Don’t worry, we can easily install a gate if we ever need to. This place is safe from ordinary people.” And to everyone else, they’re saying, “This isn’t your space. You’re not welcome here.”
What do you make of these quasi-gated communities?
I have been thinking about how inequality close up is different from inequality at a distance. I guess it has to do with the question of equal standing and the relations can do or do not develop between individuals who could, as a matter of geographical situation, become neighbors. Or is it just that the contrast becomes particularly visible?
In an unequal society, I’m not sure whether we have reasons to prefer mixing of rich and poor communities – which makes the inequality particularly visible – or separation – which may help to hide inequality from our daily lives, but maybe all the more reinforces a sense of unequal standing. There might be all kind of empirical questions coming in, about what social dynamics are likely to happen…
Jesper L Pedersen
Hi Lisa, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think you’re right that it probably mainly an empirical question, and I haven’t done any research on that in particular. But my guess is that the answer will be that it’s better to have rich and poor families living side by side, for a couple of reasons. First, I think physical separation engenders an “us vs them” attitude on both sides. This encourages the rich to think of the poor as lazy or lacking motivation, and the poor to think of the rich as greedy or selfish. Second, the city will be more coherent and cohesive if it’s not parcelled up into separate sections. Third, the rich have a political clout that comes with their wealth, that the poor can benefit from if they share the same public resources, whether it be well-maintained roads, bin collection, high quality of schools and GPs, etc. And fourth, (perhaps most optimistically), I believe/hope that bringing people together from both ends of the income spectrum will help people understand just how big the income gap is, and motivate them to do something about it.
My ideal kind of city development would be the kind of terraced housing where it’s all mixed together, and you can’t actually see if each building is one big mansion, a two-apartment house or several smaller flats unless you go up and count the number of doorbells.
Yes, this sounds very plausible – there are likely to be all kind of positive psychological and network effects if people can mix. But it presupposes a general willingness, on the part of everyone involved, to get in touch with others. What I’m not sure about is what to think in cases in which the 1% have already been cut off so much from the rest of the population that the likelihood of encounters on an equal standing is reduced. Under such highly non-ideal circumstances, one might imagine, for example, that instead of organizing activities jointly, the rich might, for example, pay the neighborhood party for everyone and thereby reinforce their status…
In any case, I share your preference for mixed neighborhoods in which there is not too much visible difference between apartments and houses.