Centre for Urban Studies

Cities and the Superrich - By visiting Prof. Ray Forrest

Publication date 07-09-2015

The superrich are probably more visible in Hong Kong than Amsterdam, and probably richer. Hong Kong does superrichness better than most cities. But there is a pervasive concern with the impact of expanding economic elites on urban life and urban morphologies. There is growing resentment about widening income and wealth inequalities, most evident in major world cities.

flickr.com / creative commons/M. Jeremy Goldman

Flickr.com / CreativeCommons / M. Jeremy Goldman – income inequality within feet of Wall

The ‘1% ‘ is at the sharp end of this antagonism. Some of these strands of resentment connect apparently disparate politics-the Occupy Movement in Hong Kong, Rethink UvA, the massive surge of support for the Scottish National Party and the resistance to further austerity medicine in Greece. Discounted sales of public assets, the commodification of higher education, anti-democratic capitalisms and lessons in austerity from the beneficiaries of deregulation and reregulation fuel the view that the snouts are deeper in the trough than ever. The global economic crisis and its aftermath revealed that we are not all playing by the same rules-that elites play by different rules. Popular patience seems to wearing thin.

Cities have increasingly become speculative playgrounds for these elites and the web of intermediaries which serve their consumption and investment needs. Cities are redesigned and reshaped to attract  what Merrifield has described as the new ‘parasitic’ class of financiers which drive up land and property prices and divert resources from local needs.The most obvious consequence is the dearth of affordable housing. Here a frustrated young middle class find themselves increasingly in tune with a disenfranchised and marginalized poor. In the process of opening up more space for market speculation, social housing in its various forms has already been (or is being) sold off or privatized with little new investment in not for profit housing. But many young middle class also find themselves excluded from local housing markets in which prices are hyper-inflated by global investment flows and hidden offshore funds, in which luxury houses and apartments dominate new building in downtowns. And not only are these exclusive enclaves serving a parallel consumer universe, alien to most urbanites, but in many cases the properties are not even occupied. They may be occasional pieds-a-terre or simply somewhere to park surplus capital. Occupancy is an unnecessary inconvenience. In some cities, we therefore have growing numbers of empty properties at the same time as a chronic housing shortage. The young middle classes of Vancouver, London, Hong Kong and (presumably) Amsterdam have to stay longer in their parental homes or are channeled into private rental sectors-which are themselves becoming increasingly financialised and thus more expensive.

Of course, it is easy to vilify the superrich in their privileged enclaves (although the really superrich are probably somewhere else) but their growth is as much a symptom as cause of the evident widening social and economic fissures within and between cities. They attract as much fascination as vilification and with the large supporting cast of wannabes sustain a whole infrastructure of servants and retail services. The impact on urban morphologies thus ranges well beyond residence, and involves both the production and the consumption of urban space. What is to be done? Some analysts, such as Streeck, see a growing threat to social cohesion in these developments and the prospect of financialized neoliberal capitalism facing  a “long and painful period of cumulative decay”. But in the meantime, the ideology of superrichness continues to thrive with political and economic elites closely collaborating in the creation of cities of the property rich and property poor. 

Ray Forrest

Prof. Ray Forrest has visited the Centre for Urban Studies in June 2015 to collaborate with CUS researchers and provided a lecture in the Urban Studies Lecture Series. Forrest is Chair Professor at the City University of Hong Kong. Previously, he has worked at the University of Birmingham and the University of Bristol, where he was Chair Professor in Urban Studies in 1994. At Bristol he was Head of the School for Policy Studies (2001-2004), Associate Director/Director of the Centre for East Asian Studies (2004-2008) and co-director of the ESRC Centre for Neighbourhood Research (2001-2005). He has also held visiting appointments at the Universities of Hong Kong, Glasgow and Amsterdam. He is co-editor of Housing Studies and Asian Public Policy and edits the Routledge Series, Housing and Society.

Published by  CUS

3 February 2016