Hope Bhargava discusses the social inequalities afflicting BAME communities.
In Britain, experiences of lockdown have been determined by race. In a country defined by both structural and historic racism, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals are twice as likely to be living in poverty, with racial prejudices prompting discrimination across all social sectors. This has meant that these groups disproportionately live in overcrowded social housing and have been more exposed to viral infection, many serving as “key workers”, contemporaneously as Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a new points-based immigration system which classified them as “low-skilled”, barring their acquisition of visas post-Brexit. So why were we surprised by their higher Covid-19 death rates?
As a result of increasing commodification, the UK’s housing crisis has seen society’s most vulnerable take the brunt of the strain. According to the 2011 census, more than half of those who identified as Black, African, Caribbean and Black British lived in London. In a city where prices have rocketed, black people are four times less likely to be living in housing with private outdoor space, unable to afford the associated costs. Due to widespread unaffordability, families are forced into overcrowded private rentals - many of which don’t meet minimum space requirements. With the recent extension of permitted development rights, we will likely see an increase in dwellings with these inadequacies. This is detrimental to public health, illustrating how far housing has moved from the Bevanite ideology which combined the two sectors. Additionally, residents of poorer areas are often exposed to higher levels of pollution. This increases the risk of respiratory and coronary diseases, both of which alter the likelihood of critical illness from Covid-19.
For those without gardens, public parks offer temporary respite from these privations. With their closure in early lockdown, the needs of poorer communities were once again overlooked. The shutting of Brockwell Park in Lambeth - a densely populated borough with a high percentage of BAME residents living in poverty - justly triggered an outcry, leading to the council’s eventual backtracking on the decision. A sense of injustice was felt as the Royal Parks remained open, favouring more affluent city dwellers. With a spike in reported cases of domestic abuse and children off school with little to do, access to these spaces has never been more important.
London’s private gardens also tend to be smaller than the national average. In Lambeth North the median garden size is 40m², with 72% of households having no garden at all - a stark illustration of Britain's blatant inequalities and increasingly poor London living standards. Discussions around the housing crisis too often centre the cost of residency, sidelining issues of quality and the psychological need for outdoor space. A post-pandemic urban planning discourse must seek to forefront these requirements.
Questions have also begun to be asked around how racism is built into the fabric of our cities. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, protestors resorted to taking direct action, tearing down statues such as that of the slave-trader Edward Colston, asserting their “infrastructural citizenship” through the reclamation and redefinition of public spaces. In response, the government threatened closure in an attempt to suppress these dissenting voices. These same spaces also became the focus of clashes between Black Lives Matter protesters and the Far Right, the latter claiming guardianship of the monumental relics of colonialism. This conflation of nationalism and access to public space is a timely metaphor for the battle between today’s most marginalised people and their access to open space, which is often symbolic of colonial era inequalities and tensions still simmering close to the surface. The demonisation of those gathered in parks during lockdown echoed Victorian fears of the mass, asserting public space not as a human right but as an amenity, hindering its accessibility to society as a whole whilst satisfying the elite who control it.
Hope is a London-based secondary school student activist with an interest in housing and urban planning.
She tweets @hopebhargava