Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Understanding international students beyond studentification: A new class of transnational urban consumers. The example of Erasmus students in Lisbon (Portugal)

Daniel Malet Calvo

The growing presence of international students in the city of Lisbon attracted my attention ten years ago, when I started my PhD on the occupation by different social groups of the most emblematic central square in Lisbon: Pra├ža do Rossio. As a foreigner, I shared several apartments with international students, at a time when the city of Lisbon was not renowned as a tourist or student destination. I got to know a group of exchange students that had developed a particular alternative lifestyle in the patio where they lived. They organized several meals outside and installed improvised benches to spend time in the patio, as well as sharing a communitarian style of living with their Portuguese neighbours. Next year, when the students left, the next-door Hostel bought those apartments and converted them into suites for tourists. Replicating the students, they installed permanent benches and even imitated their new-age tastes in the decoration. In other words, the hostel reproduced the students’ creative ways, making products for tourists. When I started to study Erasmus students back in 2013, I borrowed the term ‘studentification’ to assess the significance and impact of those populations in Lisbon. However, as an anthropologist, it was unsettling for me to isolate the housing question from the wide variety of practices and relations that students established within Lisbon’s urban processes.
In the present article I discuss the applicability of the studentification literature to other geographies other than UK’s, stressing that the main effects on the urban form (spatial concentration, segregation and density of student populations) are missing in the case of Lisbon. Taking the study of Francis Collins about South Korean international students in Auckland, I started to use ‘studentification’ in a wider sense, considering the agency of students and their ability to reproduce their own cultural practices when abroad. In this sense, my idea was to present three different cultures of Erasmus students (the most significant population of international students in Lisbon) to understand their role and involvement in different processes of urban change.
First, I identify the party-centred practices of the so-called ‘typical’ Erasmus students, and their participation -along with young tourists- in the production and consumption of Lisbon’s tourism gentrification. Then, I recognize that a group of ‘alternative’ Erasmus students who rejected a ‘typical’ Erasmus life are working as marginal gentrifiers, whose political and aesthetic orientations lead them to the discovery of new urban territories for consumption. Finally, there are the ‘scholar’ or hard-working Erasmus students, who seem to be engaged with entrepreneurial activities, echoing the emphasis on the knowledge-economy that prevails in today’s urban policies of European capital cities.
To summarize, international students could be considered a new class of transnational urban consumers that express collectively a diversified repertory of practices, cultures and lifestyles. Wealthier than the average of college students, they are relevant consumers (and occasionally clever producers) in the travel economy (as foreigners), in lthe eisure economy (as youth), and in the knowledge economy (as students). Therefore, they become central actors at the core of the cognitive-cultural, visitor-centred system of production in contemporary cities.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Temporary use of space: Urban processes between flexibility, opportunity and precarity

Ali Madanipour

From popup shops and restaurants to container buildings and gardens, there has been a growing trend in the temporary use of urban space. This trend is celebrated by many observers, who see it as novel, progressive and exciting, making the underused space available for activities that would otherwise be unable to flourish, while adding colour, vitality and spontaneity to the urban environment. Such flexibilities in the use of space may open a door to new possibilities, but I wanted to go beyond the apparent aesthetic excitement and understand the trend more fully, to see where it fits within the broader context of urban processes and how it can be critically analysed.
Empty spaces are the outcome of fluctuations and crises in capitalism, which have reached unprecedented dimensions through globalization, and the associated technological and economic changes, as reflected in large numbers of empty shops, offices, and housing units in different parts of the world. The temporary use of space has been one of the key responses to this crisis of overproduction, introducing flexibilities in the control and use of land and property, which go past the traditional ways of rent adjustment. As I once discussed with Kira Cochrane of the Guardian newspaper[1], temporary spaces can be understood in contrasting ways: on the one hand making productive use of empty spaces for a variety of locally useful activities, and on the other hand a disguise for consumerism. Their flexibility offers new opportunities to creative entrepreneurs as well as civil society groups and local activities, but also normalizes the sense of precarity for these users, while it is being transmuted into a cultural instrument of branding and marketing, which is used profitably by large companies.
Elsewhere, I have investigated temporary parks and gardens that turn the city into an ephemeral event[2]. My focus in this article is on the temporary use of private space. I have used the example of Chesterfield House in Wembley, London, which provided the opportunity for temporary use of space offered at low cost to creative entrepreneurs, facilitated by the authorities and welcomed by the local media and community groups. By locating the temporary use within the longer period of property development, however, we gain a fuller picture of the initiative. In a project of converting an empty office space to high density housing, the other face of the temporary use of space becomes visible: an interim measure for reducing the costs and improving the local acceptability of the impending development. It is through this wider, mobile lens that we can see the different sides of temporary urbanism.
The ancient Greeks called a moment that captures many possibilities Kairos, a particular concept of time. I was interested in understanding whether the temporary use of space reflects a broader change in the concepts and character of time in urban society today. This is a subject I explored in a book, Cities in Time [3](Published by Bloomsbury in 2017), in which I have studied temporary urbanism in the context of the philosophy of time, at the intersection of instrumental, existential and experimental concepts of time.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Not just the super-rich: The role of the middle-classes in transforming London

Hang Kei Ho, Department of Social and Economic Geography, Uppsala University

Rowland Atkinson, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield

How do we make sense of the current housing crisis in London? Existing academic research and the popular press tends to tell us two things. Frist, the introduction of the Right to Buy scheme in the 1980s by the Conservative government that allowed council tenants to purchase their homes from the state at a heavily subsidised rate created a shortage in public housing. Coupled with the lack of political will to build more residential properties in the last three decades as well as the high demand from the national and international workers and students the rental market and property prices have been pushed to record high levels. Second, global cities like London have long been a playground for the wealthy. Subsequently, the super-rich from Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and most recently, mainland China have been purchasing luxury residential properties in prime locations such as Kingsbridge for capital growth or to store assets in property which can be released when it is needed.

Cranes on London's skyline. Photo: Hang Kei Ho 

While both of these observations are important they tend to neglect the role of middle-class investors. In cities like Hong Kong many middle-income households have been buying properties in the UK for more than quarter of a century. Here financial literacy combined with high savings rates and increasing anxieties about the future are driving these capital flows.
Our research approach has been to follow the money – examining capital investments and motives via interviews, attending property fairs, and visiting development sites in Hong Kong, London, Aberdeen and Liverpool. Our informants included investors, real estate directors, brokers, property developers; regional government strategists and town planners. We also analysed marketing and housing related materials published in both Chinese and English. Here a grounded and linguistic insider position enabled us to learn much about these flows and understand more about Hongkongers’ social status, anxieties and investment strategies.
We suggest that there have been three broad waves of investment from Hong Kong to UK’s housing market. The first wave, which we call the ‘pre-handover migration wave’ or the buy-to-live trend, began in the late 1980s when Hong Kong’s sovereignty was about to be transferred back to mainland China in 1997. Based on the uncertain politics of Hong Kong, citizens relocated to countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. However, the 1989 student protest in Tiananmen Square in particular triggered emigration to the UK with around 50,000 families granted British citizenship under the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act of 1990. During this period some Hong Kong citizens bought properties, mostly in London, with the intention of relocating. However, the reality was that many remained in Hong Kong, with some parents buying properties for housing their children while at university.
The second wave of investment which we identify as a process of buying to ‘fry’. We choose this term, based on a Hong Kong colloquialism, to describe the way in which investors speculated off-plan properties to generate a quick profit (the frying) and the impact this made on housing pressures in London alongside with those generated by the global super-rich. These processes began in the early 2000s where wealthy middle class Hongkongers sought alternative investment vehicles at the time when local banks offer almost zero interest rates on money deposited.
The ‘post-London investment wave’, which we introduce as the third investment pattern, started when property prices rose in London after the credit crunch in 2009. Investors explored buy-to-let options in northern cities including Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham with a significant rental yield of up to 8%.
From our work we suggest that there are two important reasons as to why Hongkongers continue to invest in global real estate. First, experienced through waves of financial crises and that the state pension in Hong Kong being insignificant, they understand financial insecurity is generated via transnational instabilities and is, to some extent, unavoidable. Thinking like the super-rich, buying properties is a secure way to safeguard the possible depreciation of their cash, outperform close to zero bank interest rates on deposits and generate a regular rental income. More surprisingly perhaps, some investors are not as wealthy as the popular media suggest, they save hard and access loans to invest for long-term growth, sometimes with friends and family members in ways that resemble Confucian capitalism which intergrades the notions of familial and intergenerational loyalty, thrift and an ethic of hard work.
The second key factor relates to the geopolitical uncertainties surrounding Hong Kong itself and which has been impacted by mainland China. Here we see renewed debates on issues of emigration rights and the potential role of off-shore residential properties which may offer buyers a sense of political stability should the political context deteriorate.
Perhaps it is also important to acknowledge here that the current housing crisis in London is deepened by the UK government’s inability to implement a strategy to build more affordable housing and the avoidance of creating policies to deter non-UK citizens from buying properties. However, not all investments lead to financial rewards as around 1,000 investors from Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan and Malaysia who have invested with a total of HK$500 million (US$64 million, £52 million) have seen their properties fail to complete or remain unbuilt.
Finally, despite Britain’s plans to leave the European Union that has appeared to reduce investment from other countries, capital from Hong Kong and mainland China continues to flow into London’s real estate market. Hong Kong investors alone have around £4.5bn of live equity which is aimed at London. These indicators suggest that long-term flows of capital between Hong Kong and London are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon despite the questions that these and related forms of investment raise about what is good for the wider population of the destination of such investment.