Two hundred miles apart the Islington Estate near Chapel Street on the Salford side of the border with Manchester and the Pepys Estate in Deptford South east London have much in common. The Islington Estate, with its two ten-storey tower blocks at the heart of the development, dates back to 1963 and is the older of the two by just three years. The Pepys Estate was created by the Greater London Council and opened in 1966, soon afterwards it won a Civic Trust design award and was commended as “an impeccable scheme.” The origins of these two estates therefore date back to the heady high-rise mass social housing boom of the early to mid sixties.
Like Islington, Pepys was planned with a mix of building types: three and four-storey flats, eight-storey maisonettes and three twenty-four story tower blocks. Originally covering an area of 45 acres and with 1,324 homes Pepys, however, dwarfs the Islington Estate with its 300 or so properties. During the 1990s and early 2000s the Pepys estate was substantially redeveloped following consultation with tenants who made a strong case for refurbishment rather than demolition. The sum of the changes was, in the words of this 2008 report on regeneration in Deptford, ‘focused on removing many of the design aspects that were most celebrated when the Pepys Estate was first built – the ‘streets-in-the sky’ catwalks…that destroyed neighbourhood connections and turned the estate into a maze.’ Both the Islington and Pepys estates are located in inner-city areas (Deptford, Chapel Street, Salford Central) that contain some of the most deprived wards and neighbourhoods in the country. And each has experienced a plethora of area-based public regeneration programmes since the early to mid nineties.
On a morning of brilliant spring sunshine in late March our colleagues Hessel de Boer and Kevin O’Neil from the Islington Estate Tenants and Residents Association on a visit to London met up with a tenant from the Pepys Estate for coffee and a discussion on regeneration and redevelopment, community activism and the tower twinning idea. For our colleague from the Pepys Estate the idea of twinning tower blocks raised a number of questions: How might a twinning framework and activities be designed so that tenants could see a clear benefit to their involvement? Would the focus on tower twinning as a way of promoting cultural exchange translate readily to a different context, that of a large estate in a global city where over seventy languages are spoken and which successive generations of refugees and asylum seekers have called home?
Where there was agreement, however, was that the strength of Tower Twinning lies in its ambition to facilitate an exchange of ideas and knowledge among social housing tenants in different countries. We hear a lot about what doesn’t work, the tenant from the Pepys estate said, if twinning could be a way of sharing different experiences of what has been shown to work in different countries then that could be powerful. There was agreement too that Tower Twinning could challenge the stigmatization of social housing, a consequence of the long-term residualisation of public housing in the UK. An active European network of digitally connected tenants could help promote both high-rise living and social housing as genuine alternatives to conventional ownership. As Michael Stone put it in the conclusion of a report based on interviews with community activists in Deptford and New Cross written whilst a Visiting Associate at the Goldsmiths, Centre for Urban and Community Research:
“For those who would rather not have the financial risks, maintenance responsibilities and social separation associated with conventional ownership, social housing demonstrably can provide well- designed and well-built residential environments, secure tenure, true affordability, meaningful participation and rich community life [Stone, 2003: 64].”
After our chat near Kings Cross we headed south and took a wander around the Pepys Estate, bathed in bright sunlight, ending up at a glittering River Thames under the shadow of Aragon Tower. Aragon Tower was formerly part of Pepys Estate but was sold to private developers by Lewisham Council to raise funds for further redevelopment in 2002. Some readers might remember that in 2007 the BBC broadcast a docu-soap called The Tower juxtaposing the lives of Pepys tenants with the newest residents of refurbished upmarket Aragon Tower. Although The Tower cast a revealing eye at the new frontiers and agents of gentrification in South east London, many Pepys tenants felt unfairly treated by what they regarded as the programmes preoccupation with portraying estate life as dysfunctional. Unusually perhaps for those who participate in television formats on the blurred borders of documentary, reality TV and soap opera, the views of the subjects of The Tower, residents of the Pepys Estate, subsequently found an outlet through this short video made as part of Spectacle’s Poverty and Participation in the Media project. The injuries of media power may not be quite as hidden as they once were.