During the past three decades in which finance capital has ruled triumphant above all other things, many dreams have been sold of lifestyles and products that are utterly unaffordable even to most in the affluent ‘West’. Hell, unaffordable even to many comparatively affluent people in the affluent ‘West’. I’ve no interest in pretending that this has been a particularly new phenomenon, as luxury goods have existed since time immemorial and have often played an important role in consumer booms. Probably the only unique thing these luxury dreams is their reach and ubiquity. And, right now at least, I’m really only interested in one specific dream, rather than the whole edifice.
A particularly powerful dream, because it involves property.
I am thinking of one of the defining physical features of our age: the luxury waterfront development. The exclusive riverside flat. The apartment on the (often socially cleansed, and certainly thoroughly re-branded) old dock. The mansion by the river. Etc.
Gross oversimplification follows.
Rich people these days seem to like to live in close proximity to water. Those who are not particularly rich but would like to be dream of being able to do so. In pursuit of this dream, they have been amply aided by the usual suspects in the private sector and by the power of the state. The London Docklands – officially an attempt to ‘regenerate’ a depressed postindustrial district, a fact that tends to be only half remembered now – are emblematic, but other examples abound. And not just in other large cities: many smaller settlements have also seen a great surge in luxury waterfront development.
Now, historically, rich people have tended not to live particularly close to water. In urban areas at least, rivers were literally full of shit until fears of waterborne diseases and the sheer ghastly smell became too much for the new middle classes of the nineteenth century to bear. And even after that they were filthy: watery spaces of industry and wholesale commerce. And then there was the damp. And the risk of flooding. And these were factors outside the city, so even in pretty little river towns, the tendency was the rich to not actually live right by the river. Or at least not on the floodplain. Similar concerns existed with regards to the sea: again pumped full of raw sewage and industrial waste, again the fear of flooding (and a surge from the sea is something like thirty billion times scarier than the average river flood). So when rich people lived by the sea, the tendency was to do so in safe places; away from industry, and in a safe place from the worst of the winter storms.
These days, with clean rivers, with working ports generally miles from the city centre, etc, things are quite different. Frankly all of the above paragraph sounds like something from a past considerably more distant than thirty years ago or so. The dream of the luxury waterfront property is an extremely powerful one, and such developments have mushroomed across the globe.
But I used the word ‘nightmare’ in the title, and not ‘dream’. And I do this for one very, very simple reason: climate change. Sea levels are rising, while extreme and freak weather events are becoming palpably more frequent. The luxury waterfront development becomes vulnerable to flooding. We have seen a bit of this recently in the Thames Valley. It will become ever more common, I suspect. Despite the efforts that rightly go on flood protection in big cities.
I’m making no predictions, but fashions change. Perhaps the luxury waterfront development will remain a compelling dream to the wealthy, but it now seems at least possible that it might be seen rather more as a curious historical mistake.
I place a great deal of emphasis on the word ‘perhaps’, there.