Luxury waterfront nightmares?

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.

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6 comments

  1. I think you may underestimating the power of a psychocultural disposition* that is clearly at play here. Why do people want to be near water? Well, it’s not the sort of thing that a singular ’cause’ but we could speculatively posit, for example, the perception (whether true or not is somewhat irrelevant) that water is relaxing, that water is cultural sign towards a certain idea of freedom or liberty (but can also be associated with death – what does that tell you?), that looking over water – these places always have balconies, right? – is a sign that someone is of influence, and so on**. This becomes a symbol of status and so feeds into and reinforces the mythology.

    Given that and given what I think I know about history and culture, it seems likely to me that the ‘near water’ desire will continue regardless of its empirical consequences. In fact, it may be strengthen it. What after all could be a better sign of the exuberance of wealth and of consumption for the sake of consumption than having one’s living space (or rather, one of one’s living spaces) constantly renovated throughout the year? What, furthermore, could be more risk-tasking and entrepreneurial than that? Capitalists have to live at the edge now, after all…

    * (Yes, I am arguing that my academic neologisms are better than yours, why do you ask? :P)

    ** (While I writing this, I kept having flashbacks to the J.G. Ballard novels I’ve read. Appropriate, no?)

      1. I think it’s important to remember at what time that was written. Not that I take any of it back. I mean, the scariest thing I think about so much of modern neo-liberal ideology and social attitudes is that so many of its champions actually believe it.

  2. It’s worth recalling that most luxury waterfront developments are flats, often rather gauche attempts to evoke the warehouses that were once there. The ground floor being flooded would certainly be an annoyance (not least because that’s often where the parking goes), but short of flooding on the scale of The Kraken Wakes, I don’t see it becoming a true nightmare

    1. Oh, that’s certainly true (I’m just pathologically unable to resist the cheap allure of inverting words like ‘dreams’ sometimes…), I was thinking more of the continued desirability of this particular dream if water becomes increasingly associated with flooding.

      Possibly motivated by pure malice, I admit.

  3. Though now I think about it, it might be more of an issue in the rapidly-gentrifying Lea marshes. Which I can’t help thinking would have a certain sort of poetic appropriateness.

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