Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A filmmaking contest reveals the complexities of life in one of the world's most expensive cities.
“Where do I stand? Will I be kicked out eventually?”
This is the refrain that runs like a vein through an affecting set of ten new short films about London's affordability crisis. The FOURWALLS project started out as a citywide call for short amateur films that “showcase the reality of housing in London,” and the top ten winners are now available on YouTube. Taken as a group, they show a personal, touching slant on the difficulties of living in one of the world's most expensive cities. Notably, while a lot of the experiences documented are far from cheery, the overall tone is hardly pessimistic.
That said, these films, eight of which we've profiled below, don’t make exactly cosy viewing. In At Their Mercy, residents in an East London housing project are working out how to cover a bill they can’t afford. Having been saddled with costs of £16,000 ($24,200) per apartment for renovations they didn’t ask for, some of them are now being forced to consider moving out or selling.
Another entry shows 77-year-old South Londoner John reminiscing about the destruction of the community where he grew up. It was one beset by poor living conditions and a super-tough street culture, he makes clear, but a community that was nonetheless close-knit and, when it came to people’s homes, crime-free.
Elsewhere, this lighter animation takes aim at London’s overcrowding problem, and the phenomenon of dividing apartments into ever smaller units to fit more people in. While this is a comic exaggeration, as things stand U.K. residents do indeed have less living space than people in any other European country.
The impression the films give is far from being all bleak, however. Even the residents in Estate of Living, about a threatened East London housing project (yes, another one—we have plenty) make it clear that they love their neighborhood and its diversity.
This short, following an architect in West London as he visits both his work projects and his family, shows that, when it comes to the well-to-do at least, London has some good housing models that could serve as inspiration elsewhere.
The next film, The Girl Room, celebrates the pleasure and strength one can get from roommates. Three young women sharing an apartment make it clear what a welcome port in the storm it is for them.
There’s also beauty and even some wildness still in landscapes of cranes and skyscrapers, as this film about East London’s Cody Dock shows. While the area has seen a frenzy of development in the past few decades as the defunct docks are repurposed as office hubs, the land closer to the Thames’ mouth is still thick with reed beds and teeming with waterfowl, possessing a fragile, unkempt beauty.
Finally, all these different strands come together in the film that was announced today as FOURWALLS' overall winner. Over black and white footage of North London, two spoken-word artists talk about how despite growing up boxed into a corner, they’ve managed to thrive by creating their own culture of inner resistance. One of the narrators, Suli Breaks, has already touched a nerve with a multi-million hit video advising ambitious youngsters to skip going to university. Here he’s joined Kojey Radical, wondering exactly how he will look to new arrivals in his neighborhood, within which real estate agents have touted him as local color.