To impress my friend and his mates visiting the UK for the first time from Brazil, I took them to Soho, central London. But, in truth, I didn't know where to stop for food and drink, and the sightseeing had reached already a tiring stage. We soon fell into a tourist trap – I led them to a pub chain, an Irish-themed one.
The music was loud, so we had to shout at each other in an attempt to catch up on all those years since we left university. My friend insisted on saying 'London has favelas* too' as was his very clever finding. He swore he saw some shanty constructions and went on saying that the UK sells the image as a developed country, but it is just a façade.
- But where did you see the favelas?
I was offended. Even as a Brazilian, the more I live in this country, the more I feel I ought to defend it. But surely, my friend was mistaken. Through my architect's eye, I've never seen any settlement of which could be classified as a slum.
- João, maybe you just saw some garden sheds.
He shook his head; he looked sure. I explained that a simple timber favela-like construction wouldn't protect people from the harsh British winter. Nobody would survive here living in enclosures made up of single wooden or metal panels, different from the Brazilian tropical climate where people enjoy mild temperature all year round. Therefore, favelas do not exist here.
Today, I am still unsure what he saw that made his mind up. I regret not explaining to him what an allotment is. That could be what he spotted on the train rides – something not unusual in London's suburban landscape. And when a Brazilian has never been to this country before, they can confuse the agglomeration of sheds easily with slums – something common in South American cityscapes.
Despite planning authority** in England being inconsistently stringent, it will never allow illegal shanty constructions to extend to the point that tourists can see. There are unlawful house extensions in London, but generally hidden at the rear of the house and never as alone standing. What sprung to my mind was that London is full of people living in 'bad' housing similar to favelas' intent. Many people occupy such substandard accommodation in overcrowded households that living in a place with, as we called, a 'Living Room' is considered lucky. According to the Guardian (30 Sep 2020 - link), 'Nine out of 10 shared houses don't have a living room'. The slum is out there but inside of the houses and flats.
Considering the poverty is relative and not absolute, poverty in advanced economies can also be highly penalising. Housing is expensive:
The average rent in London for new tenancies is £1,665 a month (Homelet 2019).
The average London salary is 36K or £2,321.74 per month after tax (Payscale.com).
An average person like myself will use up to 70% of the salary towards the accommodation. The reality is either you earn more than the majority of people or live badly. And the solution most Londoners have been adopting is house-sharing.
More people into the 30s, 40s and even 50s are house-sharers. Flat/house-sharing is good if the purpose is saving money but not if it isn't a choice. Not if you work to pay for your living. The modern favelas are here, hidden in overcrowded housing, sometimes in beautiful Victorian houses or modern apartment flats. The façade, the building shell, does not reveal the relative poverty of London.
Before the pandemic, the overcrowded houses might work just OK. Say not all flatmates were using the same communal room at the same time. Say most of them are using a so-called home as a dorm. However, house sharing problems have started to exacerbate since the first lockdown. All architectural failures of our accommodation have begun to affect us:
Deficiency of acoustic insulation.
Lack of daylighting.
Access to garden or balconies.
Absence of adequate natural ventilation.
Lack of views out (viewing natural scenes, external open space)
We might think that the minimal construction requirements should be there in place by the building legislation, but, in reality, it's not what we are experiencing with the building we live in. These elements - acoustic, daylight, access to green, natural ventilation - seem crucial to our mental health, yet this same word 'mental health' is rarely part of building design's vocabulary.
There are favelas within the housing system in London. Not only the buildings (new builds or conversions) have failed us with poor construction, but their rents are expensive. Time to recognise it and reveal the precarity of the living standard of room renters officially, so the good architectural design once in practice will apply to all.
Was my friend right? London has favelas too.
* Favelas: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Favela
** Planning Authorities (England): https://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/Planning_authority