To be sure, it is a nice life, existing inside the warm circuits of the alpha city. Emerging after a week’s fieldwork into a less salubrious part of town I felt a strange sense of risk and disorderliness that I had not recognised before. Arriving back in my university city, getting the tram home, I passed the bodies and faces of those marked by poverty and a kind of anger arose in me as I realised how entirely avoidable and invisible these lives were to those living in London’s rich neighbourhoods.
This point belies a much deeper issue. What does poverty mean to the owner of an opulent penthouse on the Thames, a luxury home in a gated community or a palace built from tech wealth in Mayfair? How can the demands of those who are rewarded so little be made to be heard and to generate traction for even modest commitments to contribute more by the well-off. None of this is to suggest that the rich are in some way ignorant or unaware of what it means to have little, and many of them care a great deal. But this does not detract from the powerful role of money and place in adding vitality to popular ideas that wealth is justified and that the poor can be vilified or ignored.
In many ways, we may hope that London becomes a “beta” city, to the benefit of all its citizens.
Alpha City is published by Verso Books on June 16.
Rowland Atkinson is Professor and Research Chair in Inclusive Societies at the University of Sheffield.