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London's changing: investigating 'super-rich' neighbourhoods

Gated community

Despite public interest in growing social inequality and the media’s fascination with the super- rich, the areas where this group lives and their broader social impact have never been the subject of detailed research.

Now sociologists at the University of York and Goldsmiths University are leading an interdisciplinary study of ‘elite’ enclaves in London – the so-called alpha territory. The research will focus extensive research effort on a range of super-wealthy localities in London.

The study will combine geodemographic and statistical data analysis with detailed ethnographic and interview based case study work in up to six selected neighbourhood.

Dr Rowland Atkinson, Reader in Urban Studies and Criminology in the Centre for URBan Research (CURB) in the Department of Sociology at York says: “The timing of the project is significant, not only are many people more interested in questions of inequality and wealth but it is also clear that London is undergoing rapid social and economic change as a result of international wealth pouring-in via the property market.

The main aim of this research is to examine the life and wider role of ‘elite’ neighbourhoods - locales inhabited by the very affluent and what geodemographers have recently come to term the 'alpha territory'

Dr Rowland Atkinson

“Understanding these changes is important. For example, attractive and safe spaces for captains of industry, senior figures in political and non-government organisations are often regarded as markers of urban vitality and the foundation of social networks that help the broader glue of civic and political society.

“Yet we know very little about how such neighbourhoods operate, who they attract and how they are linked to other cities and neighbourhoods globally. The main aim of this research is to examine the life and wider role of ‘elite’ neighbourhoods - locales inhabited by the very affluent and what geodemographers have recently come to term the 'alpha territory'.”

Drawing on earlier work, the research team suggests that the upper-tier of income groups living in cities tend to exploit particular forms of service provision such as education, cultural life and personal services but are distanced from the flow of urban social life and civic life of cities more generally.

The new research will profile a select group of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the UK to understand more about them and to develop clearer and evidenced positions on the urban life and society of the super-rich.

The research team, led by Dr Atkinson at York and Professor Roger Burrows at Goldsmiths, have identified a set of locations containing wealthy and influential individuals including business people, bankers, senior managers in industry, top lawyers, surgeons or civil servants as well as celebrities in sport, the arts and entertainment’. Such locations cover just 3.5 per cent of all households and 4.3 per cent of all individuals in Britain but are concentrated in the London area.

The researchers will study suggestions of increasing spatial retreat by the affluent; emerging forms of self-segregation; social insulation from what are perceived to be ‘risky’ urban environments; a rising physical defensiveness to the homes and neighbourhoods of the very wealthy. They will focus on whether the wealthy elite are interested in civic life and cultural amenities.

They want to explore the extent and forms of attachment (if any) that wealthy individuals and households have to specific neighbourhoods and urban centres. This will involve looking at the importance of attachment to neighbourhood in ‘holding’ the rich ‘in place’ and assessing the degree to which the wealthy are embedded in local social networks.

Dr Atkinson said: “We believe that the result of our work will be a unique series of datasets from which the public, policymakers and academic commentators can learn more about these spaces, the social networks within and beyond them, and their role within contemporary city life more broadly.”

 The research is due for completion in early 2015 though a series of working papers and articles will be generated during the life of the project.

The full team involves Rowland Atkinson at the Centre for URBan Research (CURB) at the University of York, Professors Roger Burrows and Caroline Knowles at Goldsmiths, Tim Butler and Richard Webber at KCL and Mike Savage at the LSE. Contact rowland.atkinson@york.ac.uk

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