By Renard Teipelke
This August I visited London for the second time. I have been to the city the first time in 2011. During both visits I was staying in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (at a friend’s place and in a hostel). However, this time I did not spend several days running around the whole city to get a glimpse of the touristic abundance London has to offer. Instead, I spent much time strolling around in Kensington. I have to admit that I love this neighborhood. As most of you might know: Kensington and Chelsea are in the league of the most exclusive districts worldwide. Oligarch families, Middle Eastern oil dynasties, French ‘emigrants’, and Britain’s upper classes live door by door in this borough (here). Surprisingly then that I love it, isn’t it?
Well, it is relatively simple. The borough has plenty of museums, cafés, restaurants, parks, shops, and academic institutions. It is very dense and, thus, it is easy to stroll through the neighborhood. It is safe. It is multi-cultural and, therefore, also multi-lingual. And it has preserved much of its old urban fabric. This is the topic I want to discuss here.
Having heard about all these stories of super-rich families moving into Kensington and Chelsea I was expecting a spotless and shiny neighborhood. However, a closer look reveals that not even the borough’s façade is giving this impression. It was very surprising to me to see that the building fabric in this borough is in urgent need of renovation. I have chosen the title “Renovating Kensington” to indicate that there is already renovation going on. But the sheer amount of buildings makes it a rather long-term endeavor.
Now, what strikes me about this is that there is no shortfall of foreign investors acquiring housing stocks in Kensington and Chelsea. While there seems to be a problem with their habit to occupy these apartments only part-time (here), it is questionable if they do not want to invest their money to refurbish their own properties (which appears unlikely in light of their seemingly infinite financial resources). Or, possibly, it has to do with the costs of renovation for owners who have already been living in the borough longer and who cannot coordinate a renovation project with their multiple neighbors/apartment owners in the corresponding building (while also being obligated to follow costly preservation guidelines).
This leads to a situation where property developers make historic buildings in Kensington and Chelsea shine again, while a number of houses remain closer to dilapidation. As a result, the borough still looks more middle-class and diverse with regard to its building fabric (at least from the outside and the back alleys). One would not expect that from a neighborhood where everyone appears to be driving Lamborghini, Rolls Royce, or Maserati.
Having said that, I would, nevertheless, not deny that Kensington and Chelsea are the embodiment of London’s devil’s pact with super-rich foreigners. Thus, I might enjoy strolling through this Royal Borough, but I am not going to live in one of the shiny apartments I can see from the street. Just for your information: rental prices for a one-bedroom apartment in Kensington currently range beyond £2,000 per month. This does not make my love story with this beautiful borough easier, especially in light of the opportunities for nice individual renovation projects of unique houses, which very much contrast modern ‘global city’ architecture. So what do we have: A neighborhood which is dense, mixed-use, and predominantly for the privileged.