When I remark to people that some of my work as a human geographer involves exploring worlds of the super-rich, they look at me quizzically, apparently confused about the relationship between geography and the very, very wealthy.
And indeed, until recently, there has been little work in geography on the super-rich. Geographers have tended to focus instead on poverty, the poor, and orbits of the middle classes. But in the spectacular Second Gilded Age of which we are now a part, new questions about the super-rich linked to geography’s central concerns with place, space and human-environment relations are emerging. Let me identify just a few of those issues here.
First, it is self-evident that the super-rich control a disproportionate amount of the world’s wealth in local and international patterns of distribution that are deeply uneven. Unquestionably, the where and why of these cartographies of abundance fall within traditional geographic domains. But more than this, geographically-informed accounts for the vast expansion in the number of millionaires and billionaires are warranted, for as noted commentator on the super-rich and writer for The Wall Street Journal Robert Frank (now at CNN) has suggested, growth in numbers of the super-rich in the United States since the early 1990s can be linked to the interconnectedness of countries and markets. Such associations bring geography clearly to the fore.
Second, as newspapers and websites frequently reveal, the super-rich’s direct ownership of companies and influence over corporate affairs shapes geographical phenomena including investment decisions and landscapes, the opening up or abandonment of transportation routes, environmental futures, and emerging patterns of employment and despair… By way of example, I point to the recent withdrawal of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov from efforts to develop hybrid cars in Russia or Gina Rinehart’s calls to rethink Australian working conditions in the face of strong competition from much lower paid, more willing African workers. These decisions, outcomes, and their connections to the attitudes and activities of the super-rich constitute a valuable and under-researched aspect of geography.
Third, many of the super-rich constitute a transglobal community of peers, having more in common with one another than they do with their country-folk, and populating an interconnected constellation of sanitised communities set apart from the rest of the world. Circulating globally, these super-rich favour a networked assemblage of places including London, Hong Kong, St Barts, Monaco, and Manhattan. Most of the residents of this imaginary place depend on the resources, labour and intelligence of the rest of the world for their continued wealth, yet in most other regards they exist quite separately from it, developing their own culture of shared wealth, symbolised by cars of the same type; ownership of private jets and titanic yachts; favoured holiday destinations or experiences; personal security arrangements; and patterns of dress. Not only have the super-rich created their own virtual country from an assemblage of globally-distributed places, they increasingly sequester themselves away from the hoi polloi. Our new Gilded Age is characterised by growing numbers of enwalled and enclaved communities – emerging archipelagos of luxury – whose character and existence as places of the super-rich is a genuine area of geographical inquiry.
Fourth, even if they do not enwall themselves physically, the super-rich have fascinating effects on the places they settle or to which they are connected. For instance, the influx of the super-rich to London has had dramatic and diverse consequences for the physical form and social fabric of that city, through both investment and abandonment. On one hand, some very high value properties, including many on The Bishop’s Avenue in Hampstead, have been purchased and then neglected by wealthy offshore owners. Having secured a safe haven for their money through the acquisition, many of the owners seem content to let their multi-million pound properties slide, unoccupied, into complete disrepair. On the other hand, historic areas such as Belgravia, Chelsea and Knightsbridge are being taken over and transformed by Americans, Arabs, Chinese, Indians and Russians with vast wealth, assorted aesthetics and little regard for local building codes. Not only have the wealthy transformed places like London, disfigured property values, and interfered with prevailing social structures, but they have also caused the ‘everyday’ (e.g. pint of milk and a loaf of white bread) to disappear. In short, the super-rich are reshaping the physical and social characteristics of places they alight, displacing everyday city dwellers and replacing genuine day-to-day diversity with something typically more sterile.
The super-rich are also linked to residential (governance) changes further afield. For instance, many of the super-rich purchase holiday or ‘second’ homes internationally. This can create challenges for local communities who find that the super-rich – who may have very little day-to-day attachment to the places where they own property – are disproportionately able to influence development. Moreover, physical detachment from places they own insinuates that the absent super-rich may not be making any other meaningful contributions to the local community.
So under the banner of the transformative effects of the super-rich on the characteristics of places in which they settle or to which they are connected, there lies a whole range of issues clearly crying out for geographic attention. Evidently the super-rich can transform places substantially. They are reordering inner parts of cities. They are purchasing significant properties in their own country as well as in other peoples’. They affect the economics, aesthetics, politics, and culture of these places. These are unquestionably geographical questions.
I hope these very brief comments on the links between the super-rich and geography help embed the super-rich in geographical inquiry. For too long, geographers have left the super-rich unattended. But now, in the midst of the Second Gilded Age and against the stark contrasts thrown up by austerity geographies, it is imperative that geographers (and others) give at least as much critical attention to those at the pinnacle of our economic hierarchy as we have historically given to the larger middle class and poor.
Iain Hay is Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor of Human Geography at Flinders University, South Australia. He is currently Vice-President of the International Geographical Union, Editor-in-Chief of Geographical Research, and is also a recent past President of the Institute of Australian Geographers. In 2006, Iain received the Prime Minister’s Award for Australian University Teacher of the Year and in 2014 was admitted as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (UK). Iain’s career work includes over 150 articles and a dozen books focussing on geographies of domination and oppression. The paperback for his edited work Geographies of the Super Rich was released in September.