The complicated truth behind a regeneration success story

It was sobering to be told at a recent AoU symposium on Gillett Square in London’s Dalston that people had lost faith in the idea of regeneration. Those of us good guys who have been working all these years to regenerate cities are apparently the ones causing the problem. Local communities associate regeneration with outside developers building apartments they can’t afford, pushing up prices and squeezing out all the vitality and life that made the area so ripe for regeneration in the first place.

This conversation took place in the Vortex Jazz Club at an event organised by The Academy of Urbanism to celebrate Gillett Square, a public space that a couple of years ago had been shortlisted for one of the Academy’s awards. The space, created by the local community through the agency of Hackney Cooperative Developments, is full of life. The majority of the people using it are black and the people sitting in the excellent Ethiopian cafe and jerk chicken shop and the children playing with the movable play equipment coexist with street drinkers and skateboarders. As Adam Hart, former head of the Hackney Cooperative Developments told us, the street drinkers are a sign that this is a true public space, not a sign of failure. Yet within a stone’s throw the developers and their shiny apartments are lurking, casting the long shadow of gentrification.

The square was opened in the early 1990s together with the Dalston Culture House. It was shortlisted for an AoU award a few years ago and as a result of this is one of the places included in the Academy’s recent book ‘Urbanism’. Looking back at the original write-up done as part of the awards process it was clear that the Academy had recognised that it was a good place without necessarily understanding the struggle that lay behind its creation and the threats lurking in the shadows. The initial write up didn’t even mention the fact that this is the only black and ethnic minority-created square in London; that it was the culmination of a battle that dates back to the radical squats of the 1960s or indeed that it is the heart of a cultural renaissance of music and black culture in one of the most diverse parts of London. This is one of the issues that the Academy is keen to address going forward – not just to celebrate ‘nice’ urbanism, but to explore its role in bringing diverse communities together in places like Dalston. One of the contributors at the symposium said that Gillett Square was a space that is absolutely unique in the capital – “the only place in London that is like the Caribbean where you can just sit and be”.

The problem is that the more successful this process is the greater the lure to the forces of regeneration (sorry I mean gentrification). The event heard speakers from Bankside and Brixton, other parts of London facing similar pressures. We heard about fantastically successful pop-up venues in Brixton full of “white people drinking”. Nothing wrong with that but it’s hardly Brixton. The success of these type of regeneration initiatives is only serving to make these areas safe for invading armies of hipsters. This in turn pushes up rents and prices and the effect, however unintentional, is that the local community is squeezed out. There was much discussion at the symposium about what we might do to prevent or at least slow down this process. We can wring our hands and rail against the destructive forces of the free market. We can argue that social capital has far greater value than financial capital and should be factored into decisions about development. We could argue that local people should be given a stake in the decision making affecting their area. In all of these things we would be right and on the side of the angels. However, as one of the contributors at the workshop succinctly put it, “there is no point expecting lions to become vegetarians”. Developers will do what they do. Pleading to their better nature may influence a few of them, but in the overheated London market the forces of capital will quickly obliterate communities like that which exists around Gillett Square if allowed to do so.

This led to two suggested solutions. The first focused on the role of the local authority and the planning system in making sure that they are not ‘allowed to do so’. We know that the powers of the planning system are limited but there are things that could be done and policies that could be implemented. Furthermore the council, as facilitator and land owner, could actually do quite a lot to protect local diversity. Unfortunately we heard that in some cases councils were doing the opposite to this by taking an aggressive commercial stance on the property that it owns and squeezing out local business in favour of more profitable uses.

The other solution put forward, as one might expect from an area with the history of Dalston, is community ownership. Gillett Square exists because of Hackney Cooperative Developments and its initiative to acquire and develop the square and the surrounding buildings. As a community-controlled company it is no less entrepreneurial that its commercial counterparts but has a different set of values and objectives, maximising value for the community rather than profit for shareholders. As owner of the buildings around the square it can at least protect them from commercial encroachment, but the extent to which this model can be applied more widely is open to question. It is a lot harder today for communities to buy up land to build their own workspace and housing than it was in the 1970s and 80s. Where are the modern equivalents of Hackney Cooperative Developments of the Coin Street Community Builders?

But if planning is not the answer and community ownership is not possible on the scale required, how do we protect the diversity of London? It is after all the reason we love the place and having read urban studies theorist Richard Florida’s previous books the reason for its success. The problem, as Florida repents in his new book ‘The Urban Crisis’, is that the bright young things attracted to places like Dalston and Brixton by their grit and diversity have become the biggest threat to said grit and diversity. The ‘boho class’ that was sold to us as the future of the city is apparently now destroying it! Just as well we have Florida to show us the error of his ways and to give us a solution, except of course that he doesn’t. We will just have to hope that someone else can before it’s all too late.

David Rudlin is chair of The Academy of Urbanism.

This article was first published in BDonline.co.uk

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