Journal / Where now for urbanism?

exmouth_pp copy 2Words by Sarah Chaplin AoU, Evolver Llp
First published: Journal 1, 2012

Everyone is saying it’s going to be a long time before we see any significant new investment in our towns and cities, but we’ve been all too aware of how much urban regeneration there is still left to do since the economy came crashing down. With a Government committed to cuts and austerity measures to try and get us back on track, and inevitably huge caution amongst the UK’s main developers and housebuilders, where does this leave us?

Is there anything that we as urbanists in our different capacities could be doing to help move things along? How do we read the warning signs, and what are our predictions for the future of place?

I put this to six Academicians, who encompassed a range of professional spheres, to see what new light they had to shed on our current predicament and our future prospects. I asked them what they saw as the major stumbling block right now to any sort of urban regeneration project happening. I was interested to know what if anything we could be doing right now as professionals to help stimulate or foster activity more proactively. I also wanted to see what they all thought our relationship to place would be like in say ten years’ time. Lastly, I asked them what new practices or measures they thought needed to be implemented right now in order to make a difference, however small.

Their responses, gathered together overleaf, reveal a telling story. Whilst we have a diverse membership, and these six individuals’ roles and expertise reflect this, their interpretations of what’s happening were remarkably consistent and at the same time specific to their unique relationships to urbanism. It’s left me thinking that while each of us is seeking to influence the future of placemaking in positive ways, it’s going to take our combined efforts to ensure that urban regeneration is not a stalled project.

The Panel:

Robert Adam (RA), Principal, Robert Adam Architects
Jim Coleman (JC), Head of Economics, Happold Consulting Ltd
Paul Hildreth (PH), Visiting Policy Fellow, Salford University
Barra Mac Ruairi (BMR), Bristol City Council
Lora Nicolaou (LN), former Director of Urban Strategies at DEGW
Julia Unwin (JU), Chief Executive, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Question 1
What is the major stumbing block?

RA: It has a lot to do with land assembly problems – this holds up a good many projects, coupled with the dire lack of finance, and I have to say it is not helped by the baffling complexity of the planning process.
JC: The primary one without a doubt is funding, but we’re also facing a serious lack of innovation, from the top down – currently there is a vacuous policy platform combined with poor leadership.
PH: To start with, the policy process is flawed – it’s just not up to dealing with the spikier world we live in now – there’s no real effort going into rebalancing the economy and everything is too piecemeal.

BMR: The support for change has gone, and the shift away from targets makes everything more tentative, plus there are conflicts between national and local spheres of action. There’s still shock in the system.
LN: I see the main problem as a lack of urgency for local projects now – only the big interenational projects are getting funded, and this is an issue of short-sighted short-termism when what we need is long term investment.
JU: The real underlying issue is that there is no emphasis on promoting and prioritising jobs for the 18-24 cohort, ensuring ongoing deep and persistent poverty, plus our ageing society needs a new approach.

Question 2
What can we as urbanists do?

RA: One place to start would be to simplify the urban regeneration tools at our disposal, with a view to making all our masterplans, design codes, and the whole planning process much more streamlined and straightforward.
JC: Given the dearth of compelling new ideas out there, to get things going we perhaps need to think in terms of giving something away for free, instead of waiting to be commissioned by clients.
PH: We should all do our level best to encourage consistent investment over a long time  frame, promoting more discussion around the spatial economy, and housebuilders to develop not hoard land.

BMR: We could do a lot more if we focused on reusing the places that are still alive and kicking, enabling ownership to be real, and on the ground initiatives to
find their feet more easily – like Group 91 did in Dublin.
LN: We need to maintain the campaign for quality, work hard to change people’s aspirations, shift the focus to more cheap refurb and renew projects and quick wins, and train the next generation to box clever.
JU: We need to align our thinking much more towards poverty alleviation rather than making pretty places for our clients. And we should be exploring ways of making dementia-friendly cities.

Question 3
What will our relationship to place be in 10 years time?

RA: As macro economics and global, even national politics feel increasingly more remote, this will have the effect of making home and our local neighbourhoods more and more important – people will learn to value and love what’s on their doorstep much more.
JC: The plus side might be we see more local independent actions, making places seem more distinctive. On the downside this effect will be extremely uneven across the country – places that fare best being in the already wealthy pockets
PH: The thing we’ll notice most in ten years time will be the worrying disparities in terms of rich and poor places – the long-term effects of this recession will be divisive, and only bottom up organic change will produce any respite. 

BMR: Given an emergent culture of frugality, in ten years’ time people will have a much more realistic sense of what land is worth, and an improved sense of stewardship – looking after their places better and reporting on them in new ways or media. 
LN: Places will experience fewer visitors as we travel less in our leisure time, and the attention will no longer be on what’s luxury, but on what’s necessary. No high quality new places will have been built, making those that are very valuable commodities.
JU: Ten years down the line we will have an even more ageing society – meaning we will be using space in different ways. We will also think about places differently – because social networks will have transformed our relationship to place. 

Question 4
What new measures should be implemented now to get things moving?

RA: While we have time to take stock, we should commit more time to understanding the nature of place – cultural as well as physical – which requires better links between our disciplines.
PH: The watchword here has to be integration: there needs to be more effort put into achieving effective joined-up goals and into approaching projects with a true spirit of multidisciplinarity.
PH: This has got to be aimed at facilitating genuine devolution of decision-making to the local level, and cultivating a mindset towards patient long term returns on investing in placemaking.

BMR: We need to introduce some simple stimuli – such as the removal of business rates inside city centres, allowing alternative uses for derelict sites, or starting a regeneration academy, like the one in Bradford.
LN: Under a regime of cutbacks and hardship, any measures that allow us to be more creative with funding and fundraising, and achieve small temporary transformations has to be a bonus.
JU: Any new measures that are geared towards acknowledging and acting in the light of social media networking, so that what we get is social placemaking not just social capital.

Image: Exmouth Market, The Great Street of the Year 2011
Installation: Non-stop Forest
© Suzi Winstanley

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