A renaissance for regeneration - RSA

A renaissance for regeneration


  • Picture of Liz Wrigley FRSA
    Liz Wrigley FRSA
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How has the word regeneration come to be so hated? The word ‘regeneration’ is now reviled, as Jonathan Schifferes’ blog states, but not all ‘re’ words have such a bad atmosphere: renew, recover, repair, even re-upholster are all words seen as part of the rediscovery of values of austerity garnered from an imagined 1950s ‘vintage’ Britain. Reusing things is seen as good. As a nurse from Guys and St Thomas’ hospital said in an interview recently, “repair has the meaning of joining things back together”, and when people get together to stitch back something torn it has a sense of a communal, shared outcome.

So why is regeneration not generally seen in this positive life-affirming light? A good regeneration scheme surely is one that renews areas, stitches them back into the urban fabric of surrounding streets and paths, recovers lost and undervalued buildings and artefacts, and provides a base for new communities to work in together to make their own.

The key outcome in the reuse of areas of land, however, is seen as a rise in land value, to reflect the new activities on the land. It is this land value factor, and the way it drives the process that seems to be explosive in a bad way. Are we simply in a mad scramble to add economic value for someone at the expense of others?

Ports and railyards became redundant

But of course regeneration historically happened in vast decaying areas with zero or negative value, due to changes in trade and technology. For example, ships got larger and the change to container trade led to acres of riverside in upstream ports being abandoned. Their reuse for a variety of housing, cultural and educational uses was seen as positive. Much the same pattern of desertion is true for abandoned railyards as trade changed from rail to road, so the shunting yards, coal yards and railheads for commodity storage in the centre of towns became irrelevant.  Examples are the land behind Kings Cross Station and the vast Stratford Rail Lands that became the Olympic Park and Westfield Shopping Mall as well as new homes and business areas.

The rise and rise of land values

So why is there disquiet? It was something said by a councillor in Southwark at a recent ‘planning hustings’ that gives a clue to that degree of helplessness implied in the fear of regeneration: as land values rise, he said, market forces will dictate that those who pay lower rents will have to move elsewhere. It has the inexorable quality of a rising tide, a lunar force that no human can resist. Documents what is ‘lost’ when existing communities – residential and business networks – are displaced, and campaigning to resist displacement, have been counter-veiling themes in academic work and activism. The RSA is currently investigating the challenges of retaining small-scale manufacturing and making in London.

Eventually, across a whole city, will it be that low value uses have to be permanently state subsidised, or subsidised through courting favour with foundations patronised by those possessing the wealth?

The planning system ought to be able to set the requirements that would in turn dampen this upward surge in the land values. However, it is important to recognise there are also environmental costs to this coexistence: entertainment and industry could coexist with homes if they could be contained so the noise, air pollution, fumes and traffic does not spill out. The legislation exists to do this but some means of funding the required attention to quality is needed, and the devil, as Mies van de Rohe said, is in the detail.

So can we rehabilitate the regeneration concept to bring in people and nature?

The most famous ‘re’ word for its effect on a whole civilisation is perhaps Renaissance, meaning re-birth or reawakening, as this involved the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman classical works and the embellishment of Rome with fountains and statues to make it a city fit for the modern era. Art, architecture, technology and literature were all directly affected, and it is often said that a new interest in the health of the human body was a core value of the art of the time. Cities obtained a rebirth with the introduction of connected streets, squares, piazzas and parks.

It would be surely a good outcome if we can rehabilitate the concept of “regeneration” so that it could mark a new period for an equally fundamental reawakening, where we rediscover values essential to continuing human life. We could ensure we are mixing communities of living and working, and bringing nature and people back in contact, include industry, artists spaces and wildlife areas, rediscover the need for fountains, running water, play spaces, clean air, contemplation places, places to grow food in, providing places for trees to shade us, for soil that locks up carbon, and make room for all the other aspects of civilisation we have so nearly totally thrown out of our regeneration projects.

It is accepted in economic theory that markets are failing when they do not reflect societal value. Nothing is as important to our civilisation as the land we live on. If markets in land use don’t reflect the attributes of cities and neighbourhoods that make them civilised and inclusive places for society, then we must rethink how we, as society, use market forces to regenerate land.

Elizabeth Wrigley FRSA is an urban designer and planner, with an MBA. She has worked with architects, with communities and with businesses on change in urban areas at many scales. At the Civic Trust she started the Building for Life project, and as a founder member of the new Garden City Alliance Elizabeth is arguing for a rehumanisation of our city developments, recalling the humanities focus on the 15th century Renaissance city programmes introduced.

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