Some thoughts on urban regeneration today

Predicting and creating the future are two sides of the same coin. We need to, if not predict, then to imagine and describe the future we want to create. Better jobs, a cleaner city, more local people in employment – these describe the what, but not the how.

The ‘how’ of urban regeneration is changing. Property-led growth in urban land values, fuelled by international capital flows, is reaching its limit. London is thought to still have room for further growth, but the inequality strain will snap at some point soon, and other UK cities have already peaked.

A market correction / crisis is widely expected, but investor sentiment always believes it will ride the wave and happily bail just before the peak falls. Saying there is froth in the market actually encourages them in, believing they will outwit other naive people.

So, beyond relying on double-digit rising land values into the future, what is the strategy now?

To some extent, the strategy to date has been post-rationalised. In Manchester it was music – Factory Records – and lofts in and around the gay village – Urban Splash – and visual culture – Granada TV – that made the city centre “vibrant” again, a word that is now estate agents code for public drunkenness. The money saw the Manchester urban wave growing, but it didn’t create it.

The recipe for urban renewal has some general ingredients – youth, risk, questioning, a constantly-new mix of cultures, room to fail and start again anyway, and shoestring ways of taking a punt. Manchester adds a powerful tolerance for diversity and difference, usually, though recent trends are a worry. Angela Merkel is the political leader best showing tolerance between communities currently.

The Victorians pretty much invented the modern city government, even as they ignored heritage. The Romans only cared for roads and water courses, and these days we are becoming more Roman than Victorian.

Public libraries, swimming baths, clean water, parks, housing standards, school boards and inspectors, tramways, and the like. Who is now re-inventing local government for our age? The fundamentals of health, of education, of working environments, of housing, of culture, need a visionary creative group of people to think – how shall we all do this now? Devolution is a good start, but it is about working the old model a bit better, fewer internal contradictions, etc.

We need to devolve the old, but more importantly we need to evolve our new. Original. Modern.

 

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