Stop this ‘urban regeneration’ roadshow

We need some tall thinking on city planning.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

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James Woudhuysen, professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, will be speaking at the forthcoming spiked-seminar From urban regeneration to social engineering?. Here he outlines his views.

European Commission president José Manuel Barroso proposes that the European Union give France €50million for the regeneration of towns hit by this winter’s riots. London, adorned and beset by major projects – Heathrow’s Terminal Five and, in 2012, a new Terminal Two; Wembley Stadium; the Olympics; Thames Gateway – fears that it lacks a proper centre for business conferences. Meanwhile, Dublin plans a convention centre of its own, for a cool €400million, in the Irish capital’s Spencer Docks area, which for five years has been surrounded by controversy.

Welcome to yet another round of what geographers call inter-urban competition. That’s a bit like the competition between commercial companies, but in some ways even more mindless.

On the one hand, UK deputy prime minister John Prescott continues to fulminate against urban sprawl. It suits him to follow the conventional wisdom. First, you play on the population’s very real and proper contempt for the high-rise, low-quality housing of the past. Then you propose, with a boosterish determinism, that better, mixed-use architecture and design, built on brownfield sites to high densities, is the way to regenerate any urban area. In addition you propose that the physical construction of architectural, playful and cultural grands projets, despite the failure of a number of visitor attractions funded by the National Lottery, can establish the milieu and ambience to foster jobs and local growth, attract foreign direct investment, business travellers and tourists, enthuse a city’s locals, and help counter social problems such as exclusion, unemployment and crime.

It is all inspiring stuff, in principle. There are the temples of art, the monuments to ball games, and the possibility of a £200million casino in Glasgow. But there is a darker side to today’s attempts to make cities feel good. At home and abroad, there is a conformism in international city planning that numbs the mind.

The celebrity architect Frank Gehry is not just working, perhaps with the actor Brad Pitt, on a major new development for Hove, on Britain’s south coast. As early as December 2003, Wired magazine showed a map of no fewer than 10 urban regeneration projects in the USA that featured some kind of Gehry extravaganza (1). And although Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, has indeed helped reverse some of that city’s decline as a port, British experts are fed up with this method of dealing with problems.

On 22 and 23 February 2006, Earls Court exhibition centre, London, will host the delightfully named Regenex conference, at which Jack Pringle, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, will proclaim that ‘Settings not icons make cities’ (2). Design guru John Thackara and urban consultant Charles Landry inveigh against European city councils’ persistent resort to urban spectacles and heritage attractions (3). From China, creative entrepreneur Philip Dodd brings other news that can only cause consternation among the city fathers of the West. Dodd quotes Desmond Hui, director of Culture and Creative Clusters, a Hong Kong-based research consultancy. In China, Hui says, ‘every province, town and city is developing a cultural and creative industries policy’. The scale of the government’s commitment in this matter, Hui concludes, ‘cannot be overestimated’ (4).

Even more cultural quarters

So China’s 78 cities with more than half a million inhabitants, and its five provinces with more than 50million people, are preparing their answers to Baltimore’s old formula of cute waterfront shops, or Liverpool’s projected £65million waterfront Museum of Liverpool. Culture is commoditised, and becomes the oh-so-valuable substance of urban space and urban wealth creation.

In Britain, creative industries and cultural consumption already get a good talking up by central government, concerned with national economic policy. But they also still get a rapturous reception from city councils and the whole apparatus of local government. A century ago, Britain had ‘gas-and-water’ municipal socialists, whose most radical gesture was to take the supply of local household utilities into public ownership. Today we have spatial-cultural determinists, who believe that giving a spatial twist to artistic, recreational and educational pursuits is the key to urban regeneration and, more than that, economic revival.

They miss the point. In 2005 you cannot, as economic professor Richard Florida famously has suggested, squeeze urban competitive advantage on the world economy through getting a diverse ‘creative class’ to dynamise a city through its ideas (5). This gets the direction of causality entirely wrong.

A city becomes prosperous because of the size and productivity of all its economic sectors. A city’s fate depends also, quite obviously, on the performance of the national economy that surrounds it. To devote so much effort to one rather small and indistinct sector – creative and cultural industries – is to push water uphill. It is a habit that does little for local living standards, and instead only flatters urban planners. Do we really believe that a museum district will shower riches on local inhabitants? Or is what happens in workplaces the more central determinant of urban regeneration?

Take Manchester’s imposing Victorian architecture, for instance. That architecture was a product of Empire, not a prime mover in it. Architecture and, say, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, did boost the confidence of British imperialism, and no doubt brought a modest increase in trade. But today, urban elites really scrape the bottom of the barrel when they see the sources of wealth creation in chic interiors, glistening façades and smart streetscapes.

Of course even a ‘regenerated’ urban district is often preferable to the run-down estates of the past. But the fact is that the world’s cities face even more cultural quarters. Birmingham has Jewellery Quarter. Glasgow has Merchant City and an associated festival. Cardiff has tried with Cardiff Bay. Gateshead may get a design centre.

These manoeuvres signal the recycling of an idea, not the regeneration of a city. The top architect Lord Richard Rogers has just confirmed as much. In 1999, Rogers’ Urban Taskforce report to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) hoped that Britain was moving Towards an Urban Renaissance. Now, six years later, and in the company of Professor Anne Power of the London School of Economics, representatives of the National Trust and the Greater London Authority, and others, Rogers has a fresh Urban Taskforce report out, titled Towards a Strong Urban Renaissance. And Rogers’ latest discoveries are equally novel. High-density housing is the answer, and greenfield developments such as the Thames gateway are a bad idea. Instead, our old cultural friend, Barcelona, should be the model for British urban regeneration.

Where space is important

There can be no talk of genuine urban regeneration if our conception of space, the beloved object of postmodernist commentary on cities, remains fundamentally cramped. Right now, the ODPM boasts that it has exceeded its targets for the proportion of housing that is built on brownfield land. But as UK property specialists Savills have pointed out, the ODPM’s estimates for the amount of brownfield available are optimistic – especially in south-east England. What’s more, Savills adds, no fewer than 127 residential tower blocks higher than 20 storeys are planned or already under construction in the UK, and their average height is up from 24 storeys in 2004 to 27 in 2005 (6).

Nobody in favour of real urban vitality can object, in principle, to high-density, high-rise forms of development. Hong Kong stands as an example to us all. But the fact is that the government campaign for brownfield development, inspired by Lord Rogers, pens people into a bogus, cheek-by-jowl ‘community’ – in which speculators develop yuppy ghettoes, and absurd prices for broom-cupboards in urban centres freeze out first-time buyers and parents of children alike.

Britain cannot go on this way. The constraints on greenfield housing development can only be constraints on urban regeneration. Of course we should build our cities upwards; but we should also build them sideways. There’s plenty of space available to do that.

Of course, speculative property developers can wreak havoc, in greenfield schemes as much as in high-rise brownfield ones. But that is only because the UK’s archaic planning system restricts land supply. It is the state, backed by environmentalists, that restricts planning permissions. Through urban planners, the state subjects every square inch of land, in principle, to a conservation order. Any kind of urban development is, in this sense, guilty until proved innocent, and certainly a candidate for a public enquiry.

It is the state that creates a market for financial speculation in property, and declares each speck of space to be ‘natural capital’, or ‘territorial capital’ – the gritty hard stuff that complements the equally trendy categories of human capital and social capital. By arbitrarily regulating who gets what in urban space, the state underpins the whole phenomenon of property speculation. And as if that is not enough, the state compounds its control over land with intrusion into every personal aspect of housing and property markets.

Behaviour control

For the UK government, regeneration cannot be pursued for its own sake, or through a commitment to build millions more houses. Regeneration must be attacked only indirectly – through the Olympics, or through Treasury efforts to get the 2018 soccer World Cup staged in England (7). Any cavilling at this sportif way of going about regeneration can be represented as anti-social.

It is the same with housing. Where once there were local authorities that build houses, we now have local authorities imposing anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs). And not just local authorities: housing minister Yvette Cooper wants Arms Length Management Organisations (ALMOs), Tenant Management Organisations (TMOs) and those managing housing as part of Private Finance Initiative schemes to have the same power to issue ASBOs (8). This is certainly an indirect way of assuring urban regeneration; but it is direct enough in terms of imposing an authoritarian atmosphere on Britain’s streets.

Through housing and property in general, government makes land and buildings into a key financial instrument, establishes new points of contact with people, and interferes more with their private lives. In housing it discriminates in favour of first-time buyers, and offers tied cottages to 12 different kinds of ‘key’ workers – including the police, police community support officers, British Transport Police and…urban planners. And there is more:

from 6 April 2006, a national scheme for self-invested personal pensions (SIPPs) will inveigle the middle classes to stake part of their pensions on the vagaries of the property market;

through the May 2006 Finance Act, real estate investment trusts (REITs) will likely encourage small investors to buy into commercial property (9);

from 1 June 2007, sellers of houses will have to pay £600 plus VAT so they can present house buyers with standard Home Information Packs, complete with Home Condition Reports and backed up with a certification scheme and perhaps as many as 7400 Home Inspectors (10);

from London Bridge, London, to the rural town of Keswick in Cumbria, unelected local firms have, with government backing, established Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), so as to bring extra security measures to city streets (11);

unelected Regional Development Agencies ensure that local development is everywhere subject to ‘general conformity with the regional spatial strategy or spatial development strategy’ (12).

Property is not the only sector in which today’s creative urban strategists in government engage in behaviour control. The Department for Transport plans to clamp yet more motorists wherever they are, for parking offences committed years ago (13). That shows how the real urban innovations today are in the types of urban ball and chain with which to bind people, not in the technologies of physical mobility. A government that is hostile to popular movement, that approves of charging motorists for the privilege of a drive into London and wants to do the same in other cities, that wants to impose taxes on inter-urban air passengers – such a government cannot revive our cities.

In a manner rather distinct from previous initiatives in urban regeneration, today’s are more concerned with social engineering than they are with the engineering that goes on in factories, business services, civil infrastructure or architecture. The central text of British ‘garden city’ urban planning, Ebenezer Howard’s To-morrow: the peaceful path to real reform (1898), proposed separate farms for a minority of epileptics. Today we are not allowed gardens, but instead are told that every tightly packed High Street must boast a school that’s a nursery, centre for parenting skills and police station all rolled into one. As Metropolitan Police chief Sir Ian Blair could have put it in his recent call for a national ‘debate’ on the need for a shoot-to-kill policy, the police are more and more seen as the universal agency for frontline urban regeneration.

A different kind of ‘clone town Britain’

What today’s creative urbanists oppose is not social engineering by the state, but a genetic engineering they lay at the door of big shops. Thus the influential New Economics Foundation (NEF) sees supermarket chains making every High Street in Britain a clone of every other one (14). Often ASDA, with its hateful US parent, Wal-Mart, is indicted: in her NEF ‘alternative’ Mansion House speech earlier this year, Stacy Mitchell, author of The Hometown Advantage: How to Defend Your Main Street Against Chain Stores and Why It Matters, asked whether Wal-Mart would eat Britain (15). But in a long item on 15 November 2005, BBC2’s Newsnight also attacked Britain’s own Tesco plc for appealing against local planning decisions that go against it.

All this is about as radical as another BBC2 programme, also shown on 15 November, titled Making Slough Happy. Here, among other New Age quack remedies for urban regeneration, a psychologist tried to regenerate benighted Slough by taking volunteers camping, and a therapist engaged people in song.

The real cloning that is afoot, however, goes further than that brought by retailers. Jobs with retailers are samey, but, as Newsnight had to point out, Tesco has at least brought 250 of them to the long-term unemployed of the desolate district of Seacroft, Leeds. The real cloning is in ‘creative’ urban strategy, which is unbendingly the same from Inverness to Penzance. And here two of the main sources of inspiration are drawn from impeccable advocates of American capitalism. The first is Robert F Kennedy; the second, Harvard university professor Michael J Porter.

Throughout his political career, Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother, believed that a new law, and a new lick of paint on the face of the ghetto, could regenerate cities and free them of poverty and racism. On the eve of Thanksgiving, 1961, JFK’s administration, with RFK as Attorney General, enacted an executive order simply banning racial discrimination in housing. After his brother’s murder in 1963, RFK became senator for the state of New York, and established the still-extant Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation to improve living conditions and jobs in depressed black areas of Brooklyn. RFK sponsored an amendment of the Economic Opportunity Act to provide for a ‘special impact’ channelling of federal development aid into urban poverty areas. In motorcades and speeches through America’s skid rows, he made urban poverty a chief concern of his 1968 election campaign, as America’s inner cities burned.

Today’s RFK’s tradition is continued by his son, RFK Jr, a prominent campaigner in the field of urban ecology. But what has been the real legacy of RFK Sr? It is the belief that space-based, community self-help, local partnership with private-sector firms, and affirmative action in local government, can revive run-down urban areas. That same formula, with appropriate architectural details, sums up nearly every initiative in urban regeneration, both in the USA and in Europe, for more than 40 years.

From Harvard, and beginning in 1990 with his seminal The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Michael E Porter has won a worldwide audience of city planners for his embellishments on the RFK doctrine. Porter, famed for advising US firms how to beat their rivals, inspired today’s New Labour urban panaceas a full decade ago. As early as 1995, he wanted an inner-city regime of:

wages of $6-10 an hour;

training schemes to be certificated not by the state, but by the corporation;

community groups to prepare, screen and refer employees to local businesses – and to train people in ‘communication, self-development, and workplace practices’;

the police to protect firms, as in inner-city Atlanta;

locally recruited supermarket employees and their neighbours to act as a kind of Neighbourhood Watch, as in inner-city Boston (16).

This is what Blairites today endorse as a ‘multi-agency’ approach to urban regeneration. Without exception, their radical critics clone that approach, add a few Green mutations (usually Bill Dunster’s endlessly cited BedZed, a set of zero-emissions back-to-back houses), and still bemoan the demise of the twee shopping lanes of their dreams.

Toward other options

For the urban regenerator of 2005, the world’s multiplying cultural quarters are the indispensable counterpoint to the global networked knowledge economy. The professional urbanist scratches around for any solution to economic development, so long as it doesn’t have too much to do with major investments in workplace R&D, innovation, roadbuilding, and manufacturing – including the manufacture of houses. Yet it is these things that are needed.

Perhaps they are coming. In Liverpool, the Merseyside Special Investment Fund (MSIF) has established a new pot of £26.7million to back individuals, academics and businesses with ideas, technology and innovations. It will offer up to £100,000, £350,000 and £750,000, respectively, at the stages of proof of concept, commercialisation and first-round venture capital. The Liverpool Seed Fund contains £20million European Objective One money, plus cash from the MSIF, Barclays and the Co-operative Bank (17).

It is thought to be one of the largest funds of its kind in Europe. But, estimable though it is, the Liverpool Seed Fund represents a very small part of what is needed if urban innovation is to be anything more than the ability to relax with a place-centred cappuccino.

Nor are the barriers to genuine urban regeneration simply economic; they are cultural, too. By the standards of the early twenty-first century, the conservative Victorians of the nineteenth century stand revealed as urban radicals. Their pattern-books for industry and for house sizes, together with their no-nonsense organisation of utilities and transport, were grounded and systematic.

And yet there is hope. Recently, I put it to the chief executive of one of Britain’s major regional cities that his local port should be revived to ferry in and put together, on production lines, the housing sub-assemblies that China could well start exporting to Britain in the next 10-20 years. Bring those low-cost, high-quality manufactures in, do some further engineering on them, and transport them to the local countryside to house the region’s inhabitants in spacious, all-weather homes that do not demand massive mortgages. Then encourage those people to borrow against those homes, and so start their own wealth-creating businesses.

Many of Britain’s cities are ports. In my naive framework, then, many UK cities could make several gains: revive dockland areas in line with the explosion of world trade, regain skills and jobs in local engineering, install great but inexpensive houses, and accelerate new firm formation.

A blue-sky fantasy? Perhaps. But not as blue sky as the idea that yet another piece of cultural and behavioural engineering can turn around a place such as, say, Middlesbrough.

The chief executive surprised me. Instead of showing me the door, he listened intently, smiled, and said: ‘Hmmm. Keep thinking ideas like that!’ – and then showed me the door, all the same. Secretly, perhaps, he had, like me, lost his patience with today’s trendy Kings of Infinite Space.

Perhaps he felt that work, not parks and piazzas, could really regenerate his town.

James Woudhuysen is speaking at the spiked-seminar From urban regeneration to social engineering? in central London on the evening of Thursday 8 December 2005. Book tickets online here or by phone on +44 (0)20 7269 9234.

Visit his website at

(1) Elizabeth Cha, ‘All roads lead to Gehry’, Wired, December 2003, pp46-47

(2) See

(3) John Thackara, In the bubble: designing in a complex world, MIT Press, 2005, pp75

(4) Desmond Hui, quoted in Philip Dodd, ‘A very different cultural revolution’, Financial Times, 1 November 2005

(5) See Richard Florida The rise of the creative class – and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life, Basic Books, 2002; Florida, The flight of the creative class, HarperBusiness, 2005. For a sympathetic critique from the Institute of Public Policy Research, see Max Nathan, The wrong stuff: creative class theory, diversity and city performance, Centre for cities discussion paper No 1, and on the ippr website

(6) Almost half of the towers are in the London area, but the areas seeing the fastest growth in high-rise projects are the North West, North East and Yorkshire and Humberside. Together these northern regions have seen their share of planned towers rising from 24 per cent last year to 43 per cent in 2005, with Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool showing the way. See Savills, Land issues: future residential development land supply, Research, No 4, Autumn 2005, here; and UK planning 127 towers, Building, issue 44, 4 November 2005

(7) First step taken to World Cup bid, BBC News

(8) ODPM, Enabling local authorities to contract their Anti-Social Behaviour Order functions to organisations managing their housing stock, consultation paper, 9 November 2005, and on
ODPM website

(9) HM Treasury, UK Real Estate Investment Trusts: a discussion paper, 16 March 2005, and on treasury website

(10) Home Information Packs “go-live” date announced, ODPM, ODPM News Release 2005/0233, 17 November 2005

(11) See National BIDs Advisory Service, ‘What’s new’

(12) ODPM, Planning policy statement 12: local development frameworks, 2004, p38

(13) Ben Webster, ‘Thousands of drivers face clamping for old offences’, The Times, 17 November 2005

(14) Andrew Simms, Petra Kjell and Ruth Potts, Clone town Britain: the survey results on the bland state of the nation, New Economics Foundation, 6 June 2005

(15) Stacy Mitchell, Will Wal-Mart eat Britain?, New Economics Foundation, 26 April 2005

(16) Michael E Porter, ‘The competitive advantage of the inner city’, Harvard Business Review, May-June 1995.

(17) MSIF, ‘Launch of new £27M Merseyside Fund to turn ideas into businesses’, 27 September 2005

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