In the previous post we examined Mike Tappin’s critique of Stoke-on-Trent’s political leadership and looked at some of his recommendations. Continuing this theme, albeit on a broader canvas, on 14th December I was invited to the Centre for Cities-organised Rebuilding Britain’s Cities: Lessons from the UK and US event at Portcullis House in London to launch their latest report, Grand Designs? A new approach to the built environment in England’s cities. By addressing the thorny issue of regeneration strategy it immediately brought to the fore the problems Mike tackled – of direction, vision, and, most importantly, where the impulse for regeneration would
come from. It was in this vein the discussion’s chair, Stoke Central MP Tristram Hunt, opened with, noting that the government’s spending cuts means there is little or no role the public sector can play in regenerating cities.
The morning’s first speaker was Alexandra Jones, chief executive of Centre for Cities. Grand Designs? set out to assess existing regeneration strategies and asked if they achieved the best possible outcomes for the people and built environment of declining cities. It was also interested in how cities adapted to changing population trends, whether strategies were often political exercises in official optimism, and what lessons can medium-sized cities take on board from elsewhere.
Alexandra observed that populations tend to migrate to clusters of economic activity, which helps explains current population decline in the north of England. But the developmental model this implies, i.e. industrial growth followed by postindustrial depopulation, is not an iron law of economics or anything else. Large cities of the Midlands and the North have bucked this trend to an extent because they have adapted to the new climate.
Why have they been successful while others haven’t? Alexandra suggested that much of the built environment of northern cities is not appropriate to the demands of the postindustrial economy, and neither were some of the regeneration programmes. Centre for Cities found that on the indicators used to measure the predicted positive impacts, nearly half (48%) of physical regeneration projects underperformed. Similarly of economic strategies aimed at revitalising particular areas, 40% failed to meet job creation targets. As a way of illustrating the disconnect between strategy and economic/demographic reality, one such scheme saw the building of 12,000 new properties in Liverpool … while over the same period 5,000 people left the city.
One possible way of coping with city decline is to swim with the tide rather than stubbornly setting one’s face against it. Instead of a ‘build it and they will come’ approach, Alexandra pointed to a number of examples from overseas. Youngstown, Ohio has received attention for its adoption of ‘smart decline’. Rather than planning for growth (in 1950 there were 172,000 inhabitants, by 2000 only 82,000) it has allowed nature to reclaim run down neighbourhoods and is concentrating resources on core infrastructures (see here). Variations on this theme have been tried elsewhere. Flint, Michigan has aggressively moved to demolish vacant properties so public services don’t have to stretch so far. Philadelphia has transformed its vacant lots into green spaces, which in turn has increased land values and seen people beginning to return to what has become a more desirable
Off the back of these exampled and the lessons learned from UK regeneration, Alexandra suggested five guiding principles for regeneration strategies:
a) The built environment must adapt to economic and population change.
b) Strategies must be focused on the best outcomes for people: mega projects are of limited utility.
c) Regeneration needs to be sensitive to and tailored toward the needs of different neighbourhoods within cities.
d) Community engagement is essential and not an optional extra.
e) Circumstances should be kept under constant review: a regeneration process has to have some flexibility built in.
The next speaker was Bruce Katz from the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington DC-based think tank. His talk focused on the experience of South East Michigan and how it is meeting the ‘new economy’. Here there are a number of things going on that lend themselves to regenerating UK cities. The first is the role of philanthropy. In the US there is almost a cultural expectation that business elites “give something back”. In SE Michigan’s case this has assumed the form of a $100m fund raised from the largesse of wealthy philanthropy. This fund is too small to address all the problems of such a vast territory, but what it has been doing is providing grants to new start ups as a means of kick starting the internal economy, of strengthening organic processes of recovery and, hopefully, producing a raft of new businesses with commitments to the region.
Secondly, in the wake of the recession local businesses have been forced to think strategically about the future. Before the 2008 crash, under the conditions of the housing-led consumption bubble the SE Michigan economy could not compete. Now that has collapsed there are a number of advantages it has over places like, say, Las Vegas, who did extremely well under the old model. Key to prospering in the global economy now are design and innovation, advanced manufactories, low carbon and green technologies. If recovery is to be export-led then Detroit, which didn’t look healthy under the previous regime of accumulation, is now very well-placed: it is the 12th largest exporting economy in the United States. Hence regeneration policy now is about repositioning and retooling old industrial cities and making the most of what they’ve got.
Therefore Bruce’s lessons were, firstly, the emphasis on economy. Land interventions – whether demolition, refurbishing housing stock, or building a mega project – must be tied into the economic context. If there is a disconnect then chances are they won’t succeed. Secondly local government and regeneration planners have to think about different economic models. The assumptions underpinning renewal strategies of the boom years are outdated. If export growth is the way out of economic stagnation then appropriate policy responses at the local and regional level have to be developed and implemented.
The morning’s final speaker was Newsnight economics editor (and occasional leftist) Paul Mason. He played a short piece taken from his film on Gary, Indiana. This once-booming industrial city has seen its population fall by half from its 1950s peak to just 100,000 today. On his blog Paul describes Gary as a city “suffering from one of the most advanced cases of urban blight in the developed world. Its city centre is near-deserted by day. The texture of the urban landscape is cracked stone, grass, crumbled brick and buddleia.” Since its heyday deindustrialisation has literally pulled the guts out of the city, leaving it populated by hundreds of abandoned buildings, among which are colleges, schools, and other trappings essential to the infrastructure of any modern city.
For Paul, Gary is locked in a spiral of depopulation and decapitalisation. The collapse of industrial employment triggered the decline, but subsequent depopulation has meant the critical mass of organic social capital isn’t there to help the city help itself. But this is a question of distribution rather than total sum. In most former industrial cities social capital (the cultural ties that bind communities together, make them cohesive, and enable them to do things – see here) have high levels of social capital thanks to the social solidarities that grew up in the previous era. It does tend to be highly localised and often obstructed by the atomisation of populations and, in Gary’s case, high levels of crime and morbidity. Therefore recovery strategies have to think about mobilising and harnessing this capital.
Paul suggested the means of accumulating social capital lends itself to the new economy (at least the creative, innovation-driven side of it). He argued the semi-private spaces of coffee shops, shopping centres, library IT suites, cyber cafes accommodate the nomadic workspaces of those whose working life is, in large measure, portable and dependent on internet access. Whether at work or play these are becoming sites where new social relations are forged in conjunction with the new economy, from which all kinds of real world cultural and business spin offs can emerge. He suggested one way of fostering this sort of micro climate would be for local authorities to open up empty shop fronts for use as informal work spaces.
Tristram then opened the the discussion up to questions. One representative from a city that has been through a successful regeneration process asked how to make the connect between existing “low aspiration” residents and the new hi-tech, high-innovation economy his city has managed to grow? Where does the aspiration to be socially mobile come from? Rupa Huq raised the issue of the place suburbs occupy in regeneration strategies, and observed the official optimism that conditions all projects is an effect of politics, of the need to promise the electorate a pot of gold at the end of the regeneration rainbow. But often this flies in the face of realities local governments face. In my contribution, I picked up on Paul Mason’s argument and said his concern with social capital is focused on the working and middles classes (from which his new intellectual workers are overwhelmingly drawn), but what
about the level of elites? They network among themselves but how to get their accumulation of social capital to trickle down to contribute to the cultural renewal of declining cities? Is it possible?
On suburbs Alexandra Jones replied that, generally speaking, big employers tend to locate in or very near a city centre because of its amenities. She cited one example where, during the construction boom, one company threw up grade A office space in a suburban location and has since remained empty. Therefore building projects have to be tailored to people and economics, otherwise it’s a waste of time. But she fully agreed with Rupa on optimism. There is a conflict between the realistic, pragmatic approach to regeneration and its politics. As difficult local authorities and politicians may find it, some honesty has to be injected into the expectations they project. On local elites, Bruce Katz recommended trying to pool what philanthropy exists and suggested universities play a good role in facilitating this. And on aspiration, Paul Mason reiterated his points on social capital, calling for more ‘local capital markets’ where this can grow.
There was an awful lot to digest from this session and a great many things that could inform regeneration policy in Stoke. Like other industrial cities its population has been in measured but long term decline. There have been clearances of old terraces but without the building of new commensurate homes. Instead there was, until recently, a move to provide the sorts of identikit urban flats as well as modern three and four bed room semis and detached housing. Before the housing pathfinder scheme was junked by government cuts there were more plans for more new builds of this type. Now this is not going to be built for the foreseeable future, the Stoke-on-Trent city scape is blighted with voids. Small wonder Matthew Rice, MD of local pottery firm Emma Bridgewater, recently compared the local built environment to Helmand province. And, at present, there
is nothing coming from the City Council on what should be done with these sites. That is apart from planting down clovers to keep the ground uneven so kids don’t play on them (for arcane legal reasons, of course).
There there are our own mega projects. A hypermodern campus for Stoke Sixth Form College has recently opened on Leek Road, and next door to it Staffs University are building a science and technology innovation centre. These do seem like the sort of things the city needs, especially as the latter will be part and parcel of the university’s continued commitment to providing ‘incubation units’ for graduate start ups. But the other mega project due to arrive – a new bus station in Hanley (current one pictured) – appears to suffer the hubris that comes with building-led regeneration. Its replacement, which looks swish and modern, apparently promises to bring more investment into the city. As welcome as a replacement for the awful and shabby bus station is, I am worried there is more than a soupÃƒ§on of official optimism swirling
around. For starters which ever way you arrive at the bus station you have to first go through the aforementioned blighted lands and derelict properties. When your official gateway is prefaced by devastation will potential investors come away with a favourable impression? As for utility, it will certainly create the space to improve Stoke’s public mass transit and, who knows, perhaps it might win a major architectural prize, but does it meet the city’s current and likely future needs? I’m not entirely convinced.
This returns us to the question of political leadership. If Stoke (or any other city in a similar position) is to be renewed, questions have to be asked about what kind of regeneration it wants, what economic advantages it has that can be capitalised on in the new climate, what can be done to sponsor “homegrown” growth and, ultimately, what is the realistic assessment of its prospects. I think Stoke’s transport links, pottery industry, social solidarities, and growing educational capacity are grounds for optimism. Even the space left by clearances could be turned to its advantage. But unless the city intelligently, creatively, carefully, and pragmatically addresses the challenges facing it, there’s every danger the promise of a regenerated Stoke-on-Trent is one that goes unfulfilled.