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The Base Guide to Urban Regeneration

03/10/2022

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The Base Guide to Urban Regeneration

What is urban regeneration?

Urban regeneration (or urban renewal as it can also be known), involves the targeted use of public and private funding to regenerate a specific area of a town or city by making purposeful changes in the built environment as part of a larger master plan.  It focuses on urban areas that are known to be experiencing higher levels of deprivation than the rest of the local population or that are in a state of decline.  Urban regeneration seeks to create new opportunities both for the local community and individuals and businesses looking to invest in the area by repurposing underused or redundant land and buildings in a wholesale transformational intervention.  Urban regeneration has at its heart an ambition to increase prosperity and in turn improve people’s quality of life by reducing social inequalities in these areas.

 

Private businesses involved in urban regeneration must usually form partnerships with local authorities and a variety of other government bodies in order to achieve their goals.  They work together in a joint endeavour to address long-term, endemic problems through the creation of new mixed-use spaces that include new buildings and infrastructure as well as new areas of the public realm.

 

The local authority can be both the client, commissioner, and arbiter of an urban regeneration scheme, playing a significant role in improving outcomes for local people, fostering growth and promoting sustainability alongside exemplifying excellent design. However it cannot do it alone, and for a regeneration scheme to be delivered successfully it is key that excellent working relationships with others are fostered, alongside agreed terms of reference, contracts and timescales.  By working in this way the collective whole (as a public/private partnership) can achieve more than the sum of its parts.

 

How did urban regeneration come about?

The understanding that the market could have a role to play in regenerating areas in decline was borne out of UK governmental economic policy during the 1970s, which recognised that the key to regenerating deprived and decaying areas lay in economic renewal and development.  Local government budgets had already been stripped back significantly at this time, thereby creating a need for and reliance upon the market to step in and interact with the public sector in a meaningful way.

 

To this end, successive Conservative governments from 1979 developed many urban policy initiatives to promote this ambition of public/private sector working that would generate capital investment, including Urban Development Corporations, Enterprise Zones, and the Single Regeneration Budget.  Later efforts in the nineties and early 2000s under New Labour built on these urban regeneration strategies by bringing in the New Deal for Communities, as well as the creation of Regional Development Agencies, Social Inclusion Units, Local Strategic Partnerships and the Housing Market Renewal Initiative, to name a few. 

 

The global financial crisis and UK recession of 2008-2009 did much to hamper progress in urban renewal, however notable successes have been heralded in several UK cities, most notably in east London as a result of the massive investment prompted by the 2012 Olympics.  The coalition government of 2010-2015 developed the Northern Powerhouse agenda which boosted investment through regeneration in the northern cities of Liverpool, Nottingham, Leeds, Newcastle and Manchester and the current government has sought to continue this focus through its Levelling Up agenda.

 

So why is urban regeneration important?

Regeneration is not simply redevelopment. An effective urban renewal project will have sustainability at its core, in line with the seventeen United Nations sustainable development goals which the UK government signed up to in 2015. LINK? Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)  It will diversify the local economy of the defined regeneration area by bringing together development across a variety of mixed uses that typically incorporates retail opportunities, eateries, commercial uses, community spaces, schools, workplaces and homes alongside public spaces. It will blend architectural innovation with urban design and in so doing will also take into account any existing constraints and statutory requirements which might include, for example, preserving built heritage, promoting green travel routes, increasing biodiversity, utilising sustainable urban drainage systems and maximising opportunities for renewables and energy efficiency measures, alongside achieving locally-set open market and affordable housing targets as defined in the local plan for the wider area.

 

Urban regeneration, even when on a modest scale, is important because it promotes enduring economic, social, cultural and environmental change through investment and the creation of new jobs and homes, in turn improving an area’s usability, liveability and accessibility.  It has the potential to bring about real and lasting change to both the area itself and the lives of the people that live and work in it.

 

What are its impacts?

In the long term, the new employment opportunities that urban regeneration brings should help to reduce worklessness and promote local economic growth, whilst also raising the status of an area and helping to generate collective ambition and self-belief within its communities.  This in turn helps break cycles of poverty and deprivation, reduces crime and improves health outcomes for the people who live there.

 

Urban regeneration renders places more attractive to both the people who live in them and to others seeking to benefit from them.  It creates a sense of place and makes these places more appealing to external investors, in turn promoting economic growth by helping new and existing businesses operating in regenerated areas to thrive. It also facilitates the targeting of central and local government funding and services at the people who need them most, so that in the longer-term communities are able to move from a position of dependence on the state to greater independence and resilience. 

 

At an economic level, household income, property prices and levels of inward investment can be used to demonstrate the impact of urban regeneration in action.  At a social level, the success of urban renewal can be measured by factors such as levels of joblessness, educational attainment, access to housing and public services and democratic involvement, as well as by the instances of crime and anti-social behaviour in the local area.  Life expectancy, living conditions and the health of the population also provide a demonstrable indication of deprivation and the inequalities that tend to accompany it. 

 

All these factors are regularly monitored across the whole country by the central government as part of the national indices of deprivation (IMD).  This data, which is updated regularly by the Office for National Statistics, provides an at-a-glance indication of the places (down to the neighbourhood level) that have the highest and lowest areas of deprivation and poverty, and accordingly can provide an opportunity to target urban regeneration at the places that need it most and compare whether measurable societal changes have occurred as a result of urban renewal.

 

Risks associated with urban regeneration

It is crucial that local communities are involved in the process of urban regeneration and that they feel they are recognised as partners in the process, and not as though they are having regeneration ‘done to them’. A lack of political and community buy-in can prove fatal for urban regeneration if cynicism over accountability and transparency escalates.  Open, honest dialogue and community engagement are therefore critical from the outset in order to manage expectations over what is realistic and achievable.

 

A further risk associated with urban regeneration can be the unintended creation of new invisible borders between areas that have benefitted from targeted funding for regeneration and those that have not. Urban regeneration involves a complex set of interactions aimed at increasing prosperity and if not handled sensitively, an injection of capital into an area that is in decay can result in gentrification – an unwanted side-effect that can in turn price out the very community who are the focus of the project and push existing social, economic and environmental problems into neighbouring localities.  Linkages within, between and outside a regenerated area must therefore be sensitively handled if they are to bring about lasting change.  An interesting insight into some of the failings of Urban Regeneration was carried out by the London School of Economics

 

Other critical factors to a regeneration project’s success include the strict monitoring of budgets to mitigate against potential overspending and to demonstrate accountability, and careful project management to prevent avoidable overruns in timescales and the potential dilution of delivery and reputational damage.  Practically speaking, if the correct mixture of social, cultural, commercial, community and residential is not properly achieved the scheme risks future failure.  It is a delicate balancing act to achieve.

 

What is the process of an urban regeneration project?

There is much to do in preparation for a potential regeneration project before anyone starts drawing, and this may in itself take many months.  To this end, a process of scoping, planning, financing and implementation will need to be undertaken by experts before any actual steps are taken on the ground towards delivery.

 

Scoping

Immediate concerns will involve a process of scoping the project, using available data and examining the local context at micro and macro levels, looking both forward and backward to:

  • Understand the social and economic history of the area
  • Analyse the deprivation data and identify the issues facing the area and what is needed to address them
  • Establish the foundation for the project and identify its limitations and boundaries
  • Identify the communities, stakeholders and local leaders that need to be engaged with in order to understand their needs, experiences and ambitions and to achieve their buy-in.

 

Initial project planning

A process of initial project planning should then be undertaken, involving:

  • Negotiation with the private sector, community sector and public stakeholders
  • The development of a clear regulatory process that instils confidence and belief in the key players
  • Consideration of all the physical and environmental elements and assets involved – whether these are land assets, demographics, or environmental factors
  • Setting out goals and establishing a long-term shared vision and context

 

Financing

Massive financial resources will be required in the realisation of any urban regeneration scheme, but preliminary steps should concern:

  • Using existing land assets and regulatory powers to leverage further investment
  • Partnership working with private sector investors
  • Exploring avenues available for borrowing and income generation
  • Identifying the available regulatory instruments that can be utilised – including tax-based and non-tax-based incentives

 

Implementation

Only when the above elements have been addressed can the initial stages of project implementation (NB not construction) begin, through:

  • The development of a formalised organisational delivery structure using sound contracts that translate the project vision into a tangible partnership between private and public bodies.
  • Political leadership needs to be sustainable even if there should be local or national administration changes, and it must foster cohesion rather than division.
  • Mapping out the lifespan of the project and drawing up a phased project management plan (breaking down all elements into bitesize pieces and setting realistic timescales for their delivery)
  • Aligning powers and tools to the various partners involved, which may involve the creation of a new organisation

Throughout all the above, a recognition of the time, shared vision and enthusiasm that will need to be maintained in order to achieve the subsequent stages of delivery will be paramount!

 

What is the architect’s role in urban regeneration?

Architects are just one amongst multiple specialists involved in urban regeneration, alongside financial analysts, solicitors, surveyors, structural engineers, civil engineers, highways consultants, planners, landscape architects, ecologists and arboriculturalists, heritage specialists, and many, many others.

 

Depending on the size of the practice and its specialism, an architect may work alongside several other architects commissioned to work on different elements of a regeneration project.  As with master planning, within their area of focus, the regeneration architect will ensure they understand the vision for the project and the brief provided by the client based on their assessment of the issues at play, as well as seeking to engage with the local stakeholders to understand their experiences and requirements, potentially in collaboration with other specialists also commissioned to work on the project.

 

As most architects will tell you, it is best to start with what is already working well, integrate what must be incorporated in a scheme (rivers, historic buildings etc) and go from there.  The architect’s role is to pay careful heed to prevailing local and national planning policy and undertake a primary assessment of the physical and environmental constraints of the site to develop a constraints plan which will then inform the development of the initial designs for their element of the total project.  There will then follow liaison with the client (be this a private developer, local authority or a public/ private partnership or development body) to check mutual understanding of the developing scheme.  Alongside this, there will be further exercises to develop scale, massing and density options within the identified constraints, and beyond this at later design development stages, in-depth consideration will be given towards materiality, costings and other matters.

 

At various points, the architects, working alongside planners and engineers, will need to submit detailed plans as part of a variety of planning applications that will be required, both outline and full, and to address reserved matters, changes of use and discharge conditions and make material and non-material amendments to the scheme as it progresses.

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