Contemporary Urban Regeneration in the UK Essay

Moulaert et. al (2003) see contemporary urban regeneration as a universal phenomenon aimed at promoting competitiveness. Using examples from the UK and other countries, briefly outline the key elements and impacts of selected regeneration projects and discuss the extent to which they corroborate or contradict this understanding. Based on the research undertaken by Moulaert et. al (2003) into urban restructuring in European cities, the aim of this essay will be to explore the meaning of city competitiveness in the context of urban regeneration policies.

It will also offer a brief examination and assessment of the reasons behind the shift of focus in urban policies from welfare led initiatives and considerations to projects encouraging entrepreneurialism with the aim to stimulate economic development. Using examples from several cities in the UK and Bilbao in Spain, the essay will focus on describing and analysing the key elements and impacts, which selected regeneration projects and with them the pursuit for competitiveness have had on cities.

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Finally the paper sets out to evaluate the extent to which those projects support or contradict the understanding that contemporary urban regeneration is indeed solely aimed at promoting competitiveness. Concluding with the suggestion that competitiveness is an elusive idea, where strive for prosperity in the new economy has been largely dependent on qualitative restructuring of the economy and the built environment. The deindustrialisation of British cities in the second half of the twentieth century had a devastating effect on urban life, bringing high levels of unemployment.

The closure of industrial ports, shipyards, chemical plants and manufacturing factories also led to the desertion of the outdated buildings, which housed them. Furthermore the wealthier and more educated middle and upper classes started slowly migrating out of Britain’s industrial cities to rural locations and suburbs, leaving poorer, less skilled population in the cities (Jones and Evans, 2008). Increasingly the manufacturing industry moved to emerging industrial countries in the Far East and South East Asia, such as India, China, Korea and Taiwan, where labour and production costs were significantly cheaper and more efficient.

This led to Western economies shifting towards the service, technological and financial sectors. These processes of globalization, changes in the patterns of demand and production, the emergence of new market-led economies and with them the emergence of the global cities, such as London, Paris and New York contributed to the development of new urban regeneration policies, sometimes referred to as Neoliberal policies.

The new governance system often involves the process of deregulation and “privatisation” of urban policy-making characterised by the redistribution of powers and responsibilities away from the local governments to partnership agencies and a marked shift to entrepreneurialism (Harvey, 1998). Urban regeneration has played a central part in the urban policy change. However it becomes apparent that urban regeneration is a complex term and is often used in a variety of contexts.

Some of its features are frequently linked to processes, which involve physical rebuilding or restructuring of run down city landscapes with the aim to generate economic revival and employment and to facilitate tourism, by attracting businesses and investments. Cities seeking to achieve these goals were therefore forced to compete with one another and more importantly within the new “knowledge economy” (Jones and Evans, 2008). In the last three decades governments have been convinced that the problems faced by cities are mainly structural and a direct result from the economic decline (Cochrane, 2007).

In the attempt to reinforce the competitive position of their cities, local authorities often in partnerships with the private sector have undertaken large-scale urban development projects, such as museums, waterfront developments, business and exhibition centres. Public-private partnerships in property development with emphasis on physical renewal were seen as the means to economical, physical and social regeneration. Most major investments of the state were aimed at infrastructure spending. Buildings of “prestige”, such as the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao or the Millennium Bridge in Newcastle started to appear in most European cities.

The city of Bilbao in Northern Spain offers and example of how the development of emblematic buildings has been placed at the core of the regeneration process. In the late 1980’s a few key locations, which were in post-industrialist decay were selected for re-development. The Master Plan for Bilbao was drafted and an area called Abandoibarra was to be transformed through the construction of an International Conference and Concert Hall and the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum being the flagship of the operation (Rodriguez, 2001). All those required a large funding from the public sector.

While the Abandoibarra project has largely been presented as a success story of urban regeneration, the close analysis undertaken by its critics suggest that the renovated space is mainly catering to the “demands of the urban elite”, and the uneven redevelopment is likely to intensify social and spatial exclusion. Furthermore the short-term return maximisation logic in the development is presenting a challenge to the financial sustainability of the project (Moulaert et al, 2003b). In the UK waterfront developments became central theme of the urban regeneration plans (Jones and Evans, 2008).

Making cities competitive in order to promote growth has long been a central theme of the urban regeneration agenda. However taken out of the business context the term competitive when attached to a city has a complex meaning not least because it inevitably involves “trade-offs between a variety of interests” (Begg, 2002). The global nature of the markets and the fact that it is relatively easy for firms to switch locations, are among some of the reasons citied by Tallon (2004) why cities have now found themselves competing with each other for investment capital on a global level.

Urban entrepreneurialism and place marketing have become a few of the methods used by authorities in their quest to improve the competitive advantage of cities. It was believed that economic development is the answer to the problems associated with inequality and deprivation (Cochrane, 2007). Good measures of urban competitiveness usually are economic diversity, quality of life, skilled workforce, Gross Regional Profit and employment rates as well as connectivity and organizational innovation (Begg, 2002).

From the multiplicity of criteria according to which city competitiveness and success could be judged it becomes apparent that the whole notion of urban competitive advantage is quite problematic. Other critical debates have revolved around the questions of who are those that benefit from inter-urban competition. The themes of place marketing, competitiveness and entrepreneurial modes of urban governance are somewhat illustrated in the case of Liverpool and it’s bid for a European City of Culture (ECoC) in 2008.

Winning the ECoC award was a major regeneration initiative, which was also seeking to promote grassroots cultural activities and social unity through re-branding the city and presenting it as “The World in One City” (NWDA, 2007). Generating employment, cultural vibrancy, improving the image, identity and sense of place were among some of the motivational factors described in the bid document. However three years after winning the bid and post regeneration of the city’s centre, Liverpool is still regarded as one of Britain’s most socially segregated cities.

Some of the negative results identified following the ECoC status awarded to Liverpool, could be linked to overdevelopment and attractions spatially concentrated in the city centre and waterfront areas, which ultimately leads to those businesses located further out unlikely to benefit as much from tourism. (Impacts 08 Baseline Report, 2007). In addition, although social cohesion and multiculturalism were boldly stated as likely impacts of the award in reality racial segregation is still a problem for Liverpool and its local communities.

Rapid regeneration in the urban core and leaving a ‘ring of intensely disadvantaged residential areas’ (Jones and Wilks-Heeg, 2008) ultimately did not help tackling the current social and economical inequalities. While there is clear evidence of the reversal of some of Liverpool’s economic decline and development of many retail spaces has been significant in drawing investments, plans proposed for Paradise Street Development Area in the city’s central shopping district have been met with opposition from small retailers in the Quiggings centre (Jones and Wilks-Heeg, 2008).

Replacing the already existing creative businesses with ‘prime retail space’ has been identified as a threat to the distinctive local cultural production. This is raising questions about the emerging model of McRegeneration, which has led to many cities having their unique built environment replaced with expensive designer clothes shops, corporate bars, coffee shops and pubs, and overpriced residential developments, essentially the same as everywhere else.

Like Liverpool, Manchester has suffered from a negative image related to post-industrial decline, unemployment and poor environmental quality and has looked at promoting the city appeal and raising its profile by branding it as diverse, global and multicultural through urban regeneration projects, such as the Millennium Quarter developed to the north of the centre and the Lowry Centre at Salford Quays. However unlike Liverpool, Manchester was found to have benefitted a lot more from regeneration initiatives and has demonstrated considerable competitive strength (Jones and Evans, 2008).

According to Harding et. al. (2010), Manchester city-region experienced a net gain of 187,000 jobs in the period between 1998-2006. But although Manchester now looks and feels better esthetically, the economic transformation of the city-region remains fractional, geographically and socially. There is an observed south-north divide with the north still continuing to struggle with the transition from manufacturing to knowledge – based economy. The promotion of urban competitiveness has been frequently criticized for its focus on economic regeneration at the expense of socio-cultural and environmental issues.

The problems which occur in cities forced to compete are mainly related to the fact that in the process of urban development the assets which are being used are public, such as land, infrastructure and funds for the building of private or semi-private structures, such as shopping and conference centers, etc (Moulaert, et al. , 2001a). Although those projects might include housing, the apartments built tend to be of the up-scale variety, thus certain social groups are excluded and in some cases displaced and pushed out of the areas designated for the luxury dwellings.

Such is the case with the London Docklands area, where 40,000 residents have been “caught up in one of the most rapid social and physical transformations” in the UK (Brownill, 1993). The most controversial characteristic of the development strategy for the London Docklands has indeed revolved around the fact that it has failed to meet local housing needs, though the land used for the new properties was sold at below the market price, the houses which were eventually built were out of reach for the local residents.

This has led to increased levels of homelessness and unemployment in the area. The failure to address local people’ needs have resulted from the deliberate attempt of city planners to increase the profitability of property development by heavily subsidising the private businesses (Brownill, 1993). Moulaert et. al (2003), argued that such neoliberal “New Urban Policy” approach to urban regeneration and development has been elite driven and therefore has failed to address the real needs and problems within the European cities.

As the cases discussed here have shown these policies rarely have managed to address social and economic inequalities and in some cases have contributed to widening of the gap between the deprived and the wealthy across communities. The argument put forward by Moulaert et al. is that the state has become an agent rather than a regulator of the market in its bid to stimulate economic growth and competitiveness. While urban policies have been focused on making the city spaces attractive for businesses and private nvestments this has been often done at the expense of certain marginalised groups, through social displacement and exclusion and socio-economic polarisation. Undoubtedly the globalised nature of modern power relations has led to urban areas being treated as ‘commodities’ via city promotional strategies, such as flagship buildings, convention centres and high profile events undertaken by city leaders, where the improved city images become the goods.

In most cases the public sector has financed projects in partnership with businesses and private investors, thus the state has undertaken the risk while the profits have largely been distributed between the private developers (Harvey, 2000 in Cochrane, 2007, p. 141). Although this is true it is important to note here that benefits often accrue to local communities in terms of improved infrastructure, road access, public transport systems, and job creation. However, the “trickle down effect” in social returns is very limited and thus frequently not worth the trade offs carried out by the local communities.

This ultimately points out that the concept of urban and regional competitiveness must be as much about qualitative factors, as it is about quantitative attributes (Oately, 1998). Thus the welfare and improvement in the quality of life of the city dwellers have to be taken into consideration. The social and economic agendas in city development and regeneration policies are both of critical importance and they are not incompatible but require a holistic approach to planning.

Successful urban regeneration could only be achieved if there is a clear link between the physical, economic and social dimensions of proposed developments. Inclusion of the disadvantaged in the decision making process together with investment in people and education and the promotion of social cohesion are all critical and should be at the forefront of the city planning agenda. Ultimately what will make cities attractive and competitive is an integrated approach to regeneration, where balance between all those different aspects is achieved.

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