When, in the late 1970s, urban science began addressing the physical decay of urban and peri-urban areas and underused infrastructures, the United Kingdom led by Margaret Thatcher (prime minister from 1979 to 1990) put in place a program of urban regeneration that reflected a general political agenda of liberalization and privatization. In the British urban policies of the 1980s, focused on land-use efficiency and housing market renewal in urban slums, economic interest prevailed over social concerns. In spite of well-intentioned plans for the recovery of derelict areas, the reduction of urban sprawl and gentriﬁcation of neglected neighborhoods, the central government entrusted the management of regeneration programs to the private sector, thereby legitimizing radical and not always financially viable development projects that, more importantly, failed to address the recovery of the existing heritage, both human and architectural.
Once and for centuries the largest harbor in the world, and decommissioned after World War II, London’s Docklands was an emblematic case in this respect. Although the whole project should be considered a pioneering and brave attempt to improve the condition of a highly neglected area, its ambitious change of identity – construction of a luxurious business center resulting from the systematic demolition of old wharfs and warehouses – became to some extent the paradigm of a market-led approach to urban regeneration, with little regard for the needs of local residents in terms of jobs and affordable housing.
The Liverpool waterfront on the River Mersey had a better outcome. There, the architectural landscape of cast iron, stone and brick – designed by Jesse Hartley in 1846 – inserted among listed buildings was readapted to new uses, with sometimes very refined results (such as the new Tate Gallery designed by James Stirling in 1985). In just a few years, with the support of the conservative government, and the further boost of the status of European Capital of Culture in 2008, Liverpool became the most visited multi-use attraction outside London.
In Liverpool, as indeed in London, Glasgow, Salford, Dundee, Newcastle and other British cities, the revitalization of riverbanks – exceptional wildlife and heterogeneity reserves, fragments of a complex ecology where the biological, energetic and aesthetic exchange with the environment is in no way artificial – has gradually emerged as a central element in the shaping of an affluent society. Currently, in terms of budget, size, functional complexity and schedule of transformations, urban waterfronts attract the most important regeneration projects.
Despite the physical and symbolic exemplariness of some of these plans, until the late 1990s urban regeneration in the UK reflected all the flaws of a top-down approach, namely the marginalization of local authorities, although non-departmental governmental bodies – the so-called urban development corporations (UDCs) – were formally established in order to represent the public interest and engage with local communities.
The growing conflicts in the cities, also due to unfair London-centric politics, were eventually mitigated from the late Nineties and there was adoption of a decentralized, participatory governance, which encouraged an integrated approach to regeneration through partnerships that included local communities, residents’ associations, public and private stakeholders.
The current concept of urban regeneration no longer admits an exclusively quantitative vision. The main goal is still the revitalization of so-called wastelands – identified, according to their former usage, as brownfields, greyfields and greenfields – as areas of varying size and nature subjected to remediation, recycle and reuse. Today, the priority is instead engaging with a broader space-time perspective through which costs and benefits of a social and environmental as well as an economic nature are placed at a critical distance, according to a resilient and adaptive strategy for social, economic and climate change.
City competitiveness and gentrification
In fact, the market-oriented approach has left its marks. In the name of new values – sustainability, health and well-being – the city of the new millennium is the symbol of competitiveness within the global market, a spatial expression of late capitalism: no longer a place of production but a place of mass consumption, leisure and entertainment, whose survival, even in demographic terms, depends on the ability to develop iconic architecture and flagship projects.
In the mid-1980s, under the “Big City Plan”, the city of Birmingham – notably tagged as a “concrete jungle” deeply disliked by citizens for its 1960s Brutalist architecture – underwent an exceptional rethinking of the urban structure to improve its livability. Since then, a still ongoing process of demolitions and reconstructions has endowed the city with innovative architecture – i.e. the Selfridges Building by Future Systems completed in 2003, or the more recent design for the largest public library in Europe by the Dutch firm Mecanoo. On the other hand, though, it has contributed to the loss of distinctive historical traces and authenticity that could have countered a fatal transition to a generic, albeit seductive, globalized urban landscape.
On its way to become one of the busiest shopping centres in the United Kingdom, Birmingham – not unlike Leeds, Bradford, Manchester – typically reflects what the radical geographer David Harvey has labeled “urban entrepreneurship” (1989), which has driven an irreversible social polarization in the long term, in the face of an undisputed physical upgrading of the urban environment, capable of maximizing local attractiveness for the tourism industry (already prophetically considered the real spin-off of the economy).
In light of this argument, some think that British cities have shifted from “market-led development” to “state-led gentrification”, which involves the loss of character of the place as well as of diversity in local communities. Yet, gentrification can be the unintentional result of the so-called “Bilbao effect”, according to which a spectacular and highly recognizable object such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao is capable of triggering or accelerating a non-premeditated, spontaneous, viral transformative process.
This happened in many districts of London and other British cities, where creative districts have emerged through grassroots actions, student interventions, artist involvement, thereby embodying the very idea that cultural activities and arts can help break the downward spiral of stagnant economy.
One of the first initiatives of this type was the Northern Quarter of Manchester, currently one of the most vital neighborhoods, thanks to the initiatives of the Northern Quarter Association established in the 1990s, which orchestrated a “low-intensity” action strategy in defense of the existing heritage – ordinary buildings and public spaces – with the addition of new signs and meanings layered over time.
Events and legacies in the contemporary city
The issue of gentrification is closely linked to the dynamism generated by transnational events, which in the UK, as in the rest of the world, represent essential opportunities for the acquisition of EU funding and significant assets for urban regeneration and the implementation of local transport systems. Once it became 1990 European Capital of Culture, Glasgow turned its reputation of a violent city into that of a place committed to music, arts and culture. Its urban renaissance was further fueled in 2014 when the city staged the Commonwealth Games.
However, something has changed in the meantime. The financial global crisis of 2007-2008 – and the additional damage the COVID-19-related recession will certainly bring – has affected British regeneration policy. Sustainability is no longer measured exclusively in environmental and social terms – the Games Village, allocated to a huge reclaimed brownfield site, is indeed Scotland’s first major-scale carbon-free development – but also in terms of legacy, that is, to maximize the opportunities such an extraordinary event presents to create a lasting benefit for the local community. Accordingly, the Glasgow City Council pre-arranged that temporary accommodations for the athletes would entail an almost equal ratio of social, shared ownership and private housing for sale.
Likewise, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the 274-acre parklands that formed the centerpiece for the 2012 London Games, was redesigned and readapted after the event by the American landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates. Developed on a heavily contaminated site close to the River Lea, the park was envisioned as a major urban catalyst for the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as an ecological legacy for future generations.
Urban planning as a “science of the future” cannot be dissociated from an ethical-political conception. At the same time, as a “collective art” it is the mirror of the contradictions and complexity of human societies. Undoubtedly, there are irremediable conflicts among the players involved in the regeneration processes. Nonetheless, formal and informal are often intertwined, with micro and temporary interventions complementary to macroscopic, expensive and long-term programs.
Ultimately, the regenerative practice carried out in the UK in recent decades has respected the paradigm of compactness as a formal and ethical response to the way human beings inhabit the planet. Compared to other contexts, promises - even the most controversial ones - were largely kept, relatively quickly and with an instrumental recourse to design competitions. Last but not least, most territorial metamorphoses have contributed to spread the spatial quality of the built environment.