city redevelopment

city redevelopment
   The spate of urban riots in Britain in 1981 helped induce the perceptions that state policy towards cities up to that point had failed, and that the cities themselves were in ‘crisis’. The effect on public policy was probably greatest in the field of planning and urban development. There is more continuity than is generally realized between the policies of the postwar period and the policies of the post-1979 governments, but there is no doubt that the riots provoked a major reassessment at many levels. A history of the field could be divided into three phases: a period in which the state assumed a key role, associated with postwar reconstruction; a period under the Thatcher administration in which the state’s role was much reduced, in favour of a laissezfaire approach; and finally, the current situation in which state controls have been strengthened again. In terms of the results that planning, or lack of it, has produced in Britain, it could be said that the models for the first and second phases have been American, while recent efforts at urban redevelopment have followed a continental European model, with sometimes striking results. The postwar planning effort is described by a major piece of Parliamentary legislation, the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. It enshrined the principle of securing ‘a proper balance between competing demands for land’, but it could be argued that its idea of ‘balance’ was one that was fundamentally biased against the European model of urban development. A central belief was that the cities were overpopulated, and that their ‘overspill’ populations should be removed from the centre (this idea was nothing new, and had been promoted since at least the 1840s). The means of doing this was the establishment of new towns, of which twelve were originally envisaged, eight around London, two in the Northeast, one in Northamptonshire and one in Wales; each was envisaged as a self-contained and balanced community. The New Towns provided a very high standard of housing for those on average incomes, and the policy has generally been regarded as a success: but it actually accounted for only 7 percent of the housing constructed since 1945. The rest was concentrated either in small private suburban developments, or in the public housing estates now surrounding most of Britain’s major towns and cities.
   The fracturing of the urban fabric was exaggerated by energetic slum clearance during the 1950s and 1960s, and the zoning of most major towns and cities, reducing the extent to which an area—particularly a central area—could have multiple uses. Physical manifestations of this included urban motorways, such as the Westway in London, or the Mancunian Way in Manchester, and enclosed shopping malls. By the middle 1960s most urban working-class populations had been removed to outlying estates, and the centres of most British cities had been given over to commercial, not residential, uses. As a result, they tend to resemble more North American cities than continental European ones.
   These vast changes took place against an economic background of steady relative decline and, in the 1970s, crisis. Although planning had been strengthened during this time (with a new regional emphasis accompanying the establishment of the six big metropolitan counties in 1972), the cities continued to decline in terms of employment, and consequently in population. In some cases this was extremely striking: Greater London has lost 1.5 million people since its peak, Liverpool is down to 450,000 from a peak of more than a million, and Glasgow and Manchester have suffered comparable losses. Economic decline has been accompanied by social unrest, most strikingly in 1981. It is at this point that British urban policy was marked by a dramatic change. Generally speaking this meant reducing the role of the state in urban policy (in practical terms this involved cutting funds for local planning departments), and the creation of ‘enterprise zones’ based on an American model, in which local taxation was reduced or deferred and planning restrictions all but abolished. In retrospect, this policy seems to have much in common with the ‘non-plan’ concept, proposed in a 1969 New Society article by, amongst others, Reyner Banham (1922–88), architectural critic and chief British apologist for Los Angeles.
   The most spectacular work of the enterprise zone concept was the redevelopment of the Docklands area of London, managed by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) in the 1980s. Despite its proximity to the City of London, the area had profound employment problems, and attempts by the Greater London Council to revive it had stalled. The area of redevelopment was vast—some 2,050 hectares— making it at the time the largest redevelopment site in Europe. The LDDC, appointed by the government, was to oversee the development, but unlike the individual authorities for the creation of the New Towns, its powers were fundamentally limited. Primed by a government grant, it could acquire, own and assemble land for sale, but it was not responsible either for planning or for the provision of infrastructure.
   The material achievements of the LDDC are impressive, and include the building of an airport, the development of Canary Wharf, a vast office development which at the time was Europe’s tallest building, the construction of a huge amount of new housing, much of it attractive, and the building of the London Arena. There is no doubt that London’s centre of gravity has been shifted eastward, and it is significant that a large number of newspapers and magazines have chosen to relocate to Canary Wharf from their traditional home at Fleet Street. But Docklands is poorly integrated with the rest of London. It has, for example, provoked the resentment of the original residents of the area, who have seen the quality of their public infrastructure decline, while at the same time they have often been excluded from the new forms of employment that have appeared in the area. Also, with so much reliance on private finance, the development has been especially vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy. There have also been criticisms of the architectural quality of the developments. An architectural development guide was produced in the early days of the project, but there were difficulties in adhering to this when there were no structures to enable it to be enforced. The appearance of the development is very mixed indeed, and the speed with which it was built has arguably led to buildings with a limited life. The problems associated with Docklands were repeated in developments elsewhere, whether at Salford Quays, Manchester (much the largest outside Docklands), or the Albert Dock at Liverpool. A common problem has been the fact that the provision of an attractive, water-based environment does not in itself lead to the creation of a community. All the developments have been in some way successful—and more so than is generally agreed—but they have remained isolated from their surrounding communities, and the economic benefits have not generally affected their surroundings.
   If vast waterside developments managed by Urban Development Corporations (UDCs) were an attempt to regenerate declining areas, the strong economic growth of the mid-1980s was better characterized by a different urban form. Out-of-town retail and business parks proliferated; hypermarkets appeared at major road junctions, while areas of the country such as the M4 motorway became in effect linear business parks. Such suburban growth was encouraged by successive Conservative governments. Along with out-of-town commercial development, there was residential suburban development on a scale not seen since the 1960s, and it is this that gives the more accurate overall picture of urban policy during the 1980s. In spite of the high profile inner-city regeneration programmes managed by the UDCs, most British cities continued to register substantial population decline. For all the benefits that 1980s-style developments brought, it became clear to the various groups involved that they were not sustainable. Land was not infinitely available for suburban development, especially in the densely populated southeast of the country where demand was greatest, and a consensus emerged that it was in nobody’s interest that the cities should shrink further. Alternative developmental models began to be sought, and these tended to come from continental Europe. Much interest was shown in Spain, a country engaged in major urban reconstruction throughout the 1980s, culminating in a series of events in 1992 including the Barcelona Olympic Games. The reconstructed Spanish cities seemed to offer a model for successful urban living that could be translated to Britain. The main characteristics of the new model were the repopulation of the urban cores of cities, the fostering of development at a high population density, the encouraging of a mix of commercial, entertainment and residential uses, the retention of existing street plans, and the retention and reuse of older buildings where possible.
   By 1996, government policy had only partially recognized these aims, so we cannot yet begin to speak of an official policy as is possible with the policies of the 1980s, and previously. However, the planning rules have changed nationally to prevent further out-of-town shopping malls (the guidance came too late to prevent the construction of five vast regional malls, which pose a threat to the retail cores of Bristol, Manchester and Glasgow, amongst other cities). However, public money has helped to fund a number of high-profile schemes which evidence the new thinking in practice. The largest such scheme has probably been the redevelopment of Hulme, Manchester. Hulme, within walking distance of the centre of Manchester, was the city’s most densely populated area in the 1930s, and counted a population of some 130,000. At this time it was designated a clearance area on account of the poor quality of the housing, and the area was comprehensively redeveloped in the 1960s. The dense grid of terraced housing was replaced with a mixture of point- and deck-access blocks, mainly prefabricated, and surrounded with plenty of open space; the original street pattern was largely obliterated. The population of the new Hulme was just 12,000, a tenth of what it had been in the 1930s. Although designed to high standards, problems with the new buildings quickly became apparent, the external environment became degraded, and many of the properties became unlettable. By the mid-1980s it was clear that comprehensive redevelopment was necessary. Development of the area began again in 1994, and involved the reinstatement of some of the principal streets of the old Hulme, the replacement of the deck-access housing with more traditional forms, the development of mixed uses for each area of Hulme, the development of a variety of housing for different income groups, and finally, the reinstatement of physical links with the city centre. The overall framework for development draws on the positive aspects of the old community, but it also is explicitly an attempt to establish a continental European-style city quarter.
   At the same time, there has been a striking amount of city-centre housing development in Glasgow, Manchester and London. Very often, this has involved the reuse of commercial buildings, particularly Victorian ones, and the process has in many cases been encouraged with public funding. While support for such schemes remains high— and urban councils are increasingly promoting their socalled ‘night-time economies’ —most city-centre housing has so far been built for urban professionals. It remains to be seen whether such policies can encourage the development of diverse communities, including families. While the populations of most major cities have now stabilized, the overall trend is still downwards, and despite recent planning efforts, the future looks suburban, not urban.
   See also: town planning
   Further reading
    Esher, L. (1980) A Broken Wave: The Rebuilding of England 1940-1980, London: Allen Lane.
    Middleton, M. (1991) Cities in Transition, London: Michael Joseph.
    Rees, G. (1985) Cities in Crisis, London: Edward Arnold.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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