BIM sounding board
Managers responsible for urban regeneration need wide skills and face tough challenges. Martin England focuses on the ways to win.
Urban regeneration is the rebuilding of the economic, physical and social fabric of our older cities. It is a task with a national dimension.
A clear lead in urban regeneration is taken by government in the shape of the Department of the Environment's co-ordinating programme, Action for Cities. The Government's philosophy is that the main thrust of re-investment in these run-down areas should be borne by the private sector. The public sector's role is to enable the investment to take place.
The aims of urban regeneration are to re-use perfectly sound land and infrastructure, restore pride in residential and business communities, provide employment, reduce urban sprawl and pressure on the green belt, and provide investment opportunities.
Urban regeneration managers are usually found in the public sector. Their job is to encourage and co-ordinate investment from the private sector. This investment can be in factories, warehouses, offices, leisure, homes, restaurants and hotels. The co-ordinating role has been carried out by local authorities. The vital contribution of the private sector is reflected in the continuing evolution of urban regeneration.
There are 11 government-funded urban development corporations bringing together boards of public and private sector individuals. City Challenge, a recent government initiative, spreads development corporation work to many other urban areas of the country. In City Challenge local authorities are given a co-ordinating role by government but charged with bringing in private sector and community contributions.
The skills of a manager in urban regeneration are wide. He or she must provide a strategy for change, encourage it at the local level, enhance environmental conditions, stimulate physical and economic development and build local confidence. The task of attracting new investment to empty land is daunting. It is not one for the faint-hearted.
One challenge for the manager is how to be effective in a field of activity where he or she is very dependent upon the contribution of many others. Patience is clearly a desirable attribute but I pick out two areas in which success of failure will be fundamental to the manager's success. The areas are the economy and the local community.
In the US, urban regeneration is a long-term commitment. Here the main thrust is given over a shorter period. For example, the lifespan of urban development corporations is for 5-10 years, City Challenger is for five years and other public funding is often short-term. The emphasis is to kick start new activity and provide a process in which later improvements might occur without government support.
A major challenge occurs for the manager, though, when a substantial part of this short-term period is dominated by an economy in recession, which is where we are today. The manager has found that the institutional investor and the big league developer have become as rare as food in a Soviet supermarket.
There is no real substitute for major investment and its physical and economic benefits. The challenge, though, can be partly met by alternative strategies. Even more encouragement has to be given to local companies and local investors. The preparation of sites for when times improve must be accelerated by, for example, land reclamation, building new roads and the provision of services. Less intensive but still beneficial land uses can be promoted.
Housing association schemes can, for example, take the place of prestige commercial projects which might never have materialised. More open space and facilities for local communities can be brought forward. After all, inner cities should be decent places for people to live in. And it is good value for public money to improve the residential dimension of inner cities and managers can give more priority to the local people - and much less to the absent developers.
Meeting local community aspirations is a recent challenge for the manager. In the past, solutions have been superimposed upon the often fragmented communities of older cities.
Doubtless there was a "mother knows best" attitude. Decision-makers perhaps took advantage of the passive nature of some of these older communities because they were not middle-class and articulate. If those communities had been actively consulted their views might have got in the way of investment by a major league developer.
The urban regeneration manager now finds that circumstances have changed. He or she is actively encouraged by the Government to consult locally and draw in local communities. Now he or she finds that such communities have found a voice and are demanding, quite rightly, a say in the future shape of their locality.
To make the change complete, the manager sees that the major developer has gone away, not necessarily temporarily, and the area can only be regenerated with local support and participation. The challenge is to recognise that this evolution has taken place and to work with the new grain.
The rebuilding of inner-city and worn-out industrial areas is a demanding and satisfying activity. The manager has countless challenges to meet. Attention to the two I have identified will bring good rewards.