Excerpt from Rachel Unsworth, Sue Ball, Irena Bauman, Paul Chatterton, Andrew Goldring, Katie Hill and Guy Julier
Challenging perceptions, making connections, realising potential, plugging resource leaks: how to transform the margins of the city.
This action research on transforming the inner city for the benefit of its communities and the environment, was conducted by a collective, some of whose work elsewhere in the UK city of Leeds has recently led to planning permission from the City Council to develop the UK’s first low cost, ecological co-housing project. Read more about that project – “Low Impact Living Affordable Community” or LILAC, www.lilac.coop >>
These are indeed interesting, difficult and challenging times, and not least for thinking about and acting on the future regeneration of cities. A number of stresses are being felt in urban areas: there are the continuing problems of poverty and inequality; environmental threats are mounting as the climate changes; and economic uncertainty and hardship have worsened as the speculative, free-market model exhibits a major crisis compounded by energy and other resource scarcities and associated price inflation. These stresses make it imperative to find new ways of creating city futures to respond to ecological overstretch, social friction and economic malaise. We recognise that Leeds, in the North of England, like many other old industrial cities throughout the developed world, is at an important crossroads and the time is ripe for galvanising debate and action, especially as there has recently been a change of government. This work reports on a year-long process of action research by a community interest company in the UK called ‘Leeds Love It Share It’ (LLISI), comprised of academics, an architect, a permaculturalist and art and design practitioners. We came together in 2008 committed to exploring new visions of how Leeds could be in the future and to identifying the skills and ideas that will be needed to deal with the challenges ahead. Our first project was called ‘Margins within the City’.
During this work we found a willingness amongst statutory agencies to enter into debate about regeneration policy due to its failure so far to deliver substantial gains for deprived communities. Of particular interest to us is how to recognise untapped areas of potential by challenging and going beyond the business-as-usual urban policy orthodoxy, and how to enable communities to realise this potential to build their own resilience strategies and improve well-being. We stress four routes to achieving this: changing negative perceptions of the area, strengthening and making connections across social networks, realising the potential of under-utilised assets, and plugging the leaks of resources and economic activities. This paper is the beginning of our thinking.
The agenda for change: the end of business as usual?
Our work comes at a crucial stage for policy and action on urban regeneration and renewal. There is a sense that the pro-growth, business-as-usual approach is discredited, and that persistent ills have not been resolved. Worryingly, at the same time there is not yet a clear policy direction in terms of how to rethink and apply urban regeneration policy in ways that could yield a step change in well-being and sustainability outcomes. This should be a major concern given the profound and widely acknowledged challenges ahead: financial and resource constraints coupled with climate change.
Most recently, the climate change and energy agendas have come together (Hopkins, 2008, 1; Lovell et al., 2009, 2). As well as needing to reduce carbon emissions, we will in any case need to recognise the profound implications of the peaking of oil and gas supplies: a way of life that has been predicated on the profligate use of cheap fuel will be under threat (Heinberg, 2005, 3; Kunstler, 2005, 4) and thus so will the underlying structure and functioning of the economic and social base of cities (Atkinson, 2007a, 5; 2007b, 6; 2008, 7; Girardet, 2008, 8). There seems little alternative but to devise and implement a new macro-economics for urban sustainability with an emphasis on minimising throughput, harnessing new sources of energy and maximising well-being, as argued by Tim Jackson (2009, 9) in his report for the government’s Sustainable Development Commission. The concept of ‘prosperity without growth’ can only be operationalised if the focus is principally on mobilising and enhancing social capital, not principally on investing in material consumption and physical assets. This includes tackling systemic inequality (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, 10; Cabinet Office, 2010, 11) and measuring prosperity in new terms to include healthy life expectancy, educational participation, trust and other non-economic indicators that make up the concept of well-being (New Economics Foundation, 2010, 12). Forms of urban policy are needed that are not simply geared towards maximising property values and returns on investment but instead promote a diverse, locally responsive and needs-based economy. This would take climate change and energy scarcity seriously, and begin to draw on the untapped potential of neighbourhoods to help deliver prosperity and sustainability.
Margins within the City: developing an approach to re-valuing under-utilised assets
Leeds Love It Share It used this context to explore how inner cities can respond to these rapidly changing circumstances in innovative ways. Our overall concern was that despite the economic boom in Leeds (mainly based on financial, legal and other services) and the various efforts to ‘narrow the gap’ (Leeds Initiative, 2004, 13), the poverty gap between the City Centre and the neighbourhoods situated closest to it was growing rather than shrinking (Hodkinson and Chatterton, 2007, 14). This ‘rim’ forms a collar of disconnection, deprivation and neglect that surrounds the prosperous core (Bauman Lyons Architects, 2006, 15), creating ‘Margins within the City’. Most of the rim falls within the lowest 3% of Super Output Areas (SOAs) nationally (Communities and Local Government, 2008, 16). Yet these neighbourhoods have more to them than the official designations of deprivation suggest. They contain enormous potential which is under-utilised by the residents and under-appreciated by those who do not know the area well. They represent a significant resource in responding to the kinds of challenges outlined above. We sought to develop a methodology and a programme of action research that could understand the value of these rim areas and document, make visible and re-value their potential. Can the under-utilised assets in the margins be protected and nurtured to deal with future challenges rather than left exposed and vulnerable to the encroachment of speculative development and the vagaries of the free market?
Policymakers within the city were the primary target audience for this research, and by working alongside strategic partners throughout the project we developed thinking related to a series of questions about the links between policy and communities. These included considering how to build effective policy by starting from the current position of people/communities, using the kinds of resources that are already available (Rowson, 2009, 17; Foot and Hopkins, 2010, 18) rather than an approach that relies solely on an input of resources into a neighbourhood in order for it to regenerate. How can the range of localised skills and networks and large tracts of publicly owned land in the inner-city rim be used to deal with the challenges of financial austerity, climate change and energy scarcity? How can policy be devised that values locals as experts, and that builds interconnections between people, buildings, land and skills to realise value that can be harnessed by the locality? Given more scope to determine their own futures and realise and manage these assets, communities in the rim have real potential to create their own resilience strategies. The important point for us is to shift perceptions away from narratives of wastage and deprivation towards an investigation of under-used potential within the neighbourhood and the most effective usage of public funding and expertise that does exist—’the infusion of key external resources at critical points’, as Dale and Newman put it (2008, p. 11, 19).
Ultimately we hope that the research would also find an audience amongst local activists and individuals, and would become a vehicle for exploring how structures may be created to devolve service delivery and ownership of the asset base to the local residents, and how communities can mobilise around a new agenda for ensuring prosperity, well-being and sustainability.
What steps can be taken to develop more effective policy for deprived neighbourhoods
First, policy needs to be genuinely fine grained and work with what’s already there. We have stressed the over-riding need to start from current reality of a community, derived from detailed observation. One project flowing from the initial work is a piece of research being devised with community leaders in Cross Green to help draw out residents’ ideas on potential environmental improvements and their willingness to get involved in action to bring about change and maintain improvements.
Second, a greater sense of empowerment is needed so that local people can to lead the regeneration process. Margins within the City recognises the strength in the intrinsic creativity of citizens and in the strength of citizen-driven responses to climate change. The subjective aspect of empowerment relates to a sense of efficacy and is measured by the extent to which people feel that they can influence local or national conditions and decisions. The objective aspect relates to whether people truly have and use power and is measured by the extent to which people actually participate in and influence their local or national conditions and decisions (Communities and Local Government, 2009, p. 4, 20). In Richmond Hill and other places like it, there is a low level of both senses of empowerment. Community development work is needed to enable networks to strengthen, to give more understanding of the potential for making change happen and to mobilise potential. This all takes time. The Margins team is working on attempting to help access funding to move along elements of this agenda.
Third, spending needs to move upstream (e.g. enhanced empowerment and skills development) to have downstream impacts (e.g. reduced crime and unemployment), and budget areas need joining up, for example, spending on skills, land, building and social institutions. These have broadly figured amongst UK government aspirations in the past 10 years but are rarely, if ever, achieved. The Margins team is engaging with the City Council—both senior officers and the locality team—on this and other aspects of the agenda.
Fourth, measures of success need redefining to include much more than standard qualifications, entry into formal employment, level of earnings and formally recognised volunteering. Further action research, which in itself can stimulate enhanced networking, should include monitoring any improvements in social capital and cohesion.
See full article here.
The authors are part of the ‘Leeds Love It Share It’ community interest research company. See http://www.loveitshareit.org . Additional research support was provided by Susie Russell and members of Bauman Lyons Associates. Corresponding author: Rachael Unsworth, School of Geography, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK.
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