Resilience, risk and the future of place

By Sarah Chaplin, The Urban Renaissance Institute,and Joost Beunderman, Demos

Placemaking is central to the mission of the Academy of Urbanism. But, despite the timeless nature of many of the qualities of place, the rapid economic shifts we currently face have a profound impact on cities, towns, neighbourhoods and streets. A successful place today may face an uncertain future. How might place quality be affected? And how can existing assets (whether physical or economic, or social) inform positive responses? How do these differ from place to place? In other words, what differentiated patterns of risk and resilience do we see emerging across localities in the UK, and what hints do they give about the future of place?

The Academy, together with independent think-tank Demos, hosted a roundtable seminar to debate these questions.
We heard reports from the field, namely from shortlisted nominees or winners of the 2008 Academy of Urbanism’s Awards: Chichester, Skipton and Richmond in Yorkshire, North Laine in Brighton, Oxford Castle and Birmingham’s Jewellery quarter, spoke about the impacts of the crisis and the resilience of their places. Common strands emerged as they each considered their prospects. For example, the uncertainty of a tourism and visitor economy – perhaps buoyed by the rediscovery of Britain as a holiday destination, but equally vulnerable if retail businesses fail and leave empty premises. Or the possible drying up of infrastructure and regeneration funds that underpinned many
successful projects over the last decade. Based on this small but dynamic sample, three sources of resilience emerged as particularly relevant:

Local ownership – both legally / financially and socially. The desire and ability of a local population to invest energy, time, creativity and money to nurture and protect local assets can make an enormous difference. Family businesses, volunteers and third sector organisations can leverage a type of resources that absentee landlords and multinational conglomerates can’t.
Heritage partnership schemes and proactive local initiatives for spaces vacated by Woolworths and others should be seen as a sign of strength.

Smart spending – not any just Keynesian largesse will do, and ways to deal with financial scarcity will become increasingly important. Therefore local stakeholders face choices, such as what ‘doing more with less’ actually means in practice: focusing resources on a smaller number projects of high design quality, or finding new ways of working that are less high-spec and capital- intensive, but achieve cumulative change?
Leadership, strategy and communication – this is a time to reflect and act strategically. As less energy is spent on ‘responding to market proposals’, policymakers should use the time to devise intelligent responses rather than knee-jerk panic measures. Lead by listening, debating, planning and being prepositional in recognition of a fundamentally changed context, and then creating the conditions to increase our collective capacity to act. Politically,
participants agreed that this is easier to achieve with greater local, rather than national resources.
The afternoon session took up these place-specific experiences, and opened them up to a wider debate, with invited experts making contributions from the floor.

Indy Johar from Demos reminded us that, only a few months ago, comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s seemed far-fetched, but it is now becoming accepted that this is the scale of the situation we find ourselves in. Questions about how we revalue assets, recalculate indicators and reassess targets and, as a result, adapt to the realities of economic contraction, are set against the already urgent agenda of climate change. This raises profound questions: how do we conceive of people’s livelihoods if the job-creating sectors of the recent past disappear?

Joost Beunderman from Demos argued that even the identified strengths may come under stress: The role of volunteering and the third sector was being flagged up as a potential saviour, stepping into the brink where commercially- orientated solutions were no longer available. However, as with all resources, this one may also be depleted if no meaningful investment is made to underpin and harness this potential.

Chris Balch from DTZ asked what ‘place vulnerability’ really means. With something in the order of 25 million square feet of office space becoming available in the last two months, figures have indicated that the British high street is sadly more vulnerable than out of town shopping centres. His big concern echoed Indy Johar’s: where are the jobs going to come from, and where will they go? Big cities might actually become especially vulnerable, he predicted, with a move away from globalisation and increasing regionalisation, and indeed localisation, becoming possible new driving forces.

Yolande Barnes from Savills intimated that quality of place is still a major selling point for end users. There is an enduring need for more housing (estimated shortfall now 1 million homes by next year in the UK), but other trends will change dramatically: cheap space will be in demand, and previous expectations about yields and returns will be scaled back to something more realistic. All this would take some giant leaps of imagination, she argued, because the property sector seems to have lost sight of the real role of property: as somewhere to live and work, learn and play – not (just) as an investment vehicle.

Stephen Hill from Futureplanners sketched out a scenario for a new model of partnership working that he called ‘Place-shaping Co-investment Partnerships’. In his view, we have all become land- trading dinosaurs, yet have a professional obligation ‘to secure optimal use of land for social and economic needs’ (RICS). The new model, Hill argued, would need to be imaginative, responsible and long-term. Local communities can become the driving force behind development opportunities, creating initial temporary uses for sites; combining grants, donated materials, and voluntary labour. He imagined a central role for Community Land Trusts: these would only approach investors that could demonstrate how they would add value, rather than simply extract it.

Biljana Savicfrom CABE reflected on her experiences working in rundown areas of the UK where property values had virtually collapsed. It was apparent that these issues need to be addressed at a larger spatial scale than that of the particular neighbourhoods affected. She argued that although we may have a better understanding of living in a ‘spiky’ world, with huge differentials between political and economic systems and performance, we still find it difficult to talk about certain issues and responses. Shrinkage is one: we need to face up to the reality that some places now lack a rationale to continue to exist, and might need to be abandoned – as have some North American cities. She also drew attention to the continuing need to build capacity and knowledge with front-line public sector practitioners.

Kevin Harris from Local Level hinted that there was a danger of over-emphasising the impact of social networks. Social capital had dropped out of government speak and the public sector was guilty of squeezing out creativity and ideas because of its procurement process and target-orientated mindset. He took heart from the fact that the idea of thinking and acting collectively was becoming acceptable again. He warned that community cohesion and community engagement were not the same thing, and that the practice of making communities ‘responsible’ for their own destiny was borne of political convenience. Nevertheless, he predicted an explosion of online neighbourhood networks, and a movement away from a desire to create manicured, corporate environments. He ended with this call: If time is no longer money, then what is it? A very intense, insightful and wide-ranging discussion ensued, which covered topics such as the rise of squatting, the importance of sweat equity, the concept of time banking, the impact of peak oil, the dismantling of toxic assets, and the opportunities for micro- finance. It became clear that those present were actually feeling positive about future prospects: yes, the current situation hurts, but we had it coming, and sustainable place-making was always going to require something quite different: radical, collective, tactical,authentic and focused on social value.

Adrian Lee from Hands On Project Management pointed out that we will see increasing numbers of empty properties across our beleaguered cities. In the present circumstances, people will, regardless of moral viewpoint or legal niceties, simply find ways to occupy and use empty property. John Worthington, DEGW, suggested that the future would not see the pendulum swinging back to something we’ve known before, but a remapping of how we see our lives and how we want to spend our time. Underpinning all this, he argued, was one immutable principle: the value of the property and built environment sector will only be as good as its values.
There was a telling moment when someone asked if we were still talking about urbanism, and if so, then what was it, really? Urbanism, another participant proposed, meant getting under the skin of a place, dealing with all its facets, and understanding its story of change. The stories of change for places everywhere are going to be challenging and extraordinary. Our children and our grandchildren will learn from, and be inspired by, the resilience of people in those places.
The next step for this discussion is to find new ways of capturing, measuring and analysing these trajectories of change. This event laid the foundation for a new Academy programme called City X- Rays, which takes as its premise the notion that current ways of measuring economic performance, cultural experience, emotional landscapes, in relation to place, may well be inadequate indicators for the times ahead. The Academy of Urbanism is committed to compiling a new set of methodologies, working with a wide range of partners from think tanks to universities, to serve and enlighten us as we enter a new era.

Anyone interested in progressing this new learning agenda should contact:
Linda Gledstone:[email protected]