Regeneration is like managing woodland: it requires a long-term view

Urban areas are ecological systems, similar to a managed woodland. A successful city has multiple, thriving and symbiotic areas, providing mutual sustenance, just like a wood.

Too often regeneration programmes are akin to clear felling of plantations leaving a desolate landscape which takes a generation to grow back.

The process is disruptive, destroying the complex networks of plant and animal species that has developed as the trees have grown.

Like all analogies this can be pushed too far.

But, thinking about big regeneration projects, ones that involve mass demolition and dispersal of people, businesses and social infrastructure there are many similarities.

Urban neighbourhoods evolve over many years, great places are where the physical form of a neighbourhood and the social networks are in harmony, the benches and open spaces are the places where people choose to sit.

Like any ecosystem it can be fragile. The neighbourhoods described by Jane Jacobs in the early 1960s were the product of a complex web of happenstances as well as, more rarely, conscious decisions.

Rule based decision making systems that prescribe standards and seek to allocate land uses rationally are more equitable but reward compliance over creativity. Neighbourhoods are more than the sum of their land use decisions, have character that goes beyond the built form.

Today’s masterplan should be tomorrow’s wrapping paper. The act of masterplanning a neighbourhood inevitably changes the neighbourhood before any project is implemented. The thought processes, discussions, disputes and accommodations of masterplanning change how people feel about their neighbourhood and their position within it.

Neighbourhood-based renewal processes require patience and long-term commitment by all participants. A crucial factor is recognition that what was a good idea when a scheme is first conceived may not be appropriate in a different context.

One of the challenges of delivering complex long-term programmes is maintaining the levels of enthusiasm, commitment and energy that attend the launch of a new programme. This applies to the communities affected by change, the teams delivering the programme and decision makers, especially politicians.

There is no universal solution to this conundrum. Staff churn is inevitable, political influences wax and wane, community attitudes fluctuate.

Perhaps the starting point is to recognise that regeneration like forestry needs a long-term perspective.

Photo by Nicholas_T

Tony Hutchinson

Tony Hutchinson

Housing consultant

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