Estate regeneration can be done well. Here’s how

South London's un-regenerated Heygate estate. Image: Getty.

Everyone knows that regeneration is frequently done badly. Everyone knows that consultation can be tokenistic or faked. These are people’s homes, people’s communities – and people’s lives. People deserve better than being lied to or materially ignored by developers, as is all too frequently the case.

It can be hard to dissociate the very word “regeneration” from all the well-known negative examples. But it is not inherently impossible to upgrade the urban form. It can be done well.

This won’t solve all of society’s ills, which run much deeper and more systematically than anything a change or urban form can fix: education and social capital top architecture.

But what has been proven is that urban form can, and frequently does, have a meaningful impact on wellbeing. Multiple studies have shown that, even accounting for broader socio-economic factors, urban design can have a positive impact if done well – and a negative one if done badly.

And as the housing crisis reaches new levels of the stratosphere, urban form is edging closer to the forefront of policy debate. This gives an opportunity for meaningful action and meaningful impact, to try to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Seven habits of highly effective regenerations

At Create Streets, we use seven tests for assessing regeneration – and argue that there’s scant point in changing the urban fabric of a place if it doesn’t pass these tests. Stubborn? Perhaps, but a development that fails these test will end up doing more harm than good. They are also eminently passable, as we’ll see. 

The seven questions are:

  • Does it have support of residents?
  • Does it have support of neighbours?
  • Does it increase total housing?
  • Does it at least keep social housing equal & treat leaseholders and tenants fairly?
  • Is the new spatial layout better – and does it “plug into” streets and city?
  • Are new internal standards better and good enough?
  • Does it produce mixed community by tenure and use?

Just to be clear, the answer to all of the above should be “yes.”

A lot of high profile estate regenerations have failed these tests: indeed, often one of the reasons why they are high profile is precisely because they’ve not gone about things properly. Neglecting these points can obviously have a negative impact on residents – but more than that, failing these tests creates controversy and therefore opposition.

“Residents could be re-housed without being decanted”

Compliance with these tests should therefore be a no-brainer. As Savills’ recent report for the Cabinet Office recommended, new developments should give “a genuine and privileged role for the local community”. And don’t let anyone tell you that the “value” is not there to do it properly. Again, the recent Savills reports shows quite clearly the value inherent in medium-density, provably popular urbanism. It can work on everybody’s terms.

The secret of my success

The community on north London’s Packington Estate had this sort of input. Built in the late 1960s in Islington, tucked behind Upper Street and bordering the Regent’s Canal, the process of redeveloping the estate began in 2006: a poll of residents approved transfer of ownership to the social landlords the Hyde Group, who then funded the improvements through densifying.

The rebuilding shows the value of effective consultation and dialogue with residents. The process led to an estate that residents were pleased with and proud of. It re-instated integrated streets (86 per cent wanted a new development to reinstate the traditional street pattern), built more houses and, crucially, avoided the high-rise towers residents had explicitly said they did not want. The rebuilding process took place over several stages, meaning that residents could be re-housed without being decanted.


The maximum height at Packington was increased by just 33 per cent (from six storeys to eight). But the development still managed to increase overall density by 56 per cent (from 538 homes to 839). This was a very clear and specific win for residents: Hyde themselves have acknowledged that they would have built higher without this input from residents, and without a planning authority who supported the residents.

The Portobello Square development in North Kensington, by Catalyst Housing, is also worth citing. Its rebuild will create more homes, and the housing of all existing residents, including the social housing provision, will be fully replaced.

After consultation, the key design objectives were reintegration with the surrounding neighbourhood, and the creation of a new square at the heart of the scheme to replace a previously poorly-located square. The visual typology is one of the key strengths of this redevelopment: it was drawn from “traditional Kensington residential precedents,” including mews houses and townhouses, and fits into the local street network. This also helped to keep the development in line with the densities of the borough, the second densest in London. 

Neither of these examples are perfect. Little in life is. Some of the squares in Packington, for example, have confused fronts and backs.

But they do show that working with residents and listening to both their concerns and preferences can lead to a popular urban form that is dense enough to increase London’s total housing stock, but of high enough quality to boost wellbeing and improve lives.

Indeed, if you’re not making better and more popular places that can function as an integrated part of the city for generations then what, in the long term, is the point?

Kieran Toms is a researcher and urban designer at Create Streets, a social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streets.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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