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.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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