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.


Rio vs London: Olympic transport legacies compared

London's then mayor Boris Johnson hands the Olympic flag to IOC President Jacques Rogge, who passes it to Rio mayor Eduardo Paes at the end of London's 2012 Olympic Games. Image: Getty.

The run-up to this year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has hardly been without controversy. From the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff to the rapid spread of the fearful Zika virus, events in Brazil have provided a worrying backdrop to the games, which start next week.

It’s tempting for Londoners to look back at the games four years ago as a golden age, when we got to show off our modern metropolis, not to mention our cultural superiority, in that stunning open ceremony.

But we should try looking at the games in a different light. By looking at the benefits they bring to host cities, in terms of long-term investment in infrastructure and public transport, we can ask ourselves a trickier question. How good were London’s games, really? Might Rio outperform us?

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2016

Rio's Maracana Stadium, February 2015. Image: Getty.

There’s no doubt that Rio is set to benefit from enormous investment in its transport network in preparation for the games. Current estimates put the total expenditure on public transport investment at 24 billion reals, or around £5.5bn; though it’s highly possible that this figure could rise in the coming years and months, as final costs are totted up.

One of the main regeneration projects associated with the games is the Porto Maravilha (literally: “Marvellous Port”), a stretch of the bay-front near Rio’s city centre that has seen a complete overhaul of day-to-day urban infrastructure like sewage systems to water pipes. The development has also seen 11 miles of cycle paths built, 18.6 miles of light rail laid down, and a huge highway flyover demolished.

Seperately, the city has also opened a new tram line, running from Santos Dumont Airport, the city’s second major hub, to the bus terminal of Rodoviaria Novo Rio near the city centre.

The good news goes thus far but no further.

A planned metro extension, running from the renowned beach-hugging suburb of Ipanema (tall and tan and yes you know the rest), through super-rich playground Leblon to the Olympic Village in Barra da Tijuca, has been hit by delays and budget overruns.

Its original cost was estimated at 5 billion Brazilian reals (£1.2bn); but in the course of building it, its price has almost doubled to 9.7 billion. We still don’t have a final figure for how much the project has cost.

To top it all off, it’s not even opening properly before the games start. Back in May, the city said it would be ready to go on 1 August, which is just four days before the opening ceremony. Even then, the service won’t be open properly. For the first two months, Metro 4 line will be available only to those connected to the games: officials, competitors, or spectators with tickets.

After the Paralympic Games wrap up in September, the service will be opened to the public, with a slow increase in the regularity of service until eventually (at some unspecified date) it’ll be running at the kind of level you’d expect from a metro.

London, UK, 2012

London's Olympic Park, shortly before the games in 2012. Image: Getty.

Not too fast, there, Londoners. I see you, smugly sipping your coffee as you replay the 2012 Opening Ceremony video for the umpteenth time with a borderline-patriotic tear trickling down your metropolitan cheek. We didn’t do such a great job of all things transport either. Indeed, if you think about it: what did we do?

Transport for London did extend the East London line of the London Overground was extended, connecting Highbury & Islington in the north, to West Croydon, Crystal Palace, and New Cross in the south.

But to be honest, it didn’t have that much to do with the Olympics. It was given the go-ahead in 2001 before Tony Blair had even vaguely considered jet-setting to Singapore to clinch host city status as a vague way of patching up his bleak third term in office. And it doesn’t even go to Stratford.

Some tweaks were made to the Docklands Light Railway, adding more carriages to services, and… no, wait, that’s the lot.

The games did see the launch of a loudly-trumpeted new high-speed service, triumphantly titled “the Javelin”, connecting St Pancras to the misleadingly named Stratford International station. No international services, Eurostar or otherwise, stopped at Stratford International for the duration of the games, or indeed since. On the plus side, you could get to Kent really quickly, which is always nice.

One of the biggest transport investments for the 2012 London Olympic Games – the clue apparently not being in the name – was in Dorset.

Weymouth Bay was chosen as the location for all the sailing events of the games, but it was already known that in the summer months roads in the area became heavily congested with all the additional tourist traffic. Rather than moving the sailing to another location, the organizers of the games decide to spend £77m (to possibly £89m; it depends who you believe) at Dorset to build a great big relief road to make everyone happy.

And, of course, how could we forget the cable car. Estimated to have cost £60m, the cable car’s lack of utility is a thing of great renown to all in the capital. Reports circulated that it had just four regular commuters, which has since become no regular commuters. The parody twitter account Emirate Dangleway really says everything you need to know about London’s great Olympic adventure:

These tweets could make a grown man cry.

Rio’s games, opening next Friday, will be an interesting test of how a nation under such intense political and cultural pressure copes with the eyes of the world watching.

There is no doubt that there will be hiccups, and its legacy will be intensely divisive. But in time cariocas will be able to ride their extended metro, hop on a new tram, cycle along a new cycle path, and explore an area released from a tyrannical flyover, safe in the knowledge that an investment has been made in their city and its transport.

Londoners can only hop on the Dangleway sporting a “I hosted the Olympics and all I got was this lousy cable car” T-shirt, and hope that being ironic will make the pain go away.

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