Category Archives: Urban

Future from the past: why city regeneration needs to be authentic and involve people

Nearly sixty years ago, Jane Jacobs wrote that “designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.” Her work is the basis for city planning across the world. She advocated dense, walkable, and authentic neighbourhoods. She demanded that our places make use of their uniqueness. She humanised place. Above all, she demonstrated through her own actions that people must be involved in our cities’ futures.

Joining the Committee to Save Washington Park moved Jacobs from criticism to activism. It also helped stop Robert Moses. New York’s “master builder” wanted to drive the Lower Manhattan Expressway through the heart of Greenwich Village. Jacobs became a hero to people who believe that our places are nothing without the human beings who live and work there.



Cliclovia, Bogotá – 29 July 2017


This idea is now central to how our cities are changing. Yet, too often, “urban regeneration” as actually delivered by cities ends up destroying the very distinctiveness and authenticity upon which their vibrancy depends. Development is not always regeneration. Development that takes no account of the place in which it happens is not regenerating anything. Development very often has “no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own”; more words from Jacobs.

Regeneration, by its very meaning, has to reflect what has come before. Ensuring an authentic sense of place means making reference to a city’s past. That is not the same as being trapped by the past. It simply means that character and distinctiveness do not magic themselves out of thin air.

An authentic sense of place also means involving people. Successful cities are the ones with the confidence to use the imaginations of their people. They recognise the two key lessons of Jacobs’ work: that distinctiveness is crucial and that people have to be involved in how our places are shaped.

Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” He may as well have been talking about place. The very character of our places affects us as people. Hanoverians are different from Berliners because its maritime heritage is different from Berlin’s political one; Angelenos are different from New Yorkers because of sunshine and beaches versus skyscrapers and pastrami; Belfastians are different from Edinburghers because of ships and linen against a castle and Adam Smith.

No formula exists for character or sense of a place. Nor is there is an easy way to measure it. But we absolutely know it when we see and feel it.

We know that it combines the tangible and intangible, the ordinary and extraordinary. It is, in varying degrees for various people, the look and feel of buildings, whether stone, brick or glass, the ways in which we use or don’t use our public spaces, maritime or landlocked, industrial grit or genteel merchant city.

More than anything else, it is people who articulate that character. Through the stories we tell and the welcomes we provide, people give a face to that character. So if our places have the power to shape us as people then we must have the power to shape our places.

A little over a week ago I embarked on a Winston Churchill Fellowship to explore how cities involve people in their regeneration. The research is built around two projects with which I’m involved. Successful Belfast is encouraging people to be involved in Belfast’s future in enterprising ways. Belfast City of Music has the ambition of telling the city’s story through music on an international stage.

Successful cities have a vibrancy built from a distinctive identity and civic participation. My travels will take me to six such cities in Colombia and the US. They will involve exploring the enterprising work encouraged by the Knight Foundation based in Miami, learning about Citizen Culture and the City of Music programme in Bogotá, seeing the work of the Moravia Cultural Centre in Medellín, looking at a city centre car park experiment in Lexington, experiencing the amazing energy of Chattanooga as ‘Enterprise City’, and finding out what makes Nashville tick as ‘Music City’.

All of it is possible because Churchill believed in the power of people to deliver change. Churchill also had the confidence to be Churchill. We must make sure that we have the confidence to truly regenerate our cities in authentic and meaningful ways. We must use the stories and energies of people to shape that regeneration.

Peter Ackroyd writes in “Venice: Pure City” that all cities “began as cemeteries.” It might be extreme, though accurate in the case of Venice, but the sentiment he is expressing, that all cities have a past, holds true. It means that we need to use that past to make sure that our cities remain living.

P.S. Applications for 2018 Winston Churchill Fellowships are open until 19th September. If you have an idea you want to explore, apply for the Fellowship!



Leave a comment

Filed under Belfast, Cities, Regeneration, Urban

Young People and Heritage Led Regeneration

A recent post on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s blog about “How to Turn Young Adults Into Preservationists” got me to thinking a little bit more about the issue of why preservation and heritage is perceived as the preserve of the grey-haired. I’ve come to the realisation that it’s about more than just being old. In her piece, Emily Koller argues that historic preservation is essentially about identity and “about possessing the emotional capacity to care about a place”, before going on to say that people under 30 – the Millenial Generation – “are not interested in preservation because we are mostly numb to the places in which we live.”

There is a lot of truth to Koller’s statement, and work that the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust* has undertaken would largely bear out the first part of her argument. Looking at a late Victorian church, in a terrible state of dereliction and in the most economically and socially deprived part of Northern Ireland, time after time, local residents repeated the assertion that they wanted to see the building restored and brought back to life because it was a landmark for their area.

Janine Walker / BBPT

Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church, despite having been empty for 25 years – and in such a poor state that it was included on the World Monument Fund’s Watch List 2010 – is, for the people of North Belfast, a true ‘iconic’ building. Despite the social ills of the area, despite the bitter sectarian division surrounding the building, and despite the chronic deprivation, indeed, perhaps because of these, the people of North Belfast are clear that preserving Carlisle Memorial Church is of critical importance to them. There is plenty to suggest that people care about a place when it comes to Carlisle Memorial, and North Belfast in general. The problem comes with what to do with the building.

Given the social and economic deprivation around Carlisle Memorial Church, it is clear that the heritage led regeneration of the building will have to deliver firm results for the people around it. It can, and should, be about more than restoring the building. It can, and should, be about more than just North Belfast. It can, and should, be about helping to regenerate communities, not just buildings.

Alison Curtis / Alicakes* - Flickr

Koller wrote in her piece that historic preservation doesn’t cross people’s minds until we begin to think of settling down. Once we do that, and have bought our white picket fences, then “We care because we have a sense of ownership — and by accident, we’ve become preservationists.” This might be so, and in the pre-credit crunch days of easy access to mortgages it was drummed into my generation that owning a house should be a key life goal.

This is also, I’m afraid, where I take issue with the argument. Saying that we become preservationists by accident simply isn’t good enough. It is an abdication of responsibility by the heritage lobby to wait until people are home owners in the expectation that they will then become accidental preservationists. We don’t turn young adults into preservationists if they accidentally become preservationists when they buy a house. Given that most young people under 30 are not terribly likely to be home owners, this reinforces the notion that heritage led regeneration and historic preservation are only for older generations – something that anyone involved in urban policy, regeneration, heritage or sustainable planning should be very scared of indeed.

The issue is more how do we engage young people with preservation and with heritage led regeneration than how do we turn them into preservationists. A sense of ownership is still crucial, and no young person, whether a young adult in their late 20s, or a teenager just starting out in secondary education, is going to have that sense of ownership unless they are engaged in the decision making process. Engagement and inclusion in the process is what gives ownership, not a mortgage and a BBQ on the deck. And in response to the point that Millenials are a generation with no roots or no sense of place, that may be so. I believe that lots of young adults desperately wish to feel and create a sense of place but, having been excluded from the decision making process, or by being made to wait 10-20 years until they settle down with families, there is little to engender this sense of place in young people, so the grass is always greener somewhere else and many young people move on to bigger, bolder, brighter lights to create their own sense of place.

hellobo / Bo - Flickr

Part of what needs to happen for young people – adults or teenagers – to become preservationists is for them to be able to see that preservation brings them benefits. Just like a government department, or taxpayers in general, young people are not going to be interested until they can see tangible (and feel intangible) benefits to their stock in life. Too often preservationists and the heritage lobby argue that preservation should happen for preservation sake, but I’m sorry to be the person to say that nothing happens just for the sake of it when money is involved.  The arguments exist about heritage and heritage led regeneration offering firm economic and social benefits – job creation, skills development, tourism support, and the most intangible but yet most important of all – securing a “sense of place”.

Take these arguments, put them in the context of delivering something firm for young people, and that will make them preservationists. Maybe not in the purist sense, but what’s more important – preserving a building of architectural and social merit that can deliver real benefits for people, or preserving it simply because of its architectural and social significance? I would argue that real preservation isn’t about the building at all, but what the building means to the people who live next to it and who will one day use it.

I recently stumbled across a project in Norwich, England, called Open. It’s a centre for young people (something much more than a youth centre) with a young persons’ nightclub, a climbing wall, a recording studio, cafe, health studio, a media lab and offering workshops and activities that concentrate on skills development and advice. It started as something much smaller, but grew and grew once the young people involved became involved in the decision making process. Eventually it needed a home, and found the former regional HQ of Barclay’s Bank. It cost £12 million to restore and fit out the Victorian building, a process that involved young people making decisions all along. Now, tell me that the young people of Norwich are not preservationists as a result of this heritage led regeneration scheme.  

Back in Belfast, report after report can detail the ills of the north of the city. Among them is a chronic lack of aspiration, fed by severe educational under attainment, long term unemployment and chronic health problems. Proactively engaging with young people to find solutions, possibly based around digital media, the creative industries and the knowledge economy, with an element of skills development, job creation and securing a “sense of place” will be crucial to the success of preserving Carlisle Memorial Church. It is about helping them explore what their local community is about, and in engaging them in making decisions that will give young people a sense of ownership, both of their community, and of their built heritage. It should be crucial to everything that preservationists do to help turn young adults into preservationists.

Janine Walker / BBPT

If the restoration of Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church can deliver practical benefits to the young people of North Belfast – and in the wider city – and if young people have been engaged in the decision making process of restoring the building, this will provide them with a sense of ownership of their built heritage. If this happens, then tell me that the young people of Belfast won’t be preservationists too.  And not accidental preservationists either.

*In the interests of full disclosure, I work for the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust and conducted a community consultation on the possibility of restoring Carlisle Memorial Church between March 2008 and March 2009.

Leave a comment

Filed under Belfast, Heritage, Regeneration, Urban