Humanising urban regeneration: success lies in simplicity

GuardianWhen an urban area needs revitalising, developers often tear down and start again, but simple improvements that work with existing human traffic flows often make more sense


The benefits of urban regeneration are well-known. When done well, it sees run-down areas revitalised and creates vibrant communities that people want to live and work in.

Large-scale redevelopments such as London’s Docklands, Salford Quays in Manchester and Albert Dock in Liverpool are beloved of politicians looking to make an impact. These are big-ticket projects that require plenty of planning and plenty of investment in infrastructure and buildings.

Yet it’s often in the little things that success or failure lies. What affects people’s quality of life is detail, says Liz Kessler, an associate at Rethinking Cities and urban design consultant: “If you attend to the detail of existing places, you can change them and make them workable without having to do major works.”

As a result, people’s first instinct is to knock down old buildings and start again. “Often the focus in redevelopment is on the buildings, not on how you can integrate a project into that neighbourhood,” Kessler says. “But what makes a good environment is how people meet each other, how safe they feel, whether children can play and whether people can be involved in community activities.”

One of the simplest ways to improve an area is to provide more greenery. Good quality planting makes areas attractive as well as “humanising” them, according to Kessler.

Colour can be a key revitalising force too. AkzoNobel, for example, maker of Dulux paints, is experimenting with the use of paint as a tool for local regeneration. Through its Let’s Colour campaign, the company provides paint and sometimes training to assist with neighbourhood renewal projects around the world.

“It is part of our mission to add colour to people’s lives. There is an emotional side to painting your house because you are changing your environment,” says Chris Cook, global sustainability director for AkzoNobel’s decorative paints unit.

A lick of paint won’t change the world, he concedes, but it can make a huge difference to how people feel about their environment: “There is something about the power of colour that can act as a trigger to regeneration and reviving pride in the local community. However, while the paint can act as a catalyst, communities themselves have to take things forward.”

Let’s Colour started in Latin America, home also to a number of other projects that demonstrate the benefits of small-scale measures. Take the Colombian city of Bogot√°. Ravaged by years of drug wars, a decade ago the local authority set about building pedestrian and cycle lanes out into the informal settlements on the city’s periphery. The measure preceded the construction of car lanes.

“It was a small sign that just because you don’t have a car, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have value,” says Jonathan Schifferes, senior researcher on the 2020 Public Services and Connected Communities programme at the Royal Society of Arts.

Closer to home, companies such as Space Syntax monitor how pedestrians move through spaces and how they congregate. Such user data is then used to optimise city layouts. “If you design a park with no paths, you can see where the pathways emerge and build your paths there rather than in pre-determined locations. If you impose a route, people will just subvert it anyway,” says Schifferes.

A danger constantly exists that planners, architects and developers can become fixated with big “marquee” schemes, notes Cook: “But sometimes it is smaller projects that appeal to local communities because they are more real and personal to them.”

And there is often a lot more room for experimentation than is realised. Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, for example, provides communities with kits that enable them to experiment with traffic flow. “It’s basically a package of hay bales and traffic cones, but it allows you to try out designs for traffic-calming measures and see how they work,” Schifferes says.

Not all details are tangible. Sometimes success comes down to a simple matter of attitudes, Schifferes continues. He cites the “tolerant approach” that city authorities have taken to skaters on parts of London’s South Bank. Similarly, street performers and artists have had a place in Covent Garden throughout its gradual regeneration over the last decade. “Things like that make all the difference”, says Schifferes.

With any regeneration project, the overall vision needs to be sound. Kessler testifies to seeing “millions [of pounds] spent on regeneration that just doesn’t fulfil people’s needs”. Small details won’t salvage that, but they can make the difference between a good place to live and a great one.

The Planet Possible series is funded by AkzoNobel. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled advertisement feature. Find out more here.