Panuku Development Auckland’s Place Making Manager Frith Walker discusses balancing commercial interests and community needs in urban renewal.
Growing Pains, not just a seminal 80s TV sitcom that launched the career of Leonardo Di Caprio, but something we’re experiencing right now with the growth of our urban centres.
And here in little old New Zealand, according to the latest migration figures, we gained another 6000 residents in February alone this year. So, cool I hear you say, but don’t we already have a bit of an issue in terms of where we house everyone, how they get around…what quality of life can be afforded?
These are all questions that need to be answered. Pronto. And this year especially, there’s going to be a lot of airtime dedicated to them as we experience that lovely four-year shout-fest otherwise known as elections.
One of the first things to decide is where we want to grow. In Auckland, our largest city, there’s been a running debate during the last few years on this topic.
The greenfield sprawl or the brownfield rise and renewal? There finally seems to be agreement between local and central government on this point, but the next big hurdle is funding infrastructure. Given the agency I work for is primarily in the brownfield space, that’s where a lot of my placemaking attention is focused right now, as part of our urban regeneration efforts in satellite centres across the Auckland region.
Breaking down urban regeneration
What do we mean by this great piece of jargon – “urban regeneration”?
One thing that stands out to me when you look up urban renewal on Wikipedia is that it’s a policy based on “renovation and investment…often combined with small and big business incentives.”
In other words, there’s an element of public policy and planning combined with a strong private sector interest and commercial nous to kick start the new growth as part of the urban renewal process. But with both parties measured on different criteria by their shareholders, it’s easy to understand why it can be fraught with issues.
It requires flexibility on both sides; the public side to understand that developers need to make the numbers and feasibility check out, and the private side to adopt a broader appreciation for the impact and role they play in the societal aspects of urban renewal of a space.
Manufacturing happy places to live
All too often, there’s the perception that bringing new, wealthier demographics into an area along with a strip of retail and investment in public infrastructure will increase economic activity and translate into an attractive place to live. But we know full well that this can displace existing populations and that this is where we get to the nasty G word that gets bandied round (Gentrification. Just to be clear. Not, like gout or anything fungus related. Well, not literally…)
A semi-recent article caught my attention, highlighting the journey city planners have been on in Detroit as part of the renewal of the motor city. Clearly a good opportunity to attract a new demographic into the city centre, one that would yield stronger rental returns through leasing. But seeing the world simply through this lens, neglects to factor in the impact on what had come before and fundamental human wellbeing.
As a report out earlier this year showed, the happiness of a population is not determined by wealth and prosperity alone. In this report, happiness is defined by economic situation (income, education, employment), social situation (partner, crime), and personal health (physical and mental).
And so dear reader I ask you – in this sense, how can local and regional government work with private investors to lift the lever in all these areas?
You might argue, “Where’s the business case?” – but to me, surely businesses and developers want to create developments in which people are happy and want to live? And if you listen to my good friend Charles Montgomery in his book Happy City, investing in social capital is far more important and may not require as large a monetary investment as one might think. Case in point is the episode he shares about his encounter with the Mayor of Colombia’s capital city Bogota. “We might not be able to fix the economy. But we can design the city to give people dignity, to make them feel rich. The city can make them happier.”
In the book, he also says: “If one was to judge by sheer wealth, the last half-Century should have been an ecstatically happy time for people in the US and other rich nations such as Canada, Japan and Great Britain.” So, on that note…I wonder how the people in the United States of America are feeling these days.
Here’s a proposition – that the development community has a responsibility to ensure gentrification is a good thing, not a bad thing. It’s about seeing that there’s life beyond just their section, and every little bit of public art or externally facing activation, or community participation initiative they get involved in is doing wonders for the health and wealth of the area as a whole. What’s more, that the people of a place are their best resource in terms of making things authentic and real and resilient.
And while I have you, can I also just reiterate that this work needs to remain bespoke rather than just wheeling out formulaic community garden / markets / hipster cafés found on Pinterest as seeds to create a cool suburb.
Yes, some of those elements may be utilised as part of a place activation programme but these are always best designed with community leaders in the driving seat, supported by targeted investment and well curated sponsorship.
This maths is key to creating the kind of genuine connectivity and social capital that makes us properly happy.
Acknowledging you may not have connection with local people, and building in initiatives that can nurture existing activity alongside introducing new peeps, ultimately creates character and helps define the place, giving it strong identity and a point of difference. This, in the end, helps you sell your product! Gosh, she does have a commercial bone in her body.
Good job we are cleverly equipped with left and right brains because it requires a more organic approach than traditional planning methodology allows. Get this down ya…
For those of you wanting to get a bit next level at this point, check this out.
To bring it on back home, it’s a matter of understanding the drivers for all parties involved to reach a common outcome. An outcome that sees the successful rejuvenation of a place that gives new life to the character and identity that made it what it was in the first place. It’s not easy, and we’re not alone in dealing with growing pains, as this superb series of articles in The Guardian highlights.
It is a phenomenon happening around the world at present. As placemaking practitioners, we have a valuable role to play in helping to pull all sides together –private, public, and community.
And let’s not throw out the place baby with the bathwater in the process.