Regeneration must not wipeout communities

Parachuting eco-communities into cities can damage the social fabric says Kirsten Henson

Last January, I went back to the University of Cambridge to attend the Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment’s review of its 2014 Sustainable Cities programme.

I had contributed to the forum as an expert witness, and was invited to return to hear the panel discuss the outcome of its year-long programme. As one might expect, the sustainable cities discussions threw up more questions than answers and were considered invaluable for directing future PhD and Master’s research within the university.

Diverse topics, from design to governance, were discussed. Of particular interest was the suggestion that we had a lot to learn from developing countries; a degree of elasticity and disorder was deemed critical for resilience. The developed world tends to have more fixed and structured cities, so – when barriers are breached – the consequences tend to be catastrophic. It was surmised that the resilient city lies somewhere between the regimented system of the developed world and the organised chaos of cities in developing countries.

The panel warned against a sole focus on climate change. Working in silos and optimising a single element of a city’s challenges is likely to lead to detrimental, and often unintended, consequences elsewhere.

This is an area that I have written about before, following on from an EU Knowledge Share programme between east London and Gothenburg, in Sweden. A sole focus on the provision of exceptional new services in a deprived area of Gothenburg had no impact on the health and wellbeing of the local population, largely because of a lack of engagement, employment and social networks throughout the process.

Adaptable, flexible design that gives due consideration to the many trade-offs and balances, acceptance of soft failure, and consideration of ‘good enough’ are essential for creating sustainable cities.

Fundamentally, we should not be over-engineering our cities, whether from a hard engineering or social-governance perspective. We should take pleasure in the murky corners and nurture the informal networks; celebrate the diverse space – from formal squares to a forgotten leafy corner with a tired-looking bench.

We should take pleasure in the murky corners and not engineer out the social deprivation that lives alongside the shiny new development

We must give due consideration to – but not try to engineer out – the social deprivation that lives alongside the shiny new development and ‘regeneration’ projects. These juxtapositions found across our cities make them vibrant and exciting places to live, and provide an element of resilience.

I have been involved in the Olympic Programme since 2006 and, during this time, my belief of what success would look like for the Olympic regeneration programme has changed.

When I first started, I believed we could only claim success if we created a vast improvement in the social deprivation indices in the host boroughs, and changed the very fabric of the surrounding area.

But, as one Newham councillor told me, the people of Stratford want to shop in the Stratford Mall. They like it. It offers a place of strong social identity and cohesion, unlike the polished floors and bright lights of Westfield.

It isn’t so much ‘them’ and ‘us’ – perhaps it is simply people not easily engaging with change, particularly when they feel they have a community on their doorstep.

Provided the opportunities are there for those who want to take them, and services and facilities are affordable to all, let us celebrate the different cultures, lifestyles and environments we find in our city.

How foolish of me to think that everyone would aspire to live in a new zero-carbon home on the edge of the Queen Elizabeth Park. Inevitably, new people will be drawn to this area, and the challenge is to ensure that this new London quarter develops its own identity, its own community, and is one that sits well between the already strong identities of Hackney Wick and Stratford.

Kirsten Henson is a director at KLH Sustainability