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Reading Toby Hill’s recent article Is regeneration bringing slums back to London?, I had the oddest sensation that I could almost have written it myself. I have spent the past 18 months researching the issue of urban renewal—I even researched some of the same areas—and have come to many of the same conclusions. He is absolutely right to highlight the failures of the regeneration model and to argue that it amounts, in the end, to little more than social cleansing: to pushing out the poor in favour of the rich.
It doesn’t stop in London either. Though our capital city is undoubtedly its birthplace and home, the regeneration model has now spread across the UK. Throughout the country, councils looking to renew run down areas, have been sold regeneration (and its sibling gentrification) on the basis of the supposed trickle-down effect. They were told that expensive housing would bring affluence and that this would trickle-down to poorer communities, creating a rising tide that lifts all ships. In reality, they have simply created islands of prosperity whilst the poor are washed away by a tidal wave of economic (and accompanying social) hardship.
It’s not just in housing either. With the rise of supermarkets, out-of-town shopping and, perhaps most of all, internet retailing, high streets have suffered over recent years. Councils have all too frequently responded by ‘regenerating’ with ever larger and plusher shopping malls, sucking yet more life out of high streets and pushing out independents. This is the root cause of the phenomenon now known as Clone Towns.
This, we should all agree, needs to stop. We need our towns to be economically successful, yes, but we also need them to be socially inclusive and, whilst we’re at it, environmentally sustainable. We cannot possibly achieve this by focussing purely on the rich few, at the expense of the poorer majority. Moreover, the regeneration model contains the seeds of its own demise. The model rests entirely upon the notion of exclusivity. Look at any such development of posh houses, apartments or even shops and you will find that word in the sales pitch somewhere. But exclusivity, by definition, cannot be replicated indefinitely.
There are signs that some councils are starting to recognise these failings. So whilst the corrupting influence of big money is undoubtedly important and influential (and something we should always seek to combat), we need to also be realistic about this. Councils are bound by their Development Planning Documents (DPDs). In run down towns and neighbourhoods these DPDs will commit the council to urban renewal. Faced with the need to deliver on this requirement, councils inevitably look to see what options are available. The dominant current model of regeneration focuses exclusively on the economic, but has the advantage of being able to provide ‘big ticket’ projects to renew entire areas. By contrast, options which focus on being socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable tend to be small scale and piecemeal. It should hardly be a surprise then that they choose the former over the latter (particularly, of course, when there are such influential voices whispering in their ears on behalf of the former).
What we clearly need, is a viable alternative. We need a model of urban renewal that can compete head on with regeneration and win. Any such alternative must include the three pillars of sustainability as set out above – we must create towns that are economically successful, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable.
The research and creation of such an alternative model, is precisely what I have been working on these past 18 months. The end result is a model I have named Regrowth. I have given it that name because, instead of knocking down and rebuilding, it seeks to build on what is already present. It allows for communities, neighbourhoods, high streets and indeed entire towns to be renewed and brought greater prosperity. At the same time, it includes everyone and is environmentally beneficial as well.
The idea is this. Vertical farms will be retrofit into disused industrial buildings (or newer buildings if none are available). On the land that invariably surrounds these units, community farms/gardens will be established. On the high streets, regular (perhaps even daily) markets will be set up, selling the locally grown produce. It seems a simple plan and indeed it is. But the benefits are there for everyone.
The vertical farms will act as the economic engines of urban renewal. The produce they ship to the local markets will bring back footfall to the high streets. Other businesses will inevitably follow – indeed some, such as cafes and restaurants, may also be supplied by the farms. They will also provide jobs. The community gardens/farms set up will act as the social bridge, connecting the vertical farms to the communities around them and making the people in those communities stakeholders in their success. Furthermore, they will offer support (as do such projects currently across the country) to more vulnerable members of the community, reducing social hardship. Where the crops grown are complimentary, these community projects may well also supply those same local markets and businesses (for example, a community orchard might grow fruit trees, where a vertical farm cannot).
More jobs, more prosperity, but also more social inclusion and community ownership. What’s more, by making food production local, the target of increasing environmental sustainability is met. Vertical farms are potentially much more sustainable than conventional growing – with less use of water, pesticides and fertilisers as well as making food miles into food metres!
So how do we make it happen? As I set out briefly above, councils are bound by their DPDs which in turn are derived from the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). So the key is to get councils to word their DPDs in such a way as to encourage the better alternative model offered by Regrowth. The critical element that I have been working on recently is to get councils to adopt a commitment to require food growing spaces as part of all new developments and/or redevelopments. With the recent addition of the ‘presumption of sustainable development’ to the NPPF, some of the more forward thinking councils are already starting to move in this direction. Others, sadly, are much further behind. Where councils do have such a commitment, we should be pursuing them to implement the Regrowth model wherever possible. With those that have no such commitment (or in some cases only a partial step in that direction) we should be attempting to get that commitment from them. The periodic review of all DPDs allows an opportunity for this to happen in many cases (some councils have desperately out of date DPDs). To this end, I have established a database of all UK councils, setting out precisely which councils have what commitments. The job is now to begin pursuing those councils as above.
This is where I hope to engage you, the reader of this article. If enough of us get together, get this commitment from our councils and get them talking about the Regrowth model, there is no good reason this could not be achieved with just a few short years. I would argue that doing so would answer the question asked by Toby Hill and, further, would provide us with a real and better option to the benefit of us all.
This article is part of our Housing in Crisis series.