Creating Vibrant Cities

One of the dangers of being engaged every day in the world of regeneration is that of being sucked into the wormhole of the mechanics of investment and development – land assembly, viability, planning and the like.

There is nothing wrong with any of these per se, all are important issues to be solved if a project is to progress.

However, over the past few weeks I’ve attended two events which have reminded me of the need to reconnect with the bigger picture - the underlying purpose of regeneration if you will – and that is people, place and the interaction between the two.

The challenge is that of moving from customer creating place, to place creating customers, the meaning of which I’ll come back to later in the article.

The first event was the Festival of Place held in the achingly hip Tobacco Dock in East London. This gathering of what might be best described as dedicated urbanists – let’s say more tattoos than suits - delved into the function and form of what is now usually described as ‘place-making’.

The dangers of these conventions is that of falling into masterclasses on ubiquitous regeneration pin-ups – usually New York and London – and, sure enough, there were keynotes on the revival of Times Square and Kings Cross.

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I know both these areas very well and can remember their undoubted edginess, bordering on danger, when I first visited them in the 1980s. Today, their transformation is astonishing, and the back story is a good one.

Of course, there are learning points but I really question the relevance and transferability of much of this to cities that are not global metropolises, in fact most cities, certainly the Derbies, Leicesters and Nottinghams of the world.

One day I’d like to go to a conference where the focus is on the experience of thousands of medium-sized cities, where no mention is made of London, New York or Paris.

That said, I find myself leaving a session like that, my mind spinning with nuggets which can be applied when back behind the desk. One important take away quote came from an architect who said ‘how buildings meet the ground is more important than how they meet the sky’.

In other words, rebalance the emphasis currently placed on scale, form and massing with that on impact of the building on the streetscape. Will a new building contribute to vibrancy or will it sterilise the street?

The second event was Marketing Derby’s annual Property Summit which we held at the stunning Roundhouse complex, adjacent to the station.

Here we hosted over 350 delegates, making it the largest property event in the region. Many of our guests were able to catch the 8am out of St Pancras and simply cross the road, straight into the Roundhouse itself, well ahead of our 10am start. 

Our speakers were top notch and brought a broad national and international perspective.

The keynote was given by the CEO of the Association of Town and City Management, Ojay McDonald, who talked about how the disruption that technology was having on the high street was not going away soon. He argued that the challenge in redefining the purpose of town and city centres was not to recreate the past dominated by retail but to make centres safe, welcoming and attractive to future generations.  

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We were lucky to secure Bart Somers, the dynamic and charismatic Mayor of Mechelen in Belgium, who described the transformation of what he described as a ‘city in despair’ 20 years ago to an award-winning city today.

His strategy was two-pronged, restoration of law and order, together with a ruthless focus on driving inclusivity and equality.

In practice, this meant investment in the public realm by making Mechelen clean, safe and diverse. The schemes were many and often small – bringing water back into the city by opening hidden brooks, introducing trees and grass, reducing car use by bringing in cycle and scooter schemes. In other words, make Mechelen interesting and surprising.

His philosophy was unique and challenges normal paradigms - to treat people as citizens, not communities.

His energy, passion and bravery won Bart the title of World’s Best Mayor and I’ve rarely seen an audience so entranced and motivated by a speaker. There is much we can learn from Bart and Mechelen.

Our final speaker was Yolande Barnes who is Chair of the Bartlett Institute for Real Estate at University College London. Her robust academic perspective perfectly complemented Bart’s applied thoughts and her emphasis on stewardship of the public space rang so true.

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Put together, the speakers threw new light on our central theme – the revitalisation of town and city centres – and the solution to that challenge seems to lie in the need for places to create customers.

Regeneration has to be subservient to place-making and our cities need to become more diverse, with mixed and flexible uses and, to put it simply be a lot less boring and a lot more interesting.