June 21, 2011

Is "Regeneration" Always About Big?

An interesting blog post from Tim Williams discussing some of his his thoughts after reading Edward Glaeser's The Triumph of the City.

I don't like the way that it splits the "how do you solve a problem like regeneration" into two options: the build it and they will come approach that we seem to have been trying in the UK for most of my lifetime; or the help people to escape from these failed cities and towns to a shiny new life somewhere else (which in the UK means within the draw of the M25).

What annoys me about it is that those options are presented as the only choices, and that they label certain towns and cities as "failed". I don't think that's a useful endeavour, as it assumes that (a) everyone should, and will, make decisions based solely on economics; and (b) that moving most of the population into the South-East would be a desirable aim.

I'm proof that the first option isn't true, otherwise I'd still be living in Cambridge rather than having moved back to Liverpool. And choosing Cambridge again, just because I've lived there and so have an understanding of some of the issues it faces, it's already facing problems with the number of people who want to live there now, never mind trying to fit more in. It would be good for the value of my house though...

Where I do agree with Tim and Edward is in the argument that grand building projects aren't going to fix things. I think edifice error is a nice term for it:

Glaeser ‘s view that much regeneration effort has been misdirected and funding wasted can be summed up in his notion of the ‘edifice error’. This is ’the tendency to think that abundant new building leads to urban success’. By contrast, ’building is the result not the cause of success’. Thus, ‘overbuilding a declining city that already has more structures than it needs is nothing but folly’.

I suppose what confuses me is that I don't see what's gained by arguing that we need to help people flee the failed areas. Maybe it's a belief that big companies are the only way that we solve unemployment and poverty? "We have to build big fancy office blocks for our 'inward investment' strategy to work and attract big companies here" played off against "big companies don't want to open offices in poor areas, so we need to move the workforce to them".

That's where my view differs markedly. I agree that we should be investing in the people, rather than infrastructure, but we should expect and encourage them to build new companies and not be surprised if they stay where they are to do that.

Posted by Adrian at June 21, 2011 08:52 PM | TrackBack

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Agree to a point.

However, for instance in the case of a scheme like Liverpool Waters, the project does have to be big and bold in order to inspire overseas investors, and attract companies to base their global headquarters here. Anything that is merely comparable to what other provincial cities have to offer and why would an outside company take the risk when there are other proven schemes in cities already established?

And I think therein lies the issue: If we a) want slow homegrown growth then by all means don't bother doing anything on a grand scale. However, if you b) want a quick infusion and a head start, then that has to come from major companies moving here. Major companies won't move here without major reasons. There's no middle ground.

Both a and b have risks as to whether they will succeed, however against an environment that is seeing Manchester emerge as a power economy (by them following the route set out in B above) I would tend to believe that sitting and stagnating is more likely to see Liverpool turn into a provincial satellite as Manchester sucks the economic life - and people -out of it.

As for people being the answer, you try telling a child at school to knuckle down and get ahead when all they can see on the road for themselves is working in a call centre. Our economic landscape needs to be utterly transformed in order to provide anything like the sort of aspirational prospects people need, so (unless you're planning to start something big yourself) I think we do need that major outside infusion.

Of course, it does remain to be seen just how damaging the alterations to Liverpool Waters will have been, and whether they have reduced the scheme in scope to the point where it would no longer raise anyone's interests...

Posted by: James at June 22, 2011 02:40 PM

Thanks for such a well thought out response James.

And I love your ambition to get big companies to base their global headquarters in Liverpool. In many ways I share that ambition, we just disagree on how to get there :-)

The reason I'm in Liverpool is to help as much as I can to build big things here - both my own company and as many others as I can help and support along the way.

You're right that Liverpool Waters will only succeed if we attract big companies to move their global HQs there, but I'd be really surprised if inward investment had ever attracted anything other than satellite offices. By the time companies are big they've already accumulated a lot of staff and a base, and moving all that is a big risk. There are enough complaints with the BBC's move to MediaCity and that's "just" a few departments.

If you don't succeed in getting the headquarters then you're left with the call centres that you rightly don't want to offer as the goal for kids.

I suppose from the title of the blog post it might seem like I'm arguing that we should have any big companies here in Liverpool. That's definitely not the case, I just think we'll only get good big companies by starting with small ones, and so the "regeneration industry" focus on big wins is doomed to failure.

Posted by: Adrian at June 22, 2011 10:00 PM

And on Twitter, @iamdanw reminded me about Cities as Software, a great write-up of a successful (so far) start-small regeneration project in Australia.

Posted by: Adrian at June 22, 2011 10:03 PM
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