Not only do sustainable communities and urban regeneration demand complex
co-ordination to get right, but they absorb billions of pounds of investment. So what better reasons could there be for the government’s current strategies of urban development and regeneration to be seriously reviewed? This need has now been answered by two in-depth reports published within a few days of each other.
The first is Egan’s official review, commissioned by the government, of its own strategy of sustainable development in the South-east. It is entitled Skills for Sustainable Communities. The second, entitled Towards More Sustainable Places, was commissioned by consultant Turner & Townsend and the RICS Foundation, and that takes an insider’s view of urban regeneration. By interviewing more than 30 professional practitioners in four large cities, it asks the people charged with delivering urban regeneration what they think are the strengths and weaknesses of the system.
Although Egan’s review looks at new settlements and T&T’s focuses on the regeneration of existing town and cities, they have key findings in common. The first is that an extremely wide set of professional skills are needed to create sustainable communities. Egan identifies more than 100 relevant occupations. He has therefore recommended the setting up a National Centre for Sustainable Communities Skills – which is primarily intended to
ginger-up public sector middle management. This idea was immediately sanctioned by deputy prime minister John Prescott.
However, Egan understands that skills training will not achieve a great deal without an accompanying cultural change. His report says: “Success will lie in changing the behaviour, attitudes and knowledge of everyone involved, many of whom may not have realised in the past that they had anything to do with each other, or with sustainable communities.”
In other words, the cultural change needed will be to train the many professionals involved – from urban designers and community workers to town planners, central government officers, highway engineers and health officials – in how to work as teams.
The T&T report, which was compiled by the Department of Land Economy of Aberdeen university and Kevin Murray Associates, likewise picks skills and knowledge as one of its three key themes. Although the regeneration practitioners interviewed poured cold water on the view that there might be a shortage of skills and knowledge in the field, they made the same point about promoting “multidisciplinary working and ‘soft’ people-based skills”. The report says: “The real issues of regeneration concern the interaction of people and partnerships through effective processes, and the use of appropriate tools for partners to draw on.” It goes on to support Egan’s proposed national skills centre as having “the potential to make significant contributions in the area”.
A roundtable of urban regeneration experts convened to debate the T&T report also discussed ways of engaging residents in the regeneration of their area, such as visiting exemplar schemes. Kevin Murray, a leading urban planner, recalled: “When I was involved in the regeneration of the Gorbals in Glasgow, one resident started talking eloquently about ‘new urbanism’, saying that if density was increased, it could lead to more schools and shops. I asked him if he had got the ideas from local planners, and he said, no, it was from a visit to regeneration schemes in Berlin.”
The architect believes he’s a 1960s hero, the engineer is an efficiency expert, the planner is a glorified geographer and the landscape architect is an environmentalist
In the same discussion, Kelvin Campbell, founding director of Urban Design consultancy Urban Initiatives, expressed little enthusiasm for skills training as such. Instead he proposed a “national centre for values”. “We can bring the skills together from different professions, but they come with four or five different value systems,” he said. “The architect still believes he’s a 1960s hero, the engineer is an efficiency expert, the planner is a glorified geographer and the landscape architect is an environmentalist. So how do you balance these different value systems? That is the real issue, not skills.”
The other key common theme was the S word. Although both reviews latch on to the term “sustainable” in their titles, both accept that it is a misty concept, and they attempt to pin it down with hard definitions. The problem they have, however, is that to avoid being prescriptive, they have resorted to terms that are abstract rather than inspiring and visionary.
The Egan review adopts the term “sustainable communities”, coined by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to cover the settlements it plans in the South-east. Their report defines it thus: “Sustainable communities meet the diverse needs of existing and future residents, their children and other users, contribute to a high quality of life and provide opportunity and choice. They achieve this in ways that make effective use of natural resources, enhance the environment, promote social cohesion and inclusion and strengthen economic prosperity.”
The T&T research team coin their own term, “sustainable places”, giving it a more inclusive definition. They argue that creating such places should be the overall goal, not only of the sustainable communities plan but of all regeneration programmes and new settlements. They went on to spell out five key long-term actions that should go into making a place sustainable. They are: creating a better physical place through enlightened urban design; integrating the social, economic and physical components; “embedding” people into it so that they give it more commitment; creating
self-sufficiency; and ensuring it is robust, flexible and dynamic enough to adapt to change.
The difficulty of “embedding” people was an issue aired in the T& T report. One interviewee in Birmingham summed up the challenge: “We must provide a range of house types that will allow aspiring people to stay. And it’s important to recognise what makes people want to stay in an area – image and environment, availability of decent facilities and jobs.”
Another theme was the need to combine multidisciplinary partnerships with decision making. David Hogg, associate director of project management at T&T underlined the need for a project champion. Kelvin Campbell added: “If everyone has their say, the danger is that everything becomes mediocre. I think we still need civic leaders who act for all the residents, not just for those who speak loudest.”
Few people would dispute Egan’s assertion that sustainability is the outcome of hard work, clear thinking and the application of appropriate interdisciplinary skills. These two timely reports are valuable contributions to that process.
The Egan report: key points
- Local authorities should have the lead role of co-ordinating and orchestrating delivery of sustainable communities
- Generic skills, including inclusive thinking, project management, cross-sector partnership working, conflict resolution and customer awareness, should form part of training for built environment professions.
- Employers should make continuing professional development in generic skills compulsory for staff.
- Government should, by early 2005, set up a national centre for sustainable community skills run by practitioners
- Government, local authorities and other stakeholders involved in creating a sustainable community should agree a common goal.
The Turner & Townsend: key points
- Clearer definition of sustainable communities and sustainable places is needed.
- Partnerships need to be much clearer about the principles and values underpinning them, what they aim to achieve and their lifespan.
- The roles of partners need to be clarified and agreed in advance, and regularly evaluated.
- A stronger shared culture and common cause must be engendered to bind together different professions.
- Skills must be updated and best practice shared through continuing professional development
The last wordFloor Targets Interactive
Do you know what floor targets are? No? Oh dear, then this could take a while. The government describes floor targets as the social equivalent of the minimum wage – they are the minimum standards that allow local authorities and other public bodies to measure their performance and improve services in deprived areas. Got that? Good. FTI brings all the data onto the web, via the Neighbourhood Renewal website (www.neighbourhood.gov.uk). So if you want to know the crime rates or employment statistics for lone parents in a region, this will tell you. And, unlike many statistical websites, it is user-friendly.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud …” no, no, no, not that kind of Cumbria vision. Wordsworth’s Daffodils might be a great work of literature but it is hardly going to help regenerate the only subregion in Britain to have suffered negative growth and a fall in output. Cumbria Vision, on the other hand, has been launched this month to drive the regeneration process and brings together the key players.