Where's The Soul In Regeneration, Renewal And Renaissance?

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Regen model (small) CIMG0606.JPG Are 'regeneration', 'renewal' and 'renaissance' different? Perhaps they are. Regeneration is predominantly a physical thing, whilst 'renewal' and 'renaissance' are increasingly about the real meaning, the 'soul' of the regenerational process. The journey from one to the other is a transition from the literal to the artistic and cultural. But how best to get there?

How can regeneration work so that it is in the end more than just developing markets for investors, important though that financial interface is?

Experience of regeneration and renewal in the UK tells us that it is a mixture of positive and negative. As numerous reports (including Lord Rogers') have shown, there are things which have been done well, and things which have had seriously unfortunate outcomes. Both sorts of experience need to be recognised for the valuable lessons they offer.

The different 'voices' of regeneration, renewal and renaissance
There are several perspectives here: those of the community activist, the politician, the business operator, the planner, the economic strategist. Only rarely however is the voice of the artist heard; and this is where it may be possible to make a difference. Arts and culture, 'high' or less so, can give people common cause, something in which, if presented positively, they can all share and become involved.

Hope Street kids! 06.9.17 254.jpg From that can arise also a common sense of purpose and direction. People who feel involved feel a stakehold and ownership. This is what makes regeneration into renewal, and then into renaissance. This is the essence of the journey from bricks and mortar to genuine community.

Hope Street Liverpool
An example of this approach is the renaissance of Liverpool's Hope Street. This process, over more than a decade, evolved from a deeply held 'grass-roots' conviction that Hope Street deserved the very best of public realms, to give everyone a sense of pride in what was slowly estabished as the Hope Street Quarter. Hope Street is home of the city's two great cathedrals, two universities and of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Everyman Theatre, not to mention the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA), Blackburne House and much, much more.

Yet on first acquaintance Hope Street looked tired, dirty and possibly unsafe. Hardly an appropriate ambience for world-class cultural institutions which are found from one end to the other of this historic thoroughfare. HOPES: The Hope Street Association, a voluntary 'arts and regeneration' charity, was therefore formed to change this sad state of affairs.

Nonetheless, it took enormous focus and years of hard work by volunteers to move the authorities (and even some of the major institutions) to perceive what was evident to those with eyes to see: Hope Street is a place with soul, a place for creative and exciting people with ideas. In other words, it was and is the ideal place from which to nurture renaissance and renewal, to the benefit of both local people (more visitors and customers, more jobs, more fun, more sense of community...) and the city's wider economy.

The soul of renewal
Biennial lights CIMG0557.JPG There has to be a way to get to the ‘soul’ of renewal, to its ownership by people in a way that enables economic benefit but does not preclude the human reality which lies behind the more formal contexts of the action.

Again, Hope Street offers a (cautionary) example. The Summer of 2006 at last saw the completion of the long-sought £3 m. public realm works programme. Everyone was delighted and, after delays on the part of some authorities, eventually there was the opportunity to celebrate in the biggest street festival since the Silver Jubilee visit of H.M. the Queen in 1977. But at the very same time those who had worked so hard as volunteers to bring the transformation about found they had in many ways been displaced by new commercial and corporate interests who now at last saw the potential of the Hope Street Quarter.

The immediate parallel which springs to mind here is with Hoxton and Shoreditch in London, where many creative people say they have been driven out, 'displaced' by high prices. The parallel, though valid, is not however exact. In this instance it is those who who give their activities voluntarily who are at risk of displacement, perhaps at least as much as individual artists and non-corporate creative professionals.

Regeneration for whom?
The jury remains out on the extent to which those grass-roots visionaries who dreamed of a great future for Hope Street Quarter will continue to be central to the area's destiny. What sort of 'community' involvement there will be in years to come remains to be seen.

How often do regeneration proposals move beyond the physically visible in any real way, to what it actually means to everyone concerned - whether those who live in the area, those who work or visit there, those who invest there, or those who are concerned for its conservation, historically or environmentally?

And, if the claim is made that getting to the real soul of renewal does happen, why are the people entrusted to do it so often the same team who draw up the physical plans? This is a hugely different task.

Is it business-like?
But the question of soul alone is not enough. It is also necessary to demonstrate actually to those who invest large amounts in regeneration (a) that 'soul' is critical to meaningful renewal, (b) that it makes business sense in the best meaning of the term, and (c) that it is of itself business-like, that it can create value for the people who talk about 'soul', as well as for others.

Without evidence of these things, it is difficult to ensure this deeper aspect of renewal will ever happen at all.

For this is a far cry from the way that most regeneration and renewal is conducted, and it requires a constructively critical approach of a kind only rarely encountered, the courage to articulate vision and show leadership in facing up to difficulties and opportunities openly.

Case studies, honesty and imagination
One challenge for those who believe in this wider vision, collaboratively, is to find a way to nurture such a new emphasis, probably through a combination of case studies, disarming honesty and imaginative leaps. Perhaps this is most importantly where that artistic voice is needed.

HopeStreetHeritageWalk8.9.05%20006.jpgWhat certainly won’t work on its own in sharing this 'message' is the conventional conference, addressing the usual suspects…. But neither perhaps would suddenly challenging everyone’s expectations in too dramatic a way.

The next question is therefore, what balance in the greater scheme of things can be made between strictly 'regenerational' activities and more meaningful, longer term, 'renewal and renaissance' ones?

And should we expect that balance to change over time?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This article is also published (as Regeneration, Renewal And Renaissance: Where's The Soul Of The Enterprise?), with Jim Greenhalf's response, on the European Renaissance website.

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Finding the "soul" of regeneration
"Soul of renewal" and "soul-searching" are unusual, challenging, phrases to read in a piece about regeneration. At first I wondered if "soul" might carry the suggestion of mysticism and nonsense. On reflection I accept those phrases. It is important to emphasise that places do have a feeling peculiar to themselves; even in decline.

Bradford, once the wool capital of the world, has a modern history of trying to stave off economic and social decline. However, it still stimulates, still strikes a deep inner chord. Perhaps cities in decline do that because, unlike the great cities of Paris, Florence and Rome, they have to fight for their lives.

Cities must not be viewed merely as real estate offering development opportunities. That would be to forget that great cities all have a signature or soul of their own.

Expectations and prospects
Acknowledging “expectations” in what we do is more problematical. In developing our project we must avoid the indecisiveness, timidity and the dictatorship of consensus. Trying to anticipate people's expectations is likely to result in unanticipated outcomes - such as total failure. Better to lead from the front.

I do not mean that public feeling should be ignored, simply that it should not dictate what one does. Did Stravinsky conduct a vox pop before composing The Rite of Spring? Did the architects of Prague's Dancing Buildings ask Czechs if they liked Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers?

The role of artists in regeneration
Including artists in regeneration sounds good, but in my experience there can be risks of factionalism, ego-promotion - what's in it for our group?, or of social engineering - that projects ‘should’ have the requisite quota of single mothers, the disabled, unemployed and ethnic minorities to be valid.

I saw this in the late 1990s when Bradford Council belatedly realised that regeneration funding was only being given to cities that had a declared arts policy. Local arts groups and action groups were roped in for a series of meetings culminating in a joint get together at St George's Hall. I dropped out after that meeting. The Forum came to nothing because these so called artists could not agree to anything. It was a shambles. The lesson I learned was that the cultural component of regeneration, to be authentic and meaningful to others, has to flow from the imagination of particular individuals.

Lessons of Bradford's bid for 2008 European Capital of Culture status
What are the lessons to be learned from Bradford's abysmal failure even to get short-listed for the 2008 Capital of Culture bid? This bid was based on the premise that culture means everything that people do – which, when taken to its literal logical absurdity, demonstrates what an exceptionally lazy notion it is.

The Bradford bid failed principally because the campaign was nakedly parochial and materialistic. Bradford was, we were told, a great city like Florence and Berlin. With great architecture and great culture - er, the Brontes, um, David Hockney, phew, J B Priestley, Delius. More emphasis was placed on the temporary success of local pop singer Gareth Gates than the city's one enduring modern example of revitalised life: Salts Mill in the village of Saltaire. The former textile mill, the inspiration of Victorian manufacturing magnate Titus Salt, had fallen on hard times like most of the industry.

Saltaire, Unesco World Heritage Site: the legacy of Jonathan Silver
By the mid-1980s Salt's giant Palace of Industry was empty; local shops were run down; house prices in the village were low. In 1987 a Bradford entrepreneur Jonathan Silver bought the mill and in the ten years until his death from cancer in 1997 wrought miraculous changes to the fortunes of both mill and village.

He did so by combining culture - creating free galleries to exhibit the pictures of David Hockney - with commerce - letting refurbished space to high-tec manufacturing firms, which enjoyed a flourishing decade of success. In 2001 Saltaire was granted World Heritage Status by UNESCO.

Silver's success was not based upon a pre-conceived blueprint. Salts Mill is the living proof that true regeneration, unlike development and ill-conceived culture promotional campaigns, evolves. Silver spent ten years adapting and adding to the Salts phenomenon.

Dream with imagination and panache
Now, visitors from all over the world come to admire the transformation he brought about. People will come, to paraphrase the movie Field of Dreams, only if you build with imagination and panache.

My message to cities aspiring to regenerate is this: learn from what Jonathan Silver did at Salts Mill.

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