Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Detroit and Liverpool: thoughts on urban renewal


We've all seen parts of the crisis in Detroit - the bankruptcy of the City government, the abandoned houses you can buy for a few dollars (although nobody does) or the endless chatter about racial strife and political corruption. Not to mention crime, violence and urban decay.

And this is nothing new. People have been commenting on the problems of Detroit since the 1950s with each generation of observers seeing the crisis through the prism of that age's prejudices. And during this time Detroit continued to decline. Fingers are pointed at 'white flight' (let's call it 'jobs sprawl'):

One consequence of this dysfunction has been a severe case of “job sprawl” within the metropolitan area, with jobs fleeing the urban core even when employment in greater Detroit was still rising, and even as other cities were seeing something of a city-center revival. Fewer than a quarter of the jobs on offer in the Detroit metropolitan area lie within 10 miles of the traditional central business district.

The result of this is that Detroit's population has dropped from 1.8 million to just over 700,000 with, inevitably, the better educated, the more entrepreneurial and the more ambitious departing the city.

Everyone points to different urban pathologies as the cause, partly guided by ideological prejudice and partly by whatever is academic flavour of the month in urban studies. Yet we never point the finger at 'regeneration' as the heart of Detroit's problems preferring instead to speak of industrial decline or even Detroit as a sort of municipal buggy whip manufacturer.

So let's look at the 'regeneration' efforts:

For decades it has done the opposite, championing a growth policy that mirrored the city’s overly-centralized private sector. It has gambled—with tax breaks, subsidies, and extensive eminent domain—on stadiums, casinos, office towers, factories, and a downtown monorail, only to find that these didn’t produce nearly the anticipated benefits.

We see here the classic inward investment approach - focus on big 'transformative' projects and provide incentives to developers and favoured businesses. And these inward investment strategies were matched by brutal clearance and community redesign:

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s white mayors steamrolled roadways through functioning black neighborhoods like Black Bottom, and housed the displaced in dangerous, high-rise government projects. Funding for this and other “urban renewal” came from federal programs like President Johnson’s Model Cities, and using Detroit as a flagship, was meant to modernize aging urban communities. 

There's no doubt that racism played a part in Detroit's failure but far more important to that failure was the misplaced belief that the solution - always and every time - lay in securing external finance, public or private, to be directed by the City government or its agents. Every time there is a crisis, out comes the begging bowl and up goes the cries for "more resources" or for "more investment".

Here in England we have been shielded from part of Detroit's problem - rightly or wrongly, local government here doesn't have the unrestricted borrowing power of a US city. But the pattern of urban decline is little different. Take Liverpool, once a great city of empire, now a shadow of its past. This isn't to detract from the efforts - some more successful than others - to reinvent the city and to create a vibrant and dynamic cultural and social heart to Merseyside. But Liverpool still lives with that historic decline:

There are persistently high levels of deprivation in the city and Liverpool remains ranked as the most deprived local authority area in England on the ID 2010, with its position unchanged from the 2004 and 2007 Indices. 

All that 'regeneration' hasn't prevented Liverpool from remaining poor - just as was the case with Detroit. Millions in regeneration funding, economic development cash and a myriad of 'interventions' have left Liverpool just as it was in 1980 - the poorest city in England. And still the clearance continues:

...Liverpool City Council’s planning committee gave the go-ahead to a two-phase hybrid application from housing association Plus Dane Group for the clearance and redevelopment of 5.97 hectares of the Victorian-built terraced houses in the Welsh Streets area, which is part of the Princes Park regeneration zone.

Not only does this approach divide communities and undermine the sense of history in a place but it repeats past errors - and mirrors Detroit's errors - by seeing social investment as a parallel to economic development. People may have a slightly newer house (or some people at least) but they still don't have good prospects of personal economic advancement. Liverpool - despite the investment - remains poor.

And people leave. Since its peak in 1931, Liverpool's population has declined by nearly 50% as people have moved to places with better prospects - some not so far away but others far, far away from the Liver Birds. This is pretty similar to Detroit. Yet we still hear the plaintive cries of the urban leader:

Deputy Mayor, Councillor Paul Brant, said: “You cannot cut your way to growth. In Liverpool we are innovating and investing in schemes that will deliver jobs and economic benefit, whether it’s using our borrowing power to kickstart developments, or to generate new income streams as we have done by purchasing Everton FC’s training ground.

Look at Detroit and ask whether this approach - an approach that has attracted plenty of government cash to Liverpool over the years - will do anything to transform the city? Or, when the next Index of Multiple Deprivation is published, will Liverpool still be England's poorest city?

The sad truth is that the 'regeneration' policies we follow - and continue to follow nationally and locally - are part of the problem not part of the solution. Waiting for the Whitehall fairy to wave the magic funding wand is a fine strategy for council officers and the trooping backwards and forwards to London for meetings gives an illusion of activity but it doesn't help the city, whether that city is Detroit, Liverpool or my city of Bradford.

Here we're rabbiting on about being a 'producer city' which suggests a commitment to business creation and innovation. But, in reality, this is simply repackaging the same old approach - big grand projects that will 'transform' and much about how public investment will lead or draw out private investment. Bradford's not as poor as Liverpool but we have adopted the same strategy as that city - a strategy that echoes the failed approach of Detroit.



Correspondent said...

A blogpost which is clearly reminiscent of Geoffrey Howe's "managed decline" suggestion for Merseyside after the Toxteth riots in 1981. Indeed, it can be seen as a companion piece to Lord Howell's call for fracking to be confined to the "desolate" North.

Curmudgeon said...

Liverpool has a lot of thriving businesses within a 20-mile radius, for example Airbus at Broughton and loads of warehouses and distribution centres around Warrington. Parts of the Wirral are still very prosperous and leafy. But there's precious little in the city itself.

Ed Cadwallader said...

I disagree with Correspondent, who I think falls into the trap of equating government doing nothing with nothing being done. I have faith that the people of Liverpool could regenerate their own city, though I think that work would have to start when they were at school, as it would be capitalised by idealism.

DaveyCh said...

Liverpool had the highest growth rate in the country outside of London and Edinburgh before the recession hit and its economy, despite setbacks, continues to be competitive in very difficult circumstances. Its currently setting in motion a £5.5 billion private investment in Liverpool waters and its retail has jumped from outside the top 20 to a place in the top 5 since Liverpool 1 opened. Its cruise liner terminal has expanded massively and its port is handling greater tonnage year in year out, and has done for the last 15 years. On top of that its currently building a post-Panamax facility to accommodate the biggest ships in the world, the only port of its kind in the North. Its city centre has been utterly transformed and continues to expand. Its universities are flourishing and investing massively in its science sectors. Meanwhile a £220 million to transform its poorest area, Anfield, is currently going through consultation. It’s still got high levels of deprivation and it faces the same social issues as all the other northern cities, but comparisons with Detroit and the desperate problems facing that city are flawed. What Liverpool needs, and the rest of the north, is greater investment in its transport infrastructure- never mind building a HS2 to suck any economic potential back down to London. Build better links between the great northern cities and create a genuinely economically vibrant region stretching from the Mersey on one side, through Manchester and Leeds and over to the Humber and then watch us go.

DaveyCh said...

And may I also say to Curmudgeon that there are plenty of prosperous and leafy areas within Liverpool (Woolton? Allerton? Childwall? Cressington? Crosby? Gateacre?), and plenty of thriving businesses. What we have is people who know very little beyond what their 1980's framed prejudices tell them commenting on a city that they either a. have no real knowledge/experience of or b. have negative preconceptions of based on partisan views.