Friday, 10 October 2014

From Margate to Estepona (and, I hope, Bradford) - people-led regeneration...

Sunbridge Wells - engine for a new Bradford?
Wayne Hemingway has always been an interesting regeneration pundit. Partly this is because his background is in fashion and design rather than property, architecture or trendy urbanism. I remember him talking to a small invited audience (in Nice) about how we needed to change our thinking about housing estate design but that this meant thinking about the houses not the streets or parks. It was his sense of detail, of design being about the user rather than the designer that fascinated.

Now Hemingway has written in defence of the hipster, that much maligned creature:

The word hipster is much maligned. The media has helped turn a sector of young folk who are interested in new things and being a bit different – someone who in the past might have been described as cool and hip – into a caricature. Its derogatory connotation is impossible to avoid. But the fact is there is nothing derogatory about hipsters when it comes to regeneration. "Hipster-led regeneration" is creating value around the world, often in places where government investment just doesn't cut it.

Having set out his stall, Hemingway explains how edgy design-led and creative individuals are prepared to step outside the expected and go where the usual investors and institutions won't go. We are told about Hackney's renaissance, about the Mitte District in Berlin and Williamsburg in New York. Plus - and I loved this - Margate. And this is the point - I was talking yesterday about how Margate was now where Brighton was a decade or so ago, filling up with people who want trendy seaside but can't afford to live in Hove.

Margate is not being given a leg up by city folk like in Whitstable. These are young people, often creatives, without vast sums of money who are spotting an opportunity that is relatively affordable evocative property, a sandy beach, within reach of London and some likeminded pioneers. My god it’s exciting there. I look at it as a place full of exciting opportunities. You know that in ten years’ time it won’t be a failed Mary Portas High Street – it’ll be a cool town.

I'm excited by how this happens. The other day my wife and I were meandering around the old town part of Estepona on the Costa del Sol. And we were struck, especially given what we read about the Spanish economy, by how much smarter, cooler and buzzier it was than ten years ago when we first visited. However, this isn't the hipsters but a different sort of much-maligned group - Northern European ex-patriot retirees (and the long tail of semi-retirees, second home owners and families or friends of ex-pat retirees).

Even in a place that has been drowned in the wash of a burst housing bubble (bad news for those who bought ten years ago) there's not the impression that those ex-pats and other tourists have stopped consuming, stopped needing the things that brought them to the Costa del Sol - sun, beach, bars, balmy evenings and decent places to eat. And they want these places to be like the same sort of places back home in Hamburg, Stockholm and Bristol.

What we see - in Estepona just as much as in Margate or Hackney - is that change, rejuvenation and growth come from people not from institutions, banks, grand businesses or governments. This isn't to say such beasts have no role - I'm sure Hackney and Thanet Council's have helped the regeneration in their clumsy kind of way and I know Estepona has had a generous bucket or two of European Regional Development Funds. But it is to say that the institutions need to follow the people not the other way round.

Too much regeneration is about grand buildings, planner-led development and theoretical urban design. It's about tidiness, order and an almost subliminal desire to change the demographic by fiat. We need instead to think more about what we like, to hug close those things that make us go wow and to preserve those places that might be untidy but cut across the different sorts of people in a community. When I think about my city, Bradford, its not the Westfield development (welcome though it is) or the new grand plans for the city that give me hope. Rather it's Sunbridge Wells, little bars and cafes on North Parade, John Street Market, curry houses, and pubs with real beer and bad decor.  These are things being done by people - some may even be hipsters and plenty are immigrants - because they think it would be a fun way to make a living. This isn't institutional direction but a hopeful sign of a city that's decided it won't be the butt of other places jokes or the curse of the grumpy old bloke.

This is - I hope and pray - people-led regeneration. And the official response should be to let those people have a good long rein and the chance to live, love, succeed and even fail.


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