Rural Revitalization Conference Bristol 26th June 2014

On the 26th June 2014 The Journal of Neighbourhood Revitalization is staging a one day conference called ‘Rural Revitalization’ at Bristol, which will focus on the range of issues that face the future development of rural towns and communities. 120 delegates are expected at the event, together with up to 20 speakers and 20 exhibitors. This will a great opportunity to listen to a range of key speakers on Rural Development and also learn and share good practice.

We will also be launching an new exciting Journal at the Conference called the ‘Journal of Rural Revitalization’ which will become a focus for the development and promotion of good practice and research in rural development. All proceedings of the day will feature in the Journal.

Details of the Conference and Journal can be found on the Twitter Feeds https://twitter.com/CentreforRegen and https://twitter.com/rural_regen

The cost to attend as a delegate for the day is £200 plus VAT but we are currently offering a free place for every one that you book at the full price and hope that you will take up this offer. The cost to have a display stand at the event is £500 plus VAT. All who participate at the event will receive a free Annual E-subscription to the Journal of Rural Revitalization. There are also some speaker slots available. There are also 20 spaces available for students at a reduced rate of £70 plus VAT.

If you wish to attend as a delegate, a speaker, take a display space or submit a paper to the Conference and Journal please email here

Currently speakers are confirmed from Local Authorities, Local Development Companies and Consultancies.

We look forward to seeing you in June.

The Journal of Neighbourhood Revitalization
90 Paul Street LONDON EC2A 4NE

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Capitalism, the Production of the City, and Neighbourhood Renewal in the United Kingdom: A short introduction seen via a reading of Lefebvre

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The successes (and indeed problems) of our towns and cities can often be found in their fabric, the bricks and mortar, the building that represent cities.  In many ways, buildings trace the fortunes of a city, their power, their civic pride, pointing the collective nose of the city outwards demonstrating how powerful and important the city is to its residents, its country and the world.  This is nothing new.  The Temple at the City of Tikal, symbolises the power of the Mayan Civilization at around 500 AD.  The Basilica Papale di San Pietro in the Vatican City, consectrated in 1626, demonstrates the power of the Vatician City as the centre of the Holy Roman Empire during this period.  Moving to the modern era, the Shard Building designed by Piano shows the world that even during a time of global economic distress London considers itself to be a leading economic powerhouse, a financial City-state if you like growing at a pace that outstrips the wider United Kingdom.  The French Modern Philosopher, Lefebvre (1974)[1996] suggests that such buildings are representational spaces erected by the leaders of the city to express their power and dominance across the society around which they exist.   He also goes onto show how the dominant form of the time in question comes to dominate and appropriate space, society and community, erecting buildings to express its power.  Lefebrve is correct is this line of thinking but his highly influential work needs to be developed further in an attempt to explore and develop a new theory for the declining city, that city or urban area which is the total opposite of spaces such as  the City of London and the State of Dubai.  In the United Kingdom, there are many examples of declining cities and my home city of Liverpool is probably the best example of the declining city.  I am proud and I love my home city but over the years it has suffered economic decline and population loss.  If one looks at the fine buildings and architecture of this mercantile city, as have the authors of the Pvesner Guide to Architecture in the City (2000) and the Liverpool University Press Guide to Public Sculptures (2001)  it is easy to see that the City days as an economic mercantile powerhouse are long gone, with over 90% of what is considered by these well renowned guides as building of architectural merit built before 1945.   So if one considers the thinking of Lefebvre regarding how local urban space is appropriated with fine and great buildings to extol the economic power of a city the local civic and business leaders of the City of Liverpool clearly haven’t feet that optimistic over recent decades.   This argument could be seen by many as an work of flippancy who could point to a range of examples of post 1945 buildings in Liverpool that point to a degree of economic power and they may have a point.  But the most recognisable expression in built form of the City of Liverpool as an economic powerhouse – the Royal Liver Building, was completed in 1911.   Buildings shape cities, and are in fact a bookmark in history to show how prosperous a city was at that the time.  1911 is viewed a a time of great economic power for Liverpool when the City was at its zenith as the key transatlantic port.  2012 will become known as the year when the City of London truly re-affirmed itself as a global city.  The past 100 years could not have been more different for both Cities, one continuing to grow and one in gradual decline.  In popular British culture this may be a hard argument to accept for some but it is my view very true.  So we can see, in the way that Lefebvre wrote in the 1970s, space within cities is appropriated for use by the dominant form of the day (in our era capitalism) and that representational spaces and buildings are produced to demonstrate the economic power of the city space in question.   What however, did Lefebvre ever say or offer guidance on how urban deprivation and malaise occurs? Well actually very little but that does not mean that his key thinkings on the production of urban space are irrelevant. In fact that they are highly relevant.  However, a new phrase needs to be introduced into the debate on the development of urban theory for declining cities and that it the dis-appropriation of urban spaces. 

In the debate put forward by Lefebvre regarding the production and making of urban space, he puts forward to position that the dominant form of the time that oversees society seeks to appropriate and dominate space – the appropriation of space for its use and to show it power to the world.  In former times in the western world where Christianity dominated society great cathedrals and places of worship were erected – the urban space of the time were appropriated for the purposes of religious power and observation.  In the current age of capitalism the same trend takes place.  All forms of urban spaces have in one way or another been appropriated to suit the needs of the needs of the capitalist system.   This can be seen in many built and spatial forms, some more obvious than others.  Looking at London, one can see how urban spaces have been appropriated for the purposes of production in one form or another.  The great buildings of the City of London financial district show how many urban spaces within close proximity have been erected to serve the purposes of capitalism – the current dominant form of society and economic control.  There are some many buildings to choose from to highlight this point but 30 St Mary Axe (more commonly referred to as the Gherkin) is probably a good building to highlight this point.  Other less obvious urban spaces have also been appropriated by the growth of capitalism.  Hyde Park, one of the great urban parks of the Unite Kingdom, highlights this point well.  Whilst the history of the park can be traced back to 1689, when King William III had parkland set out near his new home of Kensington Palace, this space has over time been appropriated by the growth of capitalism and the development of London as the Capital of the British Empire.  In 1851, the Park was the site of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry and the park was used to show the growing global dominance of Great Britain as a leading economic power; here we have parkland being directly appropriated by the growing dominant form of capitalism in a grand example of national self promotion – a very large marketing campaign, 19th Century style.  On a more subtle note the Park on a day to day basis serves as a very popular public open space for Londoners to relax and unwind – a very informal way of keeping one important element of capitalism (the workers) happy.   

Every urban policy maker and urban theorist needs to understand how urban space is appropriated (and as we will see later, dis-appropriated) by capitalism and therefore only urban regeneration policies that either directly challenge this process of urban change or directly work with it will have any form of relative success in making our urban spaces and neighbourhoods better.  So moving the debate forward, in looking at the range of urban regeneration and neighbourhood renewal policies that have been implemented in the United Kingdom since 1968, which have been the most successful?  This has been one of the most pressing questions of public policy evaluation for the past forty years and in many way ways the matter has been looked at from well a meant but slightly wrong perspective.  Whilst this may sound critical to the policy evaluators in question note here that when I am describing the success of urban regeneration policies I do not consider the policy objective of closing the gap between the rich and poor in society to be a relevant specific aim of urban regeneration policies in the United Kingdom in the context of the dominant and continuing form of capitalism that controls and governs every aspect of society. 

The point in my mind is quite clear and has been understood by a range of sometimes overlooked commentator for some years.  The Final Report (1981) of the National Community Development Project sums it up very succinctly by stating that unless there is a dramatic shift in the manner in which resources are distributed across society and the economy then attempts to narrow the gap between the rich and poor, although well meant will have very limited effect.  At the time of implementation they may seem like good polices but will have limited long term effect. 

So, in the context of an understanding of the production of urban space what have been the most successful urban regeneration and area based renewal policies in the England?  The most ineffective in my view, which may be surprising to many, is the National Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy and subsequent Neighbourhood Renewal Fund introduced by the Labour Administration.  The most effective, on the other hand are the range of so called property-led regeneration schemes of a range of Conservative Administrations between 1979 and 1993.  Any avid reader of contemporary urban regeneration literature will point out at this stage that I am probably in a minority of one when it comes to putting this view forward but that doesn’t mean to say that I am wrong.  The key point that I am making here is that whether policy makers of the early 1980s knew it or not, the range of inner city regeneration schemes focused upon property and economic development were actually reinforcing the current system of capitalism with regard to the production of urban spaces.  One could argue that such regeneration initiatives merely strengthened the inherent inequalities of the capitalist system of production that always produced winners and losers, rich and poor.  But in the current system of capital accumulation that governs our way of life, this may the best that could be expected.  Going back to my earlier point, unless society was willing to accept the implementation of a radical alternative to capitalism then inequalities across society and space will always exist.  This is why the much hailed National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal of the Tony Blair years is a policy failure.  As well as many statistics that will support this viewpoint (the poorer districts of our poorest cities are worse off now than in 1997) in the current system of capital accumulation such a policy can only tinker at the edges.  

The return of the problem of Rooming Houses – 2012 Style

The popular cartoonist of the 1930s and 1940s Osbert Lancaster, is remembered for his many critiques of architecture and town planning.  He famously dismissed the growing suburbs of the 1930s of English Towns and Cities for their architectural style and monotony.  He described these suburbs, Wimbledon (London),Childwall (Liverpool), Heald Green (Manchester) and so on as the ‘slums of the future’ and coined the term ‘bypass variegated’ for their style and setting.  But the boom in house ownership in 1930s England was unprecedented and offered a new way of life for inner city residents who could for the first time afford the terms of the low cost mortgages being offered by Building Societies.  Until this point, many families had to live in cramped, overcrowded and often shared dwellings with other families.   In many such properties facilities such as bathrooms, even for families with children had to be shared.  The opportunity to live in the leafy suburbs of the city, in a spacious house and in one which you would own (even if it took 25 years) was  a much better alternative to life in the Rooming House, life in the twilight district of the city, life in what we now call the inner city.

In urban renewal popular culture and studies the word ‘Rooming House’ should bring shivers to any researcher, academic or thinker concerned with the current and future state of our cities and neighbourhoods.  The Rooming House, was effectively a room, or couple of rooms in a house rented out by folks as a place to live.  Often located in areas of cities that were previously prosperous that contained large villas and mansions that were now too big to rent out, Rooming Houses offered accommodation to those in society that could not afford to obtain a mortgage to buy a house and those down on their luck.  Often this sector was unregulated and rents were often extortionate so that those who live in such property were effectively trapped in a downward cycle not being able to escape this dreadful housing option.

The development of a growing municipal housing sector after from 1914 onwards,  together with the private sector boom of the 1930s and 1945 post war reconstruction, effectively put pay to the use of the Rooming House as a housing option for families.  Whilst the term Rooming House was effectively forgotten about by the majority of the population whose housing conditions had improved greatly from their parents generation, they still existed.  Take a drive south out of Liverpool City Centre for example and while driving through Toxteth towards Mossley Hill down Princes Avenue and you will see the Rooming House District in full view to all, fine old Victorian Villas extensively subdivided and in a state of decay.  This problem of the Liverpool Rooming House District was extensively reported upon in 1977 with the Final Report of the Government Sponsored Inner Urban Areas Study.  This Report, evocatively entitled ‘Change or Decay’ called for extensive policies to eradicate once and for all the scourge of the Rooming Housing District, something was considered to be a major failing of what was then a Universal Welfare System that was 30 years old.   So 35 years later, what happened? Where Rooming Houses finally eradicated from our cities, did various Acts of Parliament and Regeneration Programmes consign this form of overcrowded housing to the dustbin of the history of our towns and cities.

Sadly, whilst anyone can point to the fantastic urban revitalisation of our city centres, Rooming Houses still exist if in a slightly ‘upgraded’ form.

Welcome to the world of the Rooming House – 2012 Upgrade Version.   The 2012 version at first glance may not be as bleak as the original 1900s version but sometimes it’s not that far away.  As well as being interested in this subject from an urban planning point of view, I have a personal interest in the rebirth of the Rooming House.  Together with my wife and 13 year old daughter I currently live in one.  It is ok to live in, full of mod cons, our own shower and kitchen, a lovely refurbishment.  It is horrendously expensive to rent and very small – in fact by my calculations the cost per square foot to rent is the same as some apartments I have seen for rent in Manhattan New York City.  Our current dwelling was marketed to rent as a flat not far from Reading Town Centre, but it is a subdivision of a small terrace house into two flats, two rooming house dwellings of our modern age.

We have moved to the South East for better work prospects and within four years we will own a house of our own but until then in order to keep our rent as low as possible to save it the Rooming House District for us.

We live off the Oxford Road in Reading, a fairly busy working class neighbourhood which has a fairly thriving high street.  In our street there are about 200 terraced houses from the 1910 period of which I estimate 80% to now have been converted into smaller living units for families – modern day Rooming Houses.   Most small streets up and down the Oxford Road appear to have gone the same way. All such conversions apart from creating a parking problem in an already overcrowded street for cars makes the situation for parking permits currently unbearable for both the Local Council and Local Residents.  Most houses, if they are now subdivided and containing a family of say three or four people in each sub-division are blatantly over-crowded.  Most folks like me, only live in this area because rents are the cheapest in town and when they can move somewhere better they will.

All this you could argue isn’t a great problem and it is how cities work.  In fact with regard to the current popular movement concerning Sustainable Urban Development put forward by bodies such as the Congress for New Urbanism, having compact and walkable neighbourhoods is a good thing and sub-division is an environmentally sustainable and good use of urban resources.  I say to the Congress of New Urbanism, please why don’t you try and live in a Rooming House District and then we can have a good chat about it!

From a Structural Marxist analysis of the Urban Land Economy (and one which I support and wish to build upon) the sub-division of housing in this manner is inevitable.

In fact this process is the expression in built form of the Capital System that governs our lives in the form of the Developer maximising the most value out of property in a town where low cost housing is in short supply and housing demand is high due to its commuting proximity to London (25 minutes to Paddington)  The renowned Urban Geographer and current Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City of New York University – David Harvey in his classic text from 1973 – Social Justice and the City, calls this the maximisation of Use and Exchange Values.  Due to the demand for housing, the Developer is extracting as much use value out of the spatial built form knowing that the consumer of the built form (the Tenant) urgently requires accommodation – this ultimately increases the exchange value (Rent) that is paid to use the spatial built form in question (Property).

Writing at a similar time to Professor Harvey (but I think not in conjunction) the French Modern Philosopher Henri Lefebvre produced a book in 1974 called La production de l’espace – The Production of Space.  In this text, Lefebvre showed the reader that Capitalism, in its effect upon the practice  of everyday life and urban society, will appropriate urban spaces for the maximization of its aims – the increase on return in investment.  In this analysis Capital, in the form of the developer, when subdividing a property is doing this with only one intention, to increase the ability of the built spatial form in question (housing units) to generate profit.

All good stuff I am hearing many readers of this say but so what! – it is stating the obvious that developers will want to maximize profit and return on investment.  One could argue that this isn’t exactly a great advancement on the theory of Political Economy when applied to the built environment.   In many ways I can accept such criticism but I do hope that in some small way my assessment of the theory of the Production of Space applied to modern day English Cities does advance the Epistemological basis of such learning and thinking.

However, regardless of this interesting argument of urban theory applied to Rooming Houses the pressing issue here surely is what are the policy responses (if any) from Central and Local Government to the emergence of Rooming Houses.  I will be examining this issue in my next key writings on this subject – if anyone has comments to add to this please just let me know.