Oliver Burston

Urban regeneration is a phenomenon with which most Americans, not to mention architects, are by now quite familiar. Many of this country’s post-industrial cities have experienced it in one form or another. As an organic process, the story goes something like this: Young people, generally referred to as “artists,” move into an economically depressed, physically dilapidated, and underserved neighborhood in the inner city in search of cheap rent and the social benefits of pedestrian-friendly urban environs. Whether through the sweat of their brows or through their trust fund payouts, they raise the economic profile of the community, drawing in previously scarce services such as grocery stores and restaurants and businesses that invest in infill construction projects, including more modern housing.

The local government responds to the increased tax revenues by repaving the streets, picking up the trash more often, and improving the schools. The ameliorated state of affairs soon draws in other even more economically enabled individuals and families who want to live close to where they work and like the fact that, all things considered, the condos are pretty reasonable, and that they can hang out in trendy restaurants where they’ll rub shoulders with artists.

At the end of this regeneration cycle, which can take a decade or more to run its course, the once “bad” neighborhood has become a “good” neighborhood. The one “bad” side to this “good” state of affairs, unfortunately, is that a lot of people who lived in the bad neighborhood can’t afford the rent anymore and have to move elsewhere. For that reason, this form of urban regeneration is often simply called “gentrification.”

Of course, urban regeneration doesn’t always happen so spontaneously. Many local governments in post-industrial Western nations have taken proactive steps to kindle the sort of process described above.

“The key thing that governments have done is to identify the most deprived areas of cities and target investment in public services, such as schools and hospitals, as well as to incentivize the private sector in the form of subsidies or grants to get them to move into particular areas of cities and invest in or develop property,” explains Andrew Tallon, editor of the U.K.-based Journal of Urban Regeneration and Renewal.

Where there is a government spending money, there soon will be a business to proffer its services. Accordingly, the U.K. now has approximately three dozen companies that perform urban regeneration planning. That trend has now moved to the U.S., with companies such as Washington, D.C.–based Jair Lynch Development Partners and global mega-firm AECOM offering urban regeneration consulting.

What these firms do is bring the role of the economist to the urban planning table. “For early-stage neighborhoods, where public investment is the first form of investment, we dig through what a place could be and target public and private injections of capital that will help it grow,” says Jair Lynch. “It could be improving schools or adding new public amenities, primary care facilities, and grocers.”

This form of urban regeneration, much like the spontaneous organic type, also tends to lead to the displacement of low-income communities as areas gains traction. Because this regrettable consequence of urban regeneration has proved too much for the collective conscience to bear, governments have taken steps to offer conciliation to the poor. “Most major cities in the U.S. now have inclusionary housing clauses,” says Stephen Engblom, Assoc. AIA, AECOM’s head of design, planning, and economics in the Americas. “These clauses mandate that developers integrate a percentage of affordable housing into market-rate projects, rather than relegate them to public housing projects. Alternatively, developers can contribute to a municipal affordable housing fund to subsidize integrated units within existing communities.”

The upshot of urban regeneration is that, whether incited through public/private investment or following naturally on the heels of movements of classes of people, there is more interest in the style of living offered by dense, walkable urban environments. The movement is a counterpoint to the urban renewal and white flight of the 1960s, when local governments seized vast tracts of slums through eminent domain, demolished them, and replaced them with high-rise public housing towers and freeways that connected those who worked in the downtown skyscrapers to their homes in suburban garden communities.

“Urban renewal entailed large, sweeping slate-cleaning projects. They involved big infrastructure separating land uses and socioeconomic policy that segmented populations,” says Engblom. “Urban regeneration is much more integrated. It’s about working with existing contexts and economic generators. Neighborhoods are more successful when they are built through an iterative process that accommodates existing and new contexts while retaining the authenticity of place.”

While the job of ameliorating a neighborhood or entire city may seem like the role of government planners and their consulting firms, the point of urban regeneration is that the onus falls on everyone involved in an area’s development. That includes residential architects. “Architects have to get involved in the places where they work,” Lynch says. “Their sole contribution can’t just be the building. They may have to take on a park around the corner or an intersection that’s dangerous to cross. They have to turn their skills on the whole neighborhood.”