Urbanisation of City Centres | Essay
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Published: Thu, 23 Nov 2017
The past few decades have witnessed a myriad of development and rapid change throughout the city centres of the developed nations. Promethean gentrification schemes, improvements in infrastructure, and an amelioration of the service sector have all assisted in encouraging many citizens to buy or rent property within the very heart of the city.
As Pacione (2005, pg. 84) has highlighted, ‘there is now a growing body of case-study evidence that indicates a recovery of large cities from the high levels of population loss experienced in the 1970s era of counter urbanisation.’ Pacione (2005, pg.84) has also revealed that ‘the rate of population loss for all 280 of Britain’s urban areas fell from 4.2% in 1971-81 to 0.1% for 1981-1991.’ Thus, it would appear that there has been much success in encouraging households to dwell within the vibrant ‘zone of transition.’
However, academics are keen to discern whether or not the often adventurous strategies deployed by urban authorities and private investors alike will truly serve to stem the tide of citizens who seek to relocate to the rural hinterland.
The coming of ‘re-urbanisation’
From the mid eighteenth century onwards ‘that complex series of innovations commonly referred to as the industrial revolution’ hastened the process of urbanisation throughout Europe and gave birth to the ‘industrial city’ (Pacione, 2005, pg. 50). Social commentators such as Marx and Engels noted how the city exhibited an ‘unequal division of power’ (Pacione, 2005, pg. 51) between the capitalists (who owned property) and the working classes. Indeed, Engels’ study of Manchester during the mid 19th century highlighted the phenomenon of ‘class-repulsion.’
The Chicago school of the 1920s promulgated the theory of ‘the city as organism.’ Burgess’s ‘concentric ring’ model of the industrial city highlighted how the form of an urban area commonly extended from a central business district (which was normally surrounded by a zone of poor quality housing and social exclusion) to areas of increasing affluence in the outer city and hinterland. The majority of the great industrial urban centres throughout Europe did indeed exhibit this pattern. However, since 1945 there has been a period of ‘post industrial urbanisation’ and a consequent ‘restructuring of urban form’ (Pacione, 2005, pg. 65).
One could now say that many cities within the developed world have now moved into a fourth transitional stage known as ‘re-urbanisation.’ This phenomenon is when ’the rate of population loss of the core tapers off, or the core starts regaining population’ (Pacione, 2005, pg. 83). Such a trend is encouraging for municipal authorities and private investors who for many years have been forced to endure a process of depopulation or ‘counter urbanisation’ within the inner city. This was due to a period of industrial decline from the 1950s onwards. The large slum clearance and resettlement projects conducted within cities such as Glasgow and Liverpool also significantly reduced the urban population.
As Holliday (1973, pg. 4) has succinctly stated, ‘change in cities is the result both of social, economic and technological forces at work in society and of particular local forces and physical factors within the city.’ Factors which have altered the structure of urban settlements and attracted residents back towards the city centre are indeed varied. There have been demographic alterations throughout the West since the post war ‘baby-boom.’ ‘Over a quarter of households contain only one person’ and ‘more women are starting a family late in life’ (Pacione, 2005, pg. 106). Thus, the requirement of a suburban family dwelling is not as essential for as many citizens now and the prospect of an inner city apartment may seem more attractive. As Knox and Pinch (2006, pg. 33) have also observed, the ‘growth of the service economy has had important consequences for the social geography of cities.’ Indeed, western cities are no longer industrial zones over-shadowed by Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ and many white collar workers within the financial sector often dwell comfortably within the urban core.
However, many would argue that the most potent force which has initiated the process of ‘re-urbanisation’ has been the stance adopted by governmental authorities in order to revitalise the city. Such a determination to improve the vitality and viability of the CBD often manifests itself in the guise of ambitious public/private ventures focusing on regenerating an entire area of the inner city. This was certainly the case at the London Docklands which has been entirely transformed over the past three decades.
The Regeneration of the London Docklands
The redevelopment of the London Docklands has been much publicised and is an example of a public/private venture which sought to revamp the ‘brown area of mostly abandoned nineteenth century docks and warehouses’ (Rykwert, 2000, pg.226) close to the centre of London. The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was set up in 1981 in order to manage the project. As Rykwert (2000, pg. 226) has noted, ‘Docklands offered a prime site for development, but only if there was huge investment.’
The LDDC coordinated the regeneration and transformation of this once dilapidated zone. In 1987 the government also agreed to ‘fund an elaborate infrastructure’ of ‘roadways, rail links, and mains services on a large scale’ (Rykwert, 2000, pg. 226). Docklands was also designated as an ‘Enterprise Zone’ which was exempt from the rigorous planning restrictions which existed elsewhere within the city centre.
According to the LDDC ‘Strategy for Regeneration’ report of 1997, the population of the locale had ‘increased from 39,400 to more than 80,000’ and the number of jobs had ‘risen from 27,200 to 72,000’ (LDDC, 1997) since 1981. The Corporation also stated that ‘the substantial numbers of new houses built has relieved pressure for residential development in London’s Green Belt’ (LDDC, 1997). A policy of offering generous tax incentives to private investors, coupled with public investment in local services would appear to have paid off. The LDDC also insisted that the newly revitalised residential districts of the zone are entirely ‘sustainable.’
However, there are some who would argue that the regeneration of the Docklands and the creation of new employment opportunities at Canary Wharf has largely benefited the influx of white collar workers, to the detriment of the socially excluded indigenous population. Gentrification of the area has also displaced many of the original inhabitants. Rykwert (2000, pg. 227) notes the stark contrast between the ‘expensively finished high-rise office buildings’ which ‘dwarf the more or less gated new housing to make an even sharper contrast with a blighted hinterland.’ Indeed, Rykwert also draws attention to the nearby borough of Tower Hamlets, which still suffers from one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK. Such a redeveloped area seems to be attractive to younger professional people who can enjoy the services and cultural aspects of the city centre close at hand. However, the ultra-secure environment of intercoms, security cameras and high walls, which envelopes the modern residential buildings, insulating the affluent from the potentially unsavoury world around them, is less appealing to families with young children. As Pacione (2005, pg. 65) has emphasised, young families will naturally gravitate towards the ‘stability, security’ and ‘comfortable world of consumption’ offered by suburban life.
Marketing the City Centre
Promoting a ‘positive image’ of the city is of paramount importance to contemporary municipal authorities. Indeed, as Knox and Pinch (2006, pg. 51) have noted, recent years have witnessed numerous ‘attempts by public agencies to re-brand cities and make them attractive to investors.’
The ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ campaign of the 1980s and 1990s, which was launched by Glasgow City Council, sought to shake off the ‘hard’ image the city had acquired as a centre of social depravation and criminal activity. The ‘Garden Festival’ of 1988 and Glasgow obtaining the accolade of ‘European City of Culture’ in 1990 further improved the reputation of the city and its environs. Glasgow is now considered to be a vibrant centre which offers a wide array of services and boasts a much improved infrastructure. Gentrification projects along the River Clyde coupled with the rejuvenation of the ‘Merchant City’ in the heart of the town have attracted white collar workers back towards the hub. The local council and private investors are now keen to promote the city’s heritage as well as preserving listed buildings, areas of environmental importance and historical monuments. Such a policy adds emphasis to Holliday’s (1973, pg. 21) statement that ‘the image of a city centre is a reflection of the values of city councillors and officers’ and that it is imperative to ‘present a centre of obvious commercial prosperity, traditional values, cultural activities and an appearance reflecting pride in the city.’
Such a determination to promote a positive image of urban space also compounds Eaton’s (2001, pg. 10) notion that ‘something as complex as the city can be promoted in the mind’s eye.’ The very perception one has of a city or space is of the utmost importance and has been of great interest to academics such as Michel Foucault and David Sibley in recent years. The LDDC also highlighted how the social connotations surrounding the name ‘Docklands’ have changed dramatically over the past few years due to positive marketing and a subsequent re-imaging of this once run-down area. The same phenomenon can readily be applied to the city of Glasgow, as well as other sites of urban regeneration.
However, modern-day architects who design dwellings for inner city urbanites understand the complexity of their task. Graham Haworth (who was involved in the renovation and design of residential buildings in Coin Street in central London) has acknowledged how ‘city-centre housing still proves to be something of a paradox’ and that buildings must ‘fit in comfortably to a metropolitan context’ whilst providing a ‘setting for small scale domestic activity’ (Haworth, 2003, pg. 150). Indeed, public tastes often alter considerably through time and space, and this phenomenon also represents a major challenge to all agencies involved in restoring and maintaining the vibrancy and vitality of the ‘zone of transition’.
Urban authorities now deploy a range of strategies to enhance their city centres. Allen, Massey and Pryke (1999, pg. 100) have also observed that ‘new flows of international tourists and business people are restructuring old urban spaces.’ As Knox and Pinch (2006, pg. 33) have highlighted, the post war world has witnessed the ‘emergence of global cities’ which must compete for inward investment.
The city centre offers a range of options for developers. The process of gentrification is seen by many to be a positive element in regenerating brown belt sites and a ‘back-to-the-city move by capital’ (Knox, Pinch, 2006, pg. 145). However, some would contest this ‘revanchist’ notion. Pacione (2005, pg. 212) has noted that gentrification ‘commonly involves residential relocation by people already living in the city’ and is not a ‘back-to-the-city move by suburbanites.’
The notion championed by the LDDC, and other agencies, that inner city redevelopment will place less strain on the rural hinterland and reduce the flow of households to the periphery is also questionable. It should be borne in mind that inner city regeneration tends to attract younger professional people in the 20-39 age group. Statistics released by the Development and Regeneration Services of Glasgow (2007, pg. 14) this year concluded that over 35% of the inner city population was within this age group. Numbers of citizens falling into the other age categories were below the national average. Indeed, one could say that the vibrancy of the urban core is more appealing to young professionals as opposed to households with children. Tonkiss (2005, pg. 80) has also emphasised that gentrification ‘remains something of a minority taste.’
As Holliday has highlighted, a variety of factors, from demographics to technological shifts, affect the development of the city. Municipal strategies tend to respond to these forces, and act accordingly. Despite the recent success of urban regeneration schemes, and a marked reduction in the depopulation of city centres throughout the UK, it seems likely that many households will continue to seek the safety and security of the rural periphery. During the period from 1981 to 1991 suburban zones in the UK continued to expand at a rate of ‘less than 6%’ (Pacione, 2005, pg. 84). Many retired people are also tending to move away from urban areas and relocate within the ‘sunbelt’ zone of the Mediterranean region.
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