Urban Renewal as a Challenge for European Urban Development in the 21st century

Krisztina Keresztély, 2016

Urban renewal or urban regeneration is a broad term referring to special local development actions and programs aimed at upgrading run-down urban areas. More recently, the term has also come to cover the general objectives of ‘integration’ or ‘social inclusion’, though the precise interpretation of these notions may vary from context to context.

Arguably, concepts related to urban development have rarely been as controversial as urban renewal has turned out to be. On the one hand, the very same term could be used to designate a voluntary real estate development resulting in the cleaning and complete reconstruction of an urban area, or, on the other hand, could refer to grassroots initiatives of local residents revitalizing their neighbourhoods by implementing social, cultural and economic activities there (See the notion sheet and linked dossiers).

The present article is concerned with the changing role of urban renewal in urban planning and policies of Western European cities since WW2 and up until recent days. The specific conditions of development in the Eastern European cities formerly belonging to the communist bloc are treated in another article. How has urban renewal, as a term and as a practice, been reshaped in the last decades in Europe? What were the main turning points in this development? And what are the main forms of criticism that urban renewal policies have to respond to today?

Historical roots and types of urban renewal

Urban renewal can be regarded as a tool for public policies reacting to the complexity of urban development (Couch, Fraser and Percy, 2003). Its first appearance can be dated back to the early 19th century, the birth of the industrial city and industrial urban societies. In this sense, the intervention of Haussmann in Paris during the 1840s can be considered as a form of urban renewal or urban regeneration, as it brought about the reconfiguration of the urban infrastructure in the city centre (through the creation of new axes for development and new public spaces, the sewage system, a new model of urban construction etc.), and as a result engendered social transformation in the city (pushing out of ‘poor’ residents to the mostly industrial suburbs) that could be described as gentrification. Harvey (2008) describes this large scale urban renewal in Paris as one of the first expressions of capitalist urbanisation. Thus the ‘Haussmannisation’ of Paris would mainly have served capital investment and the related political interests, as among its main issues one can find the possibility for capital investment such as the opening of large and accessible avenues and public spaces, and preventing the spread of popular urban revolutions in the city.

Nevertheless until the end of WW2, one cannot speak of urban renewal as a typical tool of urban development. The Haussmann-like physical interventions only occurred sporadically – in many European capital cities by the end of the 19th century – and were more related to the symbolical modernization of the cities than to the re-vitalization/reintegration of rundown neighbourhoods as it is understood today.

As conceived today, urban renewal designates a specific intervention related to the revitalisation of a limited part of the city, a neighbourhood and as such it can be regarded as a specific tool of urban public policy. Further, in several countries in Europe, urban renewal programmes are financed by specific (national) funds, making it possible to link together physical urban planning and various social programs: the National Programme for Urban Renewal (Programme national de la renovation urbaine, PNRU) in France; the Big Cities programs in the Netherlands; the Sozialestadt programme in Germany. Further, one of the most important differences between urban renewal and any other ‘renovation’ or ‘reconstruction’ program is that in the first case housing is always an important element of the intervention. Strategic urban renewal programs as part of public urban policies are most often implemented in areas where the share of public and social housing is relatively high.

Urban renewal, in our understanding, has at the same time a broader meaning than that related to the strategic intervention on behalf of public policies. Would the public sector really be the only one able to launch any real strategic programming of urban renewal in a city (or a country)? There are also other actors in the initiation and/or follow-up of some urban regeneration processes. When based on the financial intervention of private stakeholders, these processes are often designated as ‘spontaneous renewal’, as they lack the strategic intervention of the ‘invisible hand’ and correspond to the immediate opportunities offered by the local (real estate) market. This type of renewal occurs in areas where no public funding can be canalised (Musterd and Ostendrof, 2008) or where the majority of the housing stock is privately owned and the public authority has few ways to intervene directly.

Naturally, most urban renewal programs are implemented through the cooperation of the two spheres (public-private partnerships), and cases in which the public or the private sphere is the sole actor in the renewal of an area are relatively uncommon. This latter case however was a characteristic phenomenon in Eastern Europe during the first decades of the post-1989 transition, as it is detailed on the other articles of this dossier.

Yet there is a third type of stakeholder in urban renewal: the civil society and NGOs. Their role varies according to the type of program, the participation processes used and the degree of involvement of inhabitants and associations in the programming and organisation of the urban renewal process.

Over the last few decades, the specific position of urban renewal within urban policies in European countries has been continuously emphasised and reshaped, and in parallel it has also become a clear objective of European spatial policies. This development and its controversial points will be discussed further in this dossier.

From physical to integrated urban renewal

Musterd and Ostendorf (2008) argue that there exists a “Western European Policy Paradigm” of urban renewal policies, based on quite parallel development of urban policies, and within this, of urban regeneration policies, since WW2. This development can be described roughly as follows:

Between the end of WW2 and the 1970s the main challenge was the problem of obsolete housing and/or housing shortages, in great part related to the demolitions during the war and the permanently increasing need for housing related to the demographic boost in the after-war period. Then and there, physical constructions and reconstructions were at the core of urban policies, although with differences in pace and methods according to the countries. In the Netherlands, for instance, physical reconstruction and construction of new housing were strongly related to the reconstruction of city centres demolished during the war (Musterd and Ostendorf, 2008). In France, reconstruction of housing took place through the creation of the National Fund for Housing Renewal (Fonds national pour la renovation de l’habitat), and new large scale constructions only began later, by the beginning of the 1960s (INSEE, 1996). From the late 1960s, different programmes and public funds had been created in several Western European countries in order to help introduce “more sensitive programmes for housing renovation and area improvement” (Couch, Fraser and Percy, 2003): 1969 Housing Act in the UK, OPAH (Programmed operations for housing improvements) in France from 1977, etc.

The 1980s and 1990s were the decades in which the social element of urban renewal and of public housing renovation came to light, especially through the dilemma of how to maintain the spatial balance between poor and wealthier populations, how to avoid segregation and social exclusion and the concentration of poverty in certain neighbourhoods of the city. The promotion of social mix in all urban areas became one of the tools adopted to achieve these purposes. In the Netherlands, the successive phases of the ‘Big Cities Policies’ introduced in the 1990s represented this idea until recently. Yet the nuances of social mixing policies were changing, between objectives of attracting more affluent populations into poor neighbourhoods or offering better residential opportunities to the local population in order to slow outward migration from the neighbourhood (Musterd and Ostendorf, 2008).

In France, the idea of socially mixed neighbourhoods derived from the political enigma between two approaches concerning the fight against segregation. In a simplified way, these two proposals were as follows: either create a more equal spatial redistribution of poverty within the social housing sector or improve the conditions of accessibility of the poorest people to social housing. While the first approach supported the creation of socially mixed neighbourhoods with a certain amount of demolition of poor quality housing when necessary, the second would have led to the strengthening of segregation, coupled with a higher number of demolitions within the existing social housing stock. Finally, the National program for urban renewal (PNRU) launched in 2003 became an alloy of the two approaches: adopting social mixing as the core element of its objectives, the program opted for the demolition of a relatively expanded number of housing units and for their replacement by higher status housing and private ownership (Donzelot, 2012).

Since the 1990s and 2000s integrated urban development has become a prevailing paradigm in urban policies in Europe. This paradigm is strongly supported by the European Union’s successive policy declarations1 in favour of a more sustainable, more balanced urban structure in Europe. Hence urban renewal is conceived as a complex program with the intersection of physical, economic and social types of interventions. In fact, integrated urban development is an important pillar of EU cohesion policies supported with a variety of tools such as the Integrated Territorial Investments (ITI) launched for the 2014-2020 period, supporting cross-sectorial interventions in certain urban areas, permitting the combination of different thematic objectives (social, economic, etc.) concentrating on one specific territory2 .

Contemporary voices of criticism regarding urban renewal in Europe

Urban renewal is a rather controversial concept, embracing a large scale of actions, with a large variety of approaches on urban development. It can take place through voluntary intervention of a public authority, as well as through democratic and participative action generated by the collaboration of multiple stakeholders. It is a Janus-faced process that can generate both urban integration and urban exclusion at the same time. The same action can be conceived of as a necessary tool for upgrading slum areas, as well as the origin of the physical and social transformation of a popular area and the exclusion of its original inhabitants.

Urban renewal has been strongly contested since the 1960s because of its causal relationship with gentrification. The latter itself is a controversial concept, as one of the determinant features of urban development since the end of WW2, with the generalization of large scale rehabilitation and urban renewal in cities. According to a definition offered by Neil Smith (1996), “[g]entrification is the process […] by which poor and working-class neighbourhoods in the inner city are refurbished via an influx of private capital and middle-class homebuyers and renters — neighbourhoods that had previously experienced disinvestment and a middle-class exodus.” (p.). In that term, gentrification would have a very strong connotation regarding “the class dimensions of the transformations”. But it can also be regarded in a smoother way, as linked to a sort of welfare policy in cities, as a result of “…public policies that promote low- and moderate-income housing construction and rehabilitation, and in zoning revisions that permit retail uses in less expensive, side street locations.” (N. Smith, 1996, p.).

The criticism cited above is mainly structural: it addresses all types of urban regeneration as sources of the complete transformation of urban neighbourhoods, pushing out of a significant majority of the original inhabitants and the general increase of an uneven development of the whole city. Recently, more ‘operational’ criticisms have also been formulated concerning the efficiency and the effects of urban renewal programs.

First and foremost, a note on social mixing policies. According to several analyses from different European countries, these policies have not led to the expected results of “desegregation”. On the contrary! As a general rule, neither the attraction of better off populations to segregated areas through the improvement of living conditions, nor the delocalisation of excluded groups to other urban areas, have contributed to better social integration of the latter. Original expectations notwithstanding, the social capital and social networks of marginalised people did not improve as a result of the physical closeness of more advantaged social groups. On the contrary, in many cases social mix policies led to the break-up of communities and the loss of the original relationships may have resulted in increased isolation of certain households (Bolt et al., 2010,; Donzelot, 2003). Social mix policies may also be linked to more general political concerns related to the treatment of ethnic tensions within a city or even at the national level. As Donzelot et al. (2003) claim in the case of France, urban renewal programs managed on the state level would also facilitate state policies of assimilation. This distorted character of social mix policies can be observed in most Western European countries in different forms.

The above-mentioned contradiction between the real effects and the general objectives of social mix policies is also considered to be partly related to the fact that integrated urban renewal policies are very strongly determined by a place-based approach. Yet criticism of territory-based urban policies stresses the fact that these policies mainly displace problems from one area to another with no real motivation to contribute to the overall improvement of the social situation of the wider territory: the city, the urban region or the country. Further, place-based interventions as specific local policies often risk losing the connection with other – horizontal or sectorial – policies. As a result, “social mix ideas, if not applied carefully and in combination with other public interventions, might develop in sharp contradiction with social goals of housing policy” (Tosics, 2009, p.2). If area-based interventions have strong limits and must be coupled with other, more horizontal approaches, this fact means a strong challenge for the development of more efficient urban governance models.

Recent Challenges for Urban Renewal

The above-mentioned criticism notwithstanding, there is of course no unique recipe for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ urban renewal programs. First of all, as a result of the complexity of these interventions, the losses on one side are always considered as gains on another side. This is how an urban renewal program can be interpreted through entirely opposing discourses by its different stakeholders… Urban renewal can also be framed through the use of synonyms with diverging connotations according to the current approach of the speaker: ‘regeneration’, ‘revitalization’ or even ‘renaissance’ are words to show the positive upgrading effects of urban renewal on the one hand, while ‘gentrification’ is used more and more as a concept referring to the controversial character of urban renewal (N. Smith 1996).

Social mixing policies can also be more or less successful, according to the type of urban renewal program and the neighbourhood concerned. In the case of an entirely isolated, excluded and run-down ghetto, social mixing, demolition and delocalisation could be a good solution, but in the case of a poor neighbourhood inhabited by ethnic minorities, social mixing could have a strongly devastating effect by breaking up the existing functioning of the neighbourhood and the whole community. But even when delocalisation is necessary, special care for good methods is of high importance, in terms of the selection of families to be moved out, the choice of the area and community where they are moved to and the ways they are included in the decision-making concerning the rehousing procedure (Tosics, 2009).

The role of neighbourhoods and local solidarity in general needs to be reconsidered in European cities: neighbourhoods are essential elements of our cities, not only as the basic social and economic resources for a large part of its inhabitants (and especially the poor, or minority groups), but also as the bearers of the essence of our urban culture and identity. Nevertheless, excessive isolation on the local level, whether explained by extreme exclusion of its inhabitants (ghetto) or by their excessive cohesion, should be avoided, as both cases may lead to the reinforcement of exclusion on the city level (Vranken, 2011).

General discourse at the European level has already acknowledged the importance of maintaining local neighbourhoods, local solidarity in terms of sustainable and integrated urban development, and reflection on territorial governance, public participation, and social innovation as a core element of policy analysis3. Integrated sustainable urban development is a strong component in European cohesion policies in the 2014-2020 period, with a specific – although limited – financing also allocated towards “innovative urban actions” 2.

These programs as well as other actions might take into consideration the new challenges cities are tackling today, as for instance:

How will urban renewal policies deal with these challenges, old and new, in the coming decades? How can social control over existing and forthcoming programmes be improved in order to avoid bad practices?

In Europe, there are and there will be a variety of answers to these questions according to countries, large regions and cities, with their local histories, societies, cultures and habits. With regard to the development described above, Central Eastern European countries represent a specific development path and very specific challenges for urban renewal that will be detailed in this dossier.

1 See for instance the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities, signed in 2007 by 27 European Ministers in charge of urban planning and urban development.

2 See the Integrated Sustainable Urban Development chapter of the European Cohesion Policy 2014-2020.

3 See the Cities of Tomorrow. Challenges, visions, ways forward report.


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