Thursday, 6 April 2017

From Planetary to Provincial Gentrification: Lessons for Leicester.

 This was the second of Leicester’s Urban Observatory Talks on key issues relevant to the growth of the City.

The Observatory itself is a collaboration between the County’s three universities and the City Council. The intention is to bring together the local wealth of expertise in urban studies, architecture and planning history and open up an informed debate on urban planning with the wider community.

It is a superb initiative already securing a steady following. I think it would benefit if a way could be found to broaden its audience to involve more of the key development decision makers both public and private.

This second talk was given by Professor Loretta Lees of the University of Leicester and based upon her book “Planetary Gentrification” and subsequent work. I will immediately confess that I have not read the book and rely on her presentation.

The basic premise, as I read it, is that gentrification in major cities such as London has negative consequences, particularly in displacing and marginalising the poor from the heart of our urban communities. These people are then pushed out to the fringes and separated from each other, so that their family and friend support networks are broken. And this leads to poorer lives for those for whom help is most needed.
Urban Regeneration in Leicester City Centre on New Walk

I do not and could not disagree with her sentiment in any way, but I just cannot see it happening in provincial cities like Leicester anytime soon.

Using Leicester as an example, I can accept that in the comprehensive slum clearances from the 1920’s to early 1970’s this will have happened.

However, there has been no such activity since that time other than the demolition of some major tower blocks built in the ‘60s and ‘70s. These were blighted with such physical fabric and social problems that very few would defend their retention.

Instead I would argue that one of the City’s principal problems since the 1920’s has been the flight of the affluent and wealth creators to the surrounding countryside. This substantial disconnect continues to exist with, for example, one of the continuing challenges for our major regional shopping centre (Highcross) is how to attract into the City the wealthier shopper, who can have a major input into the City’s economy.

Meanwhile Leicester’s urban regeneration continues apace. Much of the City centre has been revitalised. I do not have the figures, but my guess is that the residential population has multiplied five fold this century. No one has been displaced.

Equally, if one looks at the wider Waterside area of the City where much of the urban regeneration of the next 10 years must be concentrated, it is very largely empty spaces or still redundant commercial premises. There are very few, if any, residential properties. If you look at these areas carefully (because most is hidden from the main routes) it is amazing the space available. How to get these areas developed, with socially mixed communities, including gentrification, is the real challenge. 

The lessons we should be learning (good and bad, but mostly good), is from such developments as the successful City Challenge Urban regeneration of Bede Island etc. of the 1990’s. Gentrification in Leicester, I would suggest, is a side issue at best.

Urban regeneration is multifaceted. What is happening in Leicester and other similar cities include a whole range of new housing types from major student housing schemes to privately rented schemes (PRS), often in large discrete blocks. What we want to learn more about is how to encourage redevelopment, but at the same time maintain the uniqueness and enhance the quality of development, plus continue the place for all social classes in our City.

Being unashamedly a practitioner, I always feel it is easy for academics to look at one particular issue. The real challenge is how to blend all the competing objectives into a successful vibrant and inclusive City. Now that is where I would like to see academic research concentrated.

Peter Wilkinson