Public Spaces: 10 Principles for Better Urban Renewal (Hint: Think Community Engagement)

Urban rejuvenation projects are most successful if they are designed with shared community goals in mind. Photo by Elisa Greco/Flickr

Our impressions of a city are formed mainly by the quality of public spaces. If they are not pleasant and preserved, or if they transmit a sense of insecurity, we will seldom return. Good planning of these spaces should be the rule, not the exception. In the series “Public Spaces,” originally published in Portuguese by TheCityFix Brasil, we explore different aspects related to public spaces that determine our daily experience in cities.

Nothing lasts forever without conservation and preservation. With cities, it’s no different. Different interventions in cities can alter built-up areas or public spaces to address social issues, environment or health problems, or even reactivate the local economy. In this context, the practices of renovation, requalification, revitalization and rehabilitation can be used to not only renew a city but help proactively solve a wide range of problems.

First, we need to differentiate terms that are often used synonymously but do not have exactly the same meaning. Briefly, “revitalization” is about recovering space or an existing construction; “renewal” deals with replacing or rebuilding and changing use; “requalifying” adds new functions while improving appearance; and “rehabilitation” is restoring but without changing function. Each of these processes therefore generates different results. All of them, however, are linked to the same idea: to transform urban spaces in order to rejuvenate them.

Projects like these often arise from the need to solve economic, social or environmental issues, but are carried out in ways that make success difficult. They need community participation to be embraced, but are often instead led by public-private partnerships that have few feedback mechanisms for community members to engage with. This is one of the most common criticisms of this type of intervention, in which large projects are conceived and constructed without any connection to the local reality.

New models of urban transformation should recognize that transformative change is no longer the responsibility of a single actor, organization, institution or sector. Change needs to be led by multi-stakeholder coalitions and movements, on the demand side as well as the supply side.

A report by the Australia-based consulting firm SGS Economics and Planning presents 10 principles for urban renewal that take the public interest into account, based on case studies in cities like London, Sydney, Melbourne, Hamburg and New York. According to the survey, much of the criticisms of urban renewal projects are a result of actions undertaken without the perspective and contribution of affected communities. Finding ways to include more participation could improve success rates. The report focuses mainly on renewal; however, the principles also apply to revitalization, requalification and rehabilitation:

1. Create “Shared Value”

Urban areas do not belong to a single group or individual but should offer value to many actors. All those who are part of the broader community as a whole – from workers and tourists, children and students, to the underserved and investors – should benefit from urban renewal. “Ultimately, the ‘communities’ for whom the value is created to share, should be those with long-term interests, not transient stakeholders with a primary focus on value extraction and repatriation,” write the authors.

2. Plan With Input From All

Delivering this shared value requires engaging with communities. Planners bringing an intervention into an existing space should share their vision and include people in the planning from day one, or risk it being rejected. Decision-making techniques such as cost-benefit analysis should be explained and employed to also promote “non-financial values,” helping communities feel a sense of ownership. The researchers also suggest the creation of a common platform where information about the process and the progress of the project can be shared transparently.

Superkilen Park in the Nørrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen. The work brings together elements from many of the more than 50 nationalities represented in the area. Photo from Bjarke Ingels Group/Flickr

3. Build a Long-Term Vision

In any extensive process of urban renewal, the initial goals of the project may change over time. Even so, a long-term vision should be locked in and changes for the sake of short-terms gains resisted, with flexibility growing as the timeline extends further into the future. “A commitment to the public interest and shared value needs an inclusive approach, and future development stages should have the flexibility to be able to adapt to market and social changes,” write the authors.

4. Agree on Non-Negotiables

Non-negotiation issues should be clearly understood by all stakeholders. These could include respecting existing lease terms, fixed quotas for affordable housing or protecting open spaces. The rights of renters and leaseholders should be guaranteed and stakeholders agree to a common set of design standards.

5. Agree on a Financial Profile

Studying how the space to be renovated is expected to yield from a financial perspective not only serves to set parameters for the project’s development options but is also critical to whether the public’s interests will be met. There are many options available to both provide returns on government investment in underserved areas but also safeguard communities from potential negative side effects, like rising taxes, and encourage a handoff to private developers in the future.

6. Establish Clear Development Goals

The planning process should develop and affirm clear objectives, not just desired outcomes. The best goals will be specific and measurable, and anticipate the physical, economic and social results of the project.

High Line Park in Manhattan is built over a disused elevated rail line. Photo by Mike Peel/Wikimedia

7. Establish Options to Achieve Development Goals

There are often multiple options for achieving the same development goals and they should be compared to one another as well as to baseline scenarios of what might happen without any intervention. The process will create “a much clearer picture of marginal benefits and costs associated with any particular development option,” the report explains.

8. Incorporate a Sense of “Localness”

Local characteristics and peculiarities should be captured and incorporated into the new project. These details may come from local standards, services offered in the region, the environment, the climate or other socio-cultural specificities. Finding ways to assimilate a sense of the local into the project will help people identify with it, separate it from other similar projects and generate community acceptance.

9. Evaluate Options With the Goal of Maximizing Net Community Benefits

Cost-benefit analyses are often viewed with skepticism, but the report notes there are well-documented techniques that allow for the inclusion of things communities care about most, like open space, social capital and heritage. Finding ways to incorporate them into a cost-benefit analysis is important for avoiding the scenario where “financial considerations or otherwise vague community aims end up dominating choices between options.”

10. Align the Procurement Model With the Planning Vision

Finally, the governance, implementation and contracting trajectories – how the project is actually carried out – should align with the unique vision laid out during the planning phase. Procurement targets should bespoke, rather than using “off-the-shelf” options. This may mean a greater role for the government as a developer in the early stages before handing off to private sector developers later.

“These principles are not locked in place, but are guiding principles to ensure urban renewal benefits the widest community possible,” write the authors. “The renewal of strategically important urban sites must have the needs of communities, both social and commercial, at its core.”

Paula Tanscheit is the Communications Analyst for WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities.

Source: TheCityFix

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