Economic-led regeneration: how do we measure success?

“This is a crucial time for both the disciplines of economics and regeneration,” says Chris Paddock, Director, Hatch Regeneris. “People are rebelling against the traditional ideas and assumptions about economic theory and economic-led regeneration; how do we interpret this in terms of the economies of cities?”

With support from ING Media and Lovell, and kindly hosted by Lovell, Future of London’s Alumni network came together on 13 November for a discussion, chaired by Blossom Young, Poplar HARCA, about how we measure the success of economic-led regeneration – and how it can be done better.

Tarek Virani (left) and Chris Paddock (right)

How do we measure success?

Drawing on recent examples of economic-led regeneration in London, including the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the redevelopment of Kings Cross, Chris acknowledged that in traditional terms (such as the number of jobs and amount of wealth they have generated), these are ‘successful’ places. Indeed, Kings Cross is one of the fastest growing urban districts in Europe.

But right next door to Kings Cross is Somers Town, home to a very different, more informal, economy. Similarly, despite the investment in and regeneration of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in LB Newham, other parts of the borough, such as East Ham and Plaistow, remain home to high levels of deprivation. Economic-led regeneration in neighbouring areas has not improved the social capital and connectedness of these places.

How can practitioners address these divides? Connectivity is vital to help communities thrive, as Future of London explored in our 2018 project Overcoming Barriers. Chris takes the view that psychological barriers are just as significant as physical severance. For a regeneration scheme to be successful, local people have to feel that the feel that this is a place for them.

What makes a place ‘successful’?

Tarek Virani, Lecturer in Creative Industries at Queen Mary University of London also questioned what ‘success’ means in the context of placemaking and economic-led regeneration. Tarek gave the example of a Brazilian city in which the local authority built big gyms in poor areas in the hope that it would regenerate the area. Few people use the gyms – but vibrant neighbourhoods have sprung up around them. A place might seem messy and chaotic to an outsider, or a city official, but often it is precisely this ‘messiness’ that drives the local economy and gives a place its identity.

A similar point can be made about the high street. While they might appear scruffy around the edges, recent research by Hatch Regeneris into the adaptability of London’s high streets found that the capital’s smaller high streets are, in fact, doing well – despite the widespread current concern about the death of the high street. Chris attributed their success to the fact that they are places with agile and diverse economies, which represent – and adapt to meet the needs of – the local community. It’s the agility of high streets that makes it likely that they’ll exist in 100 years’ time. More static economic edifices, like retail parks and malls, might not.

Blossom Young

How can we do economic-led regeneration better?

While top-down investment can create a successful place, there’s a risk that this will happen in isolation and not bring benefits to the wider area and communities. For economic-led regeneration to be truly successful, argued Chris, what’s needed is a more bottom-up, participatory approach that builds up social capital. Participatory City is attempting to do this with their Every One Every Day project in LB Barking & Dagenham, bringing hundreds of residents together to work on neighbourhood projects that make everyday life better for everyone – including cooking, beekeeping, growing, making and repairing.

Several attendees reflected on their experience – and the importance – of consulting local residents to find out how a place serves the people around it. Not paying attention to what existing residents value about their area, such as pubs and corner shops, is likely to alienate people, particularly if a regeneration scheme involves the creation of new homes that might bring in new communities and change the area’s identity.

Tarek also stressed that the economy of a place cannot be divorced from its culture; the two are interlinked. A successful regeneration project builds on the history of a place, drawing on both its culture and its economy. But this marrying of the cultural and the economic has to be authentic. Clerkenwell Design Week is a good example of this authenticity: the neighbourhood’s present-day design community draws on the area’s history and heritage as the city’s watchmaking district.

Both speakers gave attendees one piece of advice for practitioners who are contemplating or involved in economic-led regeneration projects. Chris suggested reading up on the current debates about economics and economic theory: two of his favourite books on the subject are Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson and Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. And Tarek urged people to reach out to academics and university departments to collaborate on long-term research into these issues.

This event was part of a series of Future of London Alumni Network events, provided exclusively for our Alumni. Find out more about the network and upcoming events.