Regeneration: "Not a rebirth, just a little death"

Owen Hatherley and Benedict Seymour talk urban renewal.

That Britain’s unequal and restive cities are in trouble was hardly news to the panel debating urban regeneration at Nottingham Contemporary, but, hey, some of us are still playing catch-up. Participants included one Owen Hatherley, a man whose celebrated architectural tour of the regions "A Guide To The New Ruins Of Great Britain" offered both a scathing journalistic critique of New Labour’s sometimes tragicomic efforts at "Urban Renaissance", and a vindication of the idea that you can learn a lot about the state of a country through its buildings. 

Likewise, a second volume released earlier this year, "A New Kind of Bleak", laid into the coalition’s failure to come up with any viable alternative to cramming former industrial heartlands with unaffordable "luxury flats" and public-private white elephants, and portrayed a "Tory-Whig" government unwilling or unable to move on from a vague neo-liberal hope that the empty aspirational monuments of the "creative industries" might somehow lead the proles to a better life.

Joining him on the panel was Benedict Seymour, a man who, in the early part of the last decade used provocative films and unflinching essays to warn of the "imminent collapse" of the UK’s housing bubble and predicted where "creative" areas like Shoreditch in East London might be headed. In his view, gentrified creative zones represented "not so much the rebirth of the dormant industrial city but its undeath", a hipster contingent lending areas an artsy credibility that, rather than Britain’s cities and dragging them into the "ideas economy", would end up increasing rents and pushing working class locals to the margins. Given the recent arrival of the totally straight-faced, "Avant Garde Tower" just off Brick Lane  he may well have had a point.

Even after a financial crisis that revealed the fragility of regeneration projects built on property speculation, Hatherley argued that town planners remain hellbent on "accelerating a process that in somewhere like Hackney had taken fifteen years". He singled out London’s much-mythologised Heygate Estate, a place currently seeing its 3,000 run-down council homes replaced (a process backed by the strong-arm of Compulsory Purchase Orders) with 2,500 questionably "affordable" homes, as an example of the many councils’ continued regenerate-or-die intransigence. 

"The best thing [Southwark Council] could do," he argued, "is clean the thing up, refurbish the building to level out some of the five million people on the bloody council waiting list. The idea that they would do that is completely implausible, because they would lose so much face for one thing. I think that’s the thing for these [Labour] councils – once you’ve sold your soul you can’t really ask for it back. Most of these people used to be socialists, used to believe in stuff, and that’s still somewhere in the back of their minds but I don’t think they can get back to it."

The coalition government, meanwhile, rests much of its hope for urban renewal on the return of Enterprise Zones, though extensive research suggests their effectiveness has been overstated, with even the supposed success of Canary Wharf more the  result of infrastructural spending and the rehabilitation of unusable land than freedom from onerous regulation. "Everything you thought was dead is resurrected," Seymour warned of the return of Enterprise Zones. "But that doesn’t mean the dynamism supplied by the real estate bubble will be there again."

While the government tries to revive dying cities through a culling of regulations, Seymour argued that this hands-off alternative to New Labour’s clumsy Urban Renaissance itself risks exacerbating their problems, setting a precedent for "hyper-exploitation, lowering of wages and the relaxing any protection of workers’ conditions". "If that is the formula for renewal of the economy for regeneration," he warned, "then you might want to consider whether it is too nihilistic and unpleasant to endorse".

Blueprint Regeneration planner Nick Ebbs, on the panel to prevent it descending into violent left-wing agreement, accepted that the UK is littered with regeneration done badly, but contends that it doesn’t always have to be like this. "I was in Liverpool very recently looking at some of the Pathfinder schemes and these are examples of how absolutely not to do it, perfectly good Victorian streets being compulsorily acquired and then demolished and actually left as wasteland. That’s bonkers." He claims that Blueprint’s plans for redevelopment around Nottingham’s Waterside, though, "will be done incrementally, will involve adaptation and re-use of existing buildings. You know, there are alternative models out there."

Local town planner Adrian Jones, meanwhile, called on local authorities, now able to borrow cheaply and acquire land at knock-down prices, to seize the chance to be bold. "You can see it in Nottingham, all of its schemes have stalled, except for, ironically, the publicly funded schemes which are the transport schemes like the tram and the station, funded by the taxpayer," he said. "There’s only really dogma standing in the way. At the end of the day, the current model for capitalism is basically milking the welfare state. The privatisation model is making money out of the public sector. So why don’t we cut out the middle man?"

Hatherley, romantic old social democrat, agrees, and clearly believes that basic post-war alternatives hastily hurled on the Thatcherite bonfire can still provide a route out of the morass. "No one has tried over the last few years to take a former regeneration site and build public housing on it," he said. "These all sound like relatively small things given the scale of the crisis, but... people aren’t able to think about utopia when even a public housing estate with 200 houses is considered implausible. Of course no one can think about utopia."

"Regenerate Art" was part of Nottingham Contemporary’s Public Programme.

The Silicon Roundabout at Old Street in Shoreditch. Photograph: Getty Images

Matt Foster is deputy editor of Civil Service World and a former assistant news editor at PoliticsHome.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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