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Urban regeneration: can cities stay unique?
Using participatory culture to create a sense of place

Urban regeneration is nearly always considered a good thing – but not every project results in more distinctive, authentic places. Some projects have produced generic, uninspired results.

As improvements in transport and communications bring nations closer together, globalisation is leading to the homogenisation of many world cities. We now see the same chain stores and restaurants, notable buildings by the same international architects, and policy transfers that take scant notice of local context (such as the proliferating imitations of New York’s High Line).

In the face of globalisation, culture can help places retain their unique qualities. The most effective urban improvement projects take a participatory approach – as opposed to high profile, ‘star architect’ or design-led strategies that can easily disenfranchise the local population while garnering headlines. By definition, public space belongs to locals and should reflect them in some way; citizens make meaning in and of their city by investing in their public space.

Participatory approaches to regeneration can also lead to far more interesting and distinctive results. Increasingly, cultural policy in world cities mobilises a broader cast of actors than ever before: not only the institutions of government, but also civil society organisations and movements. Navigating this complex terrain can be worth the effort if the results truly reflect local cultures.

Both Bogotá and Shanghai show the value of approaching public space management in collaboration with communities. Bogotá’s policy on graffiti, founded on the principle that non-mainstream groups can appropriate their city through culture, was truly participatory in nature, consulting with graffiti artists. It led to a clearer recognition of graffiti as a valuable artistic and cultural practice and has led to some highly distinctive streetscapes.

Shanghai’s most successful culture-led regeneration project, Tianzifang, is another exemplar of bottom-up change. Concerted actions by a local community helped safeguard the area’s architectural heritage and produce a tangible manifestation of the city’s individual identity.

Culture-led regeneration projects can also tackle the aesthetic expression of inequality. Socio-spatial disadvantage is not only evident in basic services and infrastructure, but also in the material fabric of the city: think of the stigma attached to certain types of social housing architecture. Poor aesthetics in deprived neighbourhoods can create a vicious circle, reinforcing negative images and stereotypes.

Madrid and Stockholm’s case studies directly respond to this aesthetic stigma. Madrid’s art-led, public spaces improvement strategy targeted peripheral districts most in need of attention, and was designed to shape a more positive local identity for these areas. Stockholm’s One Percent Rule scheme commissions art for Stockholm’s peripheral districts and inner-city regeneration areas, consulting citizens throughout the process.

All these initiatives, which demonstrate the power of community involvement in culture-led regeneration, are showcased in our Transformational Cultural Projects Report. Keep an eye on this blog for further case studies exploring the transformative power of culture.