The Next Chapter in UK Urban Regeneration

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Tuesday, March 29th, 2016
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On a frosty morning last month in Birmingham – England’s largest urban centre outside of London – 150 people gathered to shape the city’s next steps in its growth management journey.

Like many growing cities around the world, Birmingham is actively pursuing an agenda of urban regeneration that brings opportunities for its residents and businesses while responding the many challenges brought about by climate change, population growth, increasing cost of living and social inequity. And these are just a few of the dilemmas it is navigating as it transitions from a historic industrial city to a fresh vibrant sustainable city.

The gathering was facilitated by the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), which annually brings together sustainability practitioners to focus on the sustainability challenges of a particular host city.

The goal of the summit was to help shape a lasting impact on the sustainability of Birmingham’s built environment. The challenges are many, as with any growing city, as we heard from the City Leader (akin to a Mayor for us Aussies), John Clancy, in his opening speech to delegates in the opening session. While the challenges are many, he also noted the good work the city had done to advance its sustainability goals, such as embracing green infrastructure at the heart of all their planning decisions.

Even with much progress made, this major city sits on the cusp of an urban regeneration boom, and sticking to the plan (The Birmingham Development Plan) would be the key. Over the next two days summit delegates would visit key urban regeneration sites and hear first-hand from city staff on the challenges facing them in an effort to catalyse ideas and innovation.

Technically, we knew solutions would be free-flowing, and the city identified some key areas to support this by identifying the core areas of green infrastructure, sustainable design and construction supply chain for delegates to dig into. However, from a process perspective, things were a little more complex, and acknowledged as an area of concern, and in need of support.

The morning session wrapped with myself and Vancouver’s Deputy Mayor, Andrea Reimer, sharing experiences and evolving trends from North America’s urban regeneration agenda.

Longing for new models – scale matters

Capacity, leadership, governance and collaboration all became issues identified as sticking points when our breakout workshop sessions commenced. Those common issues are known as the critical success factors, but they are wicked to solve. Business as usual is the easiest path, even though fresh perspectives are considered attractive. This is a script that we see time and time again, across the world – in the UK, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Birmingham is not alone.

And like these other regions across the world, Birmingham has a solid plan. An impressive plan that is ambitious, articulate and supported by the community. But coming up with a plan is the easy part. What about implementation, and creating the conditions for the successful delivery of development projects? Is leaving it up to ‘the market’ good enough?

A clue might lie in the wisely crafted lens to city-building outlined in the Birmingham Development Plan 2015-2030. A growth management strategy that claims “at the heart of the City’s growth agenda will be the promotion of sustainable neighborhoods.”

This gives Brimingham a framework whereby future growth throughout the city, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood, can embed the plan’s ambitious ideas, targets and requirements.

It  requires a scale that is small enough to facilitate and pilot innovation and newly evolving disruptions such as the sharing economy, smart cities approaches, and digital transformation, yet large enough to have a meaningful impact. If supported by a strong culture of learning and refining, the conditions for replication and acceleration throughout other neighbourhoods becomes realistic.

Back on the site tours, summit delegates visited the almost ‘blank-slate’ brownfield site of the Icknield Port Loop, an existing low income housing estate, and the proposed location of the new High Speed Rail (HSR) 2 station in Curzon. Each project was challenging in different ways, but with a world of opportunity.

With HSR2, Birmingham becomes an even more attractive commuter city, with the trip down to London taking a mere 49 minutes (down from one hour, 24 minutes). My bus ride from the Northern Beaches of Sydney into the city was 50 minutes back in 2013, and who knows what that has ballooned to? The regional and national economic benefits of high speed rail are playing out right now in the UK and in the United States (California). But what about here in Australia? Where is the movement at home?

Pitching the opportunities

As we transitioned back to the summit venue, the bus ride was an opportunity for informal debriefs. The ideas to support this city were really starting to flow. Potential solutions, frameworks, methods and tips were passing through the teams as we mentally prepared for the afternoon session – bringing it all together and preparing a pitch back to city leaders. This chatter among delegates, the excitement of new frameworks, practices, and ideas, was what this was all about, and it was exactly how the UKGBC had curated it. It was brilliant.

As we bunkered down for the home stretch, those very un-sexy issues of governance, leadership, collaboration, and capacity surfaced again. I asked one (seemingly) simple question of the city representatives in our group, “are you ready for the city-building boom that is about to play out here?” The response was provided off the record, but these issues remain the achilles heel for any growing city if they are not more intimately connected with plan-making processes. And for Birmingham, time is still on their side, for the most part.

Our final session saw the three groups make pitches to the city, the details of which will be reported out on the UKGBC website. Many ideas were well-received, and some were even met with excitement. Some, of course, didn’t seem to meet the ‘sniff test’ by the city, for seemingly fair reasons.

With parallels to a hackathon, this energy from the delegates to help bring new and innovative ways of city-building, with a strong sustainability lens, was a thrilling experience. Developers, consultants, policy makers and various other sectors up and down the supply chain, many strangers to one another, were now teams of solution providers.

Here comes the green building, precinct, infrastructure and cities council

As we packed up out of Birmingham and travelled back to London by train, it was clear to my UKGBC friends and I that our cities matter (of course), and the interconnecting pieces of the built environment – buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces – provide a canvas on which social equity, prosperity, and health and wellness (those more ‘squishy’ issues) could be shaped. Moving beyond bricks and mortar is a front and centre issue. Putting people first, uplifting prosperity, and enhancing health outcomes are king in any cities agenda.

And it’s an agenda on which the Green Building Council’s are rising to the challenge as their realm of influence broadens and the realization that scaling up from greening individual buildings to entire precincts, public infrastructure, and entire cities, is now an urgent platform to advance.

Equally urgent is the need for deeper collaboration among industry representatives who are advancing common agenda efforts, such as those we have recently seen in Australia with the Living Cities Alliance, facilitated by the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, the newly established partnership between the Green Building Council of Australia, the Living Future Institute of Australia, and the International Living Future Institute, as well as the ongoing efforts through organisations like the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.

These actions, and partnerships, are helping move us closer to a collective impact model of effecting change in the built environment. If new partnerships are not part of your organizational strategic plan for 2016, you have no plan!

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