Urban Renewal Lessons from the Past

Urban development planning and consulting firms such as The Practice Group play an integral role in helping governments, provincial administrations, councils and municipalities to achieve their respective urban development goals.

Urban renewal is of particular importance when it comes to urban development. Firstly, it helps to ensure optimal usage of urban space, and secondly, it helps to revive areas which became unsafe and unpopular because of factors such as over population, lack of road infrastructure, rapid urbanisation, economical changes, etc.

With the focus of urban development planning and consulting being to optimise land usage and resources for maximum benefit to the community with minimal impact on the environment, the need to revive inner city areas can be addressed effectively.

Why is urban renewal so important?

It is vital for the reform, enhancement of living and working quality, and the revitalisation of the central business districts. Critics of urban renewal argue that existing communities are often disrupted in favour of development. Though some neighbourhoods may be demolished in the process and a part of their culture lost for future generations of urban dwellers, it is often necessary to ensure that living spaces can be improved.

Urban renewal programmes of the past often focussed on developments to modernise the central business districts, and part of these programmes entailed demolition of neighbourhoods. Over time, however, the focus changed from demolishing to renovation, improvements in access to the CBD, plans to curb pavement selling, and ways to ensure investment into the derelict parts of the city. With such in mind, local governments now often provide incentives to developers for renovating the inner city buildings.

Where did the idea of urban renewal as a means to social reform originate?

England was at the forefront of using urban development planning methods to improve the living conditions of the urban dwellers. This was in reaction to the highly unhealthy living conditions of the worker class in the industrialised urban areas of the UK as the result of the industrial revolution in the early 19th century.

Sporadic development of neighbourhoods near or even within industrial areas meant that people lived in the air polluted areas. In addition, the housing was exceptionally small, with limited running water, and the lack of toilets, bathrooms and drainage systems, which all led to the neighbourhoods becoming the breeding grounds for disease.

In response to the situation, an agenda was set in place to improve the housing and aesthetics of the city. An earlier example of urban renewal, not so much for social reform as was the case in England, was the redevelopment of Paris which commenced in the 1850s under the guidance of Baron Haussmann.

However, back in the UK, urban development plans were implemented to remove the slums from London. The first steps involved the clearing of the Rochester Buildings, which were a social housing development project. The buildings were eventually renamed to Blocks A, B, C and D.

With inadequate housing at the heart of the social problem at the time, the Peabody Trust invested in the building of housing estates. However, in order to do so, the Devil’s Acre had to be cleared. The Trust also built the Abbey Orchard Estate, using the old square design method with a courtyard in the middle for communal usage and some form of privacy away from the main street; the courtyard would be used for recreational purposes. Sanitary facilities, in addition to the laundry area, would be for communal usage.

We also see in England one of the earliest state interventions in urban development planning with the introduction of the Public Health Act. The focus of the Act was to improve the living conditions in the cities in order to reduce the outbreak of diseases. According to the requirements of the Act, the new residential developments would in future include running water and proper drainage systems. It marked the start of controlling housing quality, and building contractors had to improve the quality of their work and developments.

As can be seen from the urban renewal that took place in England, older neighbourhoods had to give way to new developments. Unfortunately, the very poor did not always benefit as their communities were disrupted and they were often unable to afford the newer and improved housing.

Characteristic of modern urban development planning and consulting is the focus on minimising disruption of communities and ensuring that the communities living in the specific areas benefit from the development plans.