With stabilising or declining population levels in much of Europe, a workforce shrinking through ageing, and rising demand for those with ‘new economy’ skills, cities are now competing to attract those people Richard Florida termed the ‘creative classes’. This requires an appealing urban environment and lifestyle, vibrant street life, diversified housing options and an established cultural and recreational scene – these people are not going to patiently wait for one to emerge as earlier generations may have.
The link between quality urban environments and economic prosperity (in turn improving social inclusion) is now unquestioned. Cities are becoming aggressively competitive in improving and promoting their image as cosmopolitan places to visit, live, work and invest. The most dramatic changes are former industrial and manufacturing centres that are being effective in reinventing their roles and images. Across much of England and the rust belt of northern Europe, growing energies and budgets are being poured into regeneration. Initiatives are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with block-buster grand projects now being complemented by more subtle efforts at the finer grain of human interface.
Newcastle – Gateshead is now one of the top tourist destinations in Britain, a proposition that would have provoked derision even a decade ago. Gent in Belgium claims one million visitors to its 10 day festival each July – although this may reflect the quality of Belgian beer as much as the cultural offerings! The retail centre of Leeds now sees its competition for weekend specialty shoppers as a suite of cities stretching from Ireland to France, courtesy of cheap airfares. While few Australian cities reached the same degree of ‘degeneration’ as UK cities, there are still lessons of relevance.
This corresponds with an increasing realisation that poor levels of coordination and communication between professional specialties and across economic sectors are resulting in outcomes that fall short in quality and delivery. Some public policy formulators, private sector developers and academics may not even share terminology that each other understand, let alone have a common perspective on the urban change environment they all contribute to.
Responding to these delivery gaps is a fresh focus on the ‘place’ and its multi-faceted performance to complement and blend segmented specialist professional inputs. Cross sectoral training in generic ‘specialist generalist’ skills reflect those already underpinning urban design practice.
A project called UniverCities aimed at linking practical implementation experiences to training institutions has been initiated by the newly created Academy of Urbanism (a curiously British self-appointed aristocracy of the great and good of the built environment). These initiatives reinforce the need for theory and policy to be rooted in practical implementation experience.
There is growing recognition that achievement of cohesive, efficient and pleasant cities requires pivotal input of professional skills achieving cross-sector and inter-disciplinary management, guided on a shared vision for the place. Urban design is expanding into urban delivery.
Rod Duncan is manager of the City Centre Program, a place-based initiative of the City of Greater Bendigo to further enhance the amenity, prosperity and sustainability and community identity of Bendigo’s city centre.