Let's give space to experimentation and temporary urbanism to allow struggling towns to thrive again

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Investment in people and ideas are just as crucial as financial investment to reverse the trajectory of decline and deprivation in struggling towns.”  

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Over the last few decades, urban planners have been called on to address a growing number of crucial challenges beyond the traditional concerns of land use management and housing provision, moving into a range of fields spanning health, wellbeing, climate change and sustainability.  Today, planning is frequently criticised for not fully delivering its core mission, for its lack of flexibility and inability to respond to the challenges facing complex urban environments.  With £1.6bn of government funding released to help meet the needs of struggling towns in the UK, it is time to re-think traditional planning practices and bring innovation and creativity on the table.

It is often at the margins that innovation occurs, in spaces where survival overrides formal regulatory frameworks.  The failure of economic, social and market mechanisms have led to decline in many areas, leaving spaces of opportunity to transform cities. Detroit is the best-known example of how alternative forms of urbanism can transform and revive a city in a sustainable manner.  This kind of revival involves breaking traditional approaches built upon assumptions of rigidity and permanence, instead introducing more creative ways to re-activate urban spaces to address policy ambitions, community needs and bring investors back.  This is about giving new values to spaces that have lost their identities, status and roles, acknowledging that adaptability and flexibility are key.  This approach is not new in itself – temporary urbanism, in different forms, led by citizens, local authorities, private developers or land owners, has spread significantly both in the UK and internationally in recent years.  Temporary urbanism is a set of processes, practices and policies for spatial adaptability, allowing the activation (and re-activation) of spaces in need of transformation. If we are to successfully invest in struggling towns, we need to employ such adaptable approaches to help drive their transformations.

What does this mean in practice?  First, it requires a new strategic thinking, based on knowledge exchange between experts and non-experts, especially communities who possess an everyday knowledge of neighbourhoods.  This way of thinking means breaking out of siloed approaches – which are common in planning – and developing a more interdisciplinary and holistic understanding of urban problems.  It also requires localised and contextualised solutions tailored to specific characteristics and needs. Second, it rests on developing forums that allow innovative and creative ideas to emerge and provide support (material, economic and political) to test and nurture those ideas.  This can unlock neglected spaces for socio-economic and urban enhancement, based upon flexible strategies and learning from failures.  Third, this cannot be achieved without the support of local leaders (politicians, community leaders, project leaders) able to champion those principles and ensure buy-in and inclusiveness.

Investment in people and ideas are just as crucial as financial investment to reverse the trajectory of decline and deprivation in struggling towns.  A more flexible planning framework based on a strong commitment to temporary urbanism to tackle dereliction is key to generate long-term positive and sustainable transformations.

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