Why We Need To Rethink The City To Revive the City
Globalisation and the forces of modernisation that accompany it are not something we can opt-out of (nor should we want to) and in many ways, they offer us more opportunities than ever before. We are at a crossroads, and Northern cities will have to ask themselves more complicated questions than the well-heeled south about how we can adapt to this new landscape.
It is my belief that Newcastle should think beyond branding itself as a ‘regional hub’ for partying if it really wants to avoid the fate of innumerable faceless towns lost to Woolworth’s palimpsests and Poundstretcher’s. That is just not a future I want for a city that has adopted me and been so generous to me. My hope is that Newcastle will respond to the inevitable challenges of a relentless modern global economy and be better for it. And this article provides but a very small insight into how that might happen.
‘Placemaking’ is an urban planning term that refers to the collaborative design, management and shaping of our public spaces. A placemaking approach understands that the environment in which we work, play and live affects our health, mental wellbeing, our happiness, ability to socialise and therefore our overall sense of fulfilment.
When you think of a patchworked blanket, you picture lots of small but differently shaped panels of fabric that sit alongside one another and make up a functioning whole. This is the approach that we should take to cities. By creating a considered urban landscape through ‘patchworked placemaking’, we could create a city centre that appeals to a diverse population and helps to address social issues by design, and not just by accident.
Neighbourhoods with a homogenised make-up rarely provide the variety of services and entertainment needed to ensure economic and social resilience. If you create a space exclusively around retail, for example, you will miss out on lengthening dwell time and money spent on those who wanted to stay and get some lunch, too. If you create a space that only caters to tourists, locals get pushed out and desert the centre entirely or have to commute increasingly soul-destroying lengths to get to work.
In Newcastle city centre, we should endeavour to maintain the nightlife economy that endears us to domestic tourists (I once went to a bottomless brunch in Clapham and someone said to me, with breathless admiration, ‘I bet up north you party like this every day!’) but balance it out with provisions that strike a chord with different demographics.
We shouldn’t just design cities for young people and tourists, but create places where intergenerational activities are encouraged to strengthen social bonds and motivate the adoption of outdoor exercise. We should also make sure there are adequate parks, playgrounds and green spaces for children - to give them an attractive alternative to screens that hosts sporting activities or set the stage for the creation of complex imaginary worlds.
We should give teenagers the space they need to be outside of the house without being unsafe. We should make as much of urban centres accessible by wheelchair and for the visually impaired so that there are not swathes of the population that feel that it is simply easier to not participate in civic life because they have not been taken into consideration.
Cultural clusters such as Commercial Union House or the Newbridge Project understood that variety is the spice of life and provided affordable space for artists and craftspeople, but also cultivated links with local Universities and opened up their workshops for the public to get a peek into what they do. Charities and social enterprises also made their homes in these looming decommissioned office blocks. Developers are happy to oblige, for a time, as they are afforded a big tax break for their indirect support of the cultural and creative economy.
When we went into lockdown last year, people suddenly began having a new appreciation for the outdoors. When we are cooped up and penned in, we start to crave what we can’t have. Interest in sports, home fitness and outdoor activities soared. If we can encourage a culture of al fresco dining, lunchtime walks and outdoor gyms in the midst of a gloomy global pandemic, we can aim to reverse our fate as one of the least healthy nations in Western Europe and adopt policies to support this as we emerge the other side of it.
It will be a challenge to see whether we are truly able to reorient our thinking to see city centres as spaces that cater to more than just consumption. But the potential rewards are significant. The pandemic was a catalyst for lots of beneficial shifts in how we interact with our environment and it is my hope that we will maintain and reinforce these rather than slip back into old habits of prolonged screen-time and social isolation.
The North East has much to offer. Beautiful coastline, hubs for the creation of knowledge workers from across the globe in the form of world-class Universities, a resilient and considerate local population and more Greggs-per-square-mile than anywhere else on the planet. It has unexpected pockets of industry that are well placed to make the most of the havoc that Brexit has wrought on international trade (such as the Northern Clothing and Textiles Network that brings together fashion sector workers, from manufacturers to design students).
We must make the North East an attractive option for working as well as studying. We must offer affordable options for accommodation that extends beyond the student population. We must consider how the needs of locals intersect or diverge from those populations, and do our best to satisfy both. We must have robust social support in place for those who have been unable to secure employment. We must make the best of a bad Brexit and fund those who want to bring manufacturing back to the region, doing so with an ethical approach and the aim to reskill and retrain.
We must be open to using empty spaces for more than just chain shops and think about transactions that involve more than just goods for money - what about the value of sharing knowledge, supporting each other, sparking ideas and conversations?
This is no small feat, and there is no simple solution in sight. But the less influenced we are by ‘how we have always done things’ the easier it will be to think about the trajectory of the North East and be inspired rather than despairing.