Separated by a common problem

6 Mar 09
HARRIS BEIDER | US and British regeneration projects face similar deep-seated problems and can learn much from each other.

US and British regeneration projects face similar deep-seated problems and can learn much from each other. For a start, the UK could gain from adopting more of the American ‘can do’ approach

UK and US cities face many similar problems, such as poor quality housing, deprived neighbourhoods and stark inequalities.

The responses of the two countries to these challenges reflect major differences in history, racial and ethnic diversity, and the roles of the public and private sectors in the provision of housing.

But a recent project between the British Institute of Community Cohesion and thinkers and practitioners in US states has shown both countries how they can learn from each other and find new ways to tackle their toughest problems and rebuild their communities.

Both countries have an ageing and, in places, obsolete housing stock in need of overhaul or replacement; housing developments that are isolated physically and socially from surrounding communities; and long-distressed neighbourhoods that have experienced market pressures that could put the affordable housing stock at risk.

They also have disadvantaged residents with problems such as poor physical or mental health, low educational and training attainment, and substance abuse; low rates of labour market participation; and disconnected youth at risk of dropping out of school and engaging in delinquent activities.

As you would expect, the US emphasis is more on the private sector and in encouraging individuals’ self-sufficiency and economic integration. An example is ‘residency selection criteria’, a list of requirements would-be tenants need to agree to and comply with. The focus is on individuals, not on their current situation and their disadvantages but on their intentions and will to improve their employability and own economic wellbeing.

This kind of commitment should be central to any regeneration initiative — the involvement of people with the right intentions and the ability to help make their community improve in economic and social terms.

In support of this approach, the new Homes and Communities Agency should review the potential risks to regeneration projects, including the ‘wellbeing’ of households. As a result, housing organisations will be able to promote their role in helping tenants become self-sufficient through training, jobs and business creation.

During the institute’s visits to the US, places such as Chicago and East Baltimore provided stark evidence of what happens when issues of race and disadvantage are not addressed head on. There is a reticence in the US to talk in-depth about these issues. Moreover, a lack of focus on race permeates housing policy, especially when public housing developments undergoing regeneration are marked by extreme racial segregation.

Black activists in the US also tend to argue that white Americans need to increase their awareness and understanding of race-related issues and concerns if improvements in race relations are to occur.

In the UK, there is a greater openness about these issues, but work on them continues to be tentative. Now is the time for bold and decisive initiatives targeted on specific urban communities, if the UK is to avoid a spiral of deprivation. The lesson must be that it is more cost-effective to address issues around neighbourhood decline earlier than later.

Serious discussion is needed about ways to uncouple the association between race and economic status if more cohesive communities are to be built.

The UK should also adopt more of the ‘can do’ entrepreneurial approach shown in the US, backed up with coherent national policy-making. Fluid boundaries between the public and private sectors, and an open-minded attitude to the involvement of entrepreneurs, have added a great deal of flair to US projects, as well as a stronger sense of drive and determination among both individuals and their organisations.

On the other hand, the US participants in the project were impressed by the way UK regeneration plans focus on a strong community infrastructure; with the involvement of local people in the planning and approval process; and the financial support from national government.

A major difference between the two experiences is in philosophy. One of the defining words associated with the regeneration initiatives in the UK is cohesion. In the US, the focus is on changes that are aimed at increasing the wellbeing of individuals. The institute’s idea of regeneration is based on having facilities and an environment that brings people from different backgrounds together.

Whatever the new approaches might be, it is only through this focus that towns and cities can be genuinely regenerated.

Harris Beider is professor of community cohesion and academic director of the Institute of Community Coheision, Coventry University

Did you enjoy this article?