When we talk about renewal, it’s almost always in reference to something good. It’s no wonder they’re two of the buzziest buzzwords in marketing today, helping to sell everything from skincare to vitamins. Conjuring connotations of rejuvenation, it’s hard to find fault with a concept synonymous with growth and repair. Until, that is, we get to the contentious issue of urban renewal.
At face value, the idea of transforming old or underutilized buildings and neighborhoods is a no-brainer. But how does urban renewal play out in reality? Is it always a good thing, and what can we do to ensure renewal works for everyone? To find out, I picked the brains of architects, a property developer and ordinary citizens to discover how they feel about this heavily contested practice.
What is Urban Renewal?
Urban renewal, or urban regeneration, is the process of revitalizing buildings and districts in decline. Such projects are typically government-supported, and can involve everything from restoring heritage buildings to knocking down and rebuilding entire neighborhoods.
Is Urban Renewal Always a Good Thing?
For many proponents of urban renewal, such projects are key to a city’s growth and modernization. As real estate investor and developer Douglas Wu explains, it “revitalizes previously blighted areas and rediscovers the potential of a neighborhood that otherwise may not have been appreciated.”
You see, renewal projects represent a commitment to the development of a district’s infrastructure as well as visual aesthetics. And as you might expect, this comes with lucrative opportunities for investment. In many ways, urban renewal is a gift for those in the property development business. “Neighborhoods undergoing urban renewal are usually at the forefront of trends,” notes Wu. “Developers like to put their trendiest tenants and designs in these areas.”
A New Lease of Life
Investment aside, what else can urban renewal bring to the table? Well for Enzyme architects Jorge Beneitez and Eugenio Fontan, their support is more emotionally-driven. As Beneitez puts it, “for us, one of the reasons for doing urban renewal is to make people wake up and think about where they live”. It’s about putting love back into the community, making cities a nicer place to live.
That being said, the duo stress that renewal has to make sense for the users. “It really needs to solve problems, or improve the usability of a space. That’s really critical,” says Fontan. If not, renewal can leave an unwelcome mark on a community.
So what exactly are the downsides of urban renewal? Without doubt, one of the more troubling consequences of such projects involves gentrification and the displacement of local people. This is something long time Hong Kong resident, Dare Koslow, is all too familiar with.
As the owner of multiple ‘tong lau’ tenement buildings, Koslow has been approached numerous times to sell his property to the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) – a government body responsible for facilitating the regeneration of urban Hong Kong. After a community effort, the plans ultimately fell through, but Kowslow is aware that his story could have had a less savory ending. “Typically when the URA and developers get involved, most people don’t have a choice but to sell,” says Koslow.
Indeed, as Katty Law, one of the founders of the heritage conservation ‘Central and Western Concern Group’, explains, “once the URA buy up about 80 – 90% of a building, land resumption ordinances mean they have the power to force everyone else out. Small owners have little power to resist.”
“It’s very seldom that the people who used to live in these neighborhoods can move back. In that sense, I think redevelopment becomes more about elevating the value of the neighborhood, rather than improving the lives of the community.” – Law.
A Loss of Heritage
Alongside displacement, urban renewal further poses the threat of demolishing heritage. In Hong Kong especially, the majority of renewal projects turn low rise tenement buildings into monotonous high rise apartments. “Many neighborhoods in Hong Kong maintain their character through these tenement buildings,” laments Law, “but if these are knocked down, then what happens to the history of these districts?”
How Can We Make Urban Renewal Work for Everyone?
Despite their objections and reservations, both Koslow and Law maintain that they’re not against urban renewal per se. Likewise, though Wu, Beneitez and Fontan are unanimous in their support, they also recognize that when badly done, renewal can do more harm than good. The question is, how can we make it work for everyone?
While Beneitez points out that an urban renewal project is unlikely to fully satisfy everyone, there are some things that can help make the change less contentious. For instance, a policy of organic growth whereby transformation takes place building by building, street by street. “Gradual renewal will allow time for the area to adapt to socio-economic changes, and will better retain the cultural roots of the neighborhood,” argues Wu. “Many renewal projects make the mistake of wiping out multiple city blocks which are then given to a single developer. At that point, we risk neighborhoods turning into over-commercialized, cookie-cutter copies.”
Listen to the People
For Koslow and Law, one of the keys to successful renewal is to get local residents involved. “I hope developers can think beyond profit,” implores Law, “and actually consider what’s best for the neighborhood and its people”.
“Let the people who feel a sense of pride and ownership of their neighborhoods become a part of the urban renewal,” adds Koslow, “don’t deny them the possibility of getting involved.”
Despite the positive associations attached to its name, it’s clear that the legacy of urban renewal is problematic. The reality of renewal reads like a series of battles: old versus new, heritage versus contemporary, moneyed developers versus the poor and powerless. And the kicker is, both sides have a point.
“Maybe this sounds naïve,” reflects Fontan, ” but urban renewal which takes into account analysis and has a proposal that understands all the complexities is usually always good. Projects that are unsuccessful don’t work because they are too focused on one thing, such as profit. When you neglect the bigger picture, you end up having these gaps. And that’s when urban renewal turns bad.”