From blight to city highlight: Urban renewal projects

Across our modern cities, abandoned railway lines and derelict industrial areas are being transformed into green public space in the name of urban renewal.

March 04, 2016

From Peckham in London to Philadelphia in the U.S., the past decade has seen a surge of interest in creating innovative urban projects that reinvigorate cities and their communities.

New York’s High Line is the poster child for this trend. What was once a disused section of railway spur on New York’s Lower West Side has gradually been transformed into a vibrant public park and raised walkway.

Initially conceived by a non-profit community group, the project became a private-public partnership, and welcomes around 4 million visitors a year. “It’s had a huge positive impact on real estate development, hospitality, and retail to the Meatpacking District and West Side of Manhattan—now in the billions of dollars,” says Peter Miscovich, JLL New York’s Managing Director for Strategy and Innovation. “There’s been a phenomenal return on investment as a result of the High Line.”

One key driver of urban infrastructure renewal is a change in attitude among the younger generation about what the city center is, and how it should be used. “We’re seeing a return to the core city,” says Miscovich. “It’s urban transformation resulting from a change in lifestyle values as much as anything. People are socially engaged, value their time differently, and look at elements of their lifestyle and workstyles in a more holistic and sophisticated manner.”

The ability to walk or cycle to amenities are priorities among urban millennials, who have less tolerance for lengthy car commutes and the legacy suburban lifestyle their parents aspired to live.

According to Miscovich, the urban renewal trend that began 10 years ago will continue further into Brooklyn, Queens and to the Lower East Side until at least 2020, further buoying property prices as investors and buyers flock to revitalized areas. “Residential real estate in New York exceeded one trillion dollars in investment value a few months ago,” he adds. “The regeneration of the city and the urban experience as a great place for people to live and to work in is an amazing trend that we couldn’t have forecast 20 years ago.”

Reinvigorating forgotten areas

Other cities have are also leading the way in transforming their own rundown areas into new urban highlights. “In Sydney we’ve seen some very successful urban renewal projects,” says Simone Concha, JLL Australia’s Sustainability Director. In the early 1900s, Sydney’s Pyrmont district was a busy port area, but by the 1980s it was disused, dirty and empty. “The latest renewal project [in the area] is the conversion of the old goods train line to a pedestrian parkland and walkway,” says Concha. “This has created a wonderful, safe connection from Central Railway Station all the way to the busy retail/entertainment area of Darling Harbour, linking in to the University of Technology along the way.”

Elsewhere, in a rapidly gentrifying corner of south London, a community group hopes to transform Peckham’s old coal sidings into a 1 km elevated urban park cutting through a dense, former industrial area. In Philadelphia, plans to adapt an old raised railroad into a park have gathered significant momentum, with phase one slated to break ground later this year.

Changing standards among inhabitants, and an active local organisation are important contributors in many urban renewal projects of this kind. “The embryonic energy and commitment of the community is a critical part of the recipe for success,” says Miscovich. “It’s not just a case of ‘build it and they will come’. Without the communal energy I think you have a much higher risk of failure for urban regeneration.” Concha agrees: “The soul can only be put back into urban renewal projects when they are occupied, used and loved by the local community.”

Creating modern, liveable cities

Across the United States, opportunities exist to transform decaying infrastructure through urban renewal projects, such as 1960s-built highways that cut through almost every major city. Fifty years ago, the construction of highways fueled the housing industry, made jobs more accessible and created a comfortable middle-class.

But today, that model seems outdated. “While America changed—the market trending towards mobile, urban lifestyles—highways refused to change with it,” argues Diana Lind in City 2.0: The Habitat Of The Future And How to Get There. “Their blight on cities [undergoing urban renewal] is generally recognizable as causing great disinvestment in the area immediately surrounding them…” Research done by the Natural Resources Defense Council, for example, shows that neighborhoods with higher location efficiency—a measure of the transportation costs in a given area—experience lower foreclosure rates.

Similarly, in Australia, “urban renewal is a desperately needed strategy to reduce suburban sprawl and reinvigorate languishing and forgotten inner city areas,” says Concha. “Great livable cities are created when there are villages within cities: connected communities with human scale, where you can walk or cycle to work and your local shops. The challenge with compact urban living is providing enough natural, green spaces for people to enjoy.”

Converting outdated infrastructure provides a win-win solution for people living in neighborhoods that lack the coveted green space and location efficiency of the newly imagined urban core. As well as community cohesion and increased quality of life for residents, capital and talent gravitates towards a neighborhood on the up, creating a virtuous cycle of investment and increased valuation for investors and developers.

As we move towards a new, sustainable set of urban values, renewal projects present an exciting opportunity to create truly resilient cities for the 21st century.