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For wilful neglect in urban planning

Will Wiles

Sometimes there’s a case not to improve – but how do you keep that under control?

What is the most neglected principle in urban planning? Being neglected isn’t the same as being forgotten, or to be little-known in the first place. It is more purposeful. It’s something that has deliberately been left to wither. The perfect example would be the first part of the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the US. Everyone remembers and quotes the second part, about the right to bear arms. The first part, about the importance of a well-regulated militia, is neglected, because it contextualises and qualifies the second in a way that is politically unhelpful to the people who want to open their beers with automatic weapons. 

So what’s the urbanist equivalent of the well-regulated militia? It’s to be found in Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, at the head of chapter 10, in her third condition of the successful neighbourhood: ‘The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones.’
This is the chapter that ‘placemakers’ reach for when retaining and sprucing up an old warehouse or pumping station or clock tower at the middle of their multi-million-pound mixed-use development. But part of it is carefully neglected, and funnily enough, it’s the part that concerns neglect.

With the words: ‘… buildings that vary in age and condition …’ Jacobs more or less makes a case for neglect, possibly even for vacancy, abandonment, decline and ruin. It’s in neglected and run-down spaces that low-yield but socially valuable enterprises can be set up – by people and organisations that can’t afford brand new or refurbished space.

It’s in neglected and run-down spaces that low-yield but socially valuable enterprises can be set up

In 1961 New York, Jacobs might have found it hard to imagine that a city might run out of the run-down, with far vaster crises needing to be addressed. She was making a case against large-scale, blank-slate redevelopments that made everything anew. Nevertheless today this is exactly the shortage that is making hyper-gentrified, hyper-financialised cities more and more difficult to live in and enjoy. Further, it’s this shortage of genuine dilapidation that leads to the potemkin perversity of ‘artwashing’ and eerie start-up hives like Here East in Stratford, east London. In narrow terms this whole phenomenon is only a problem in the ‘world’ cities that have been the great winners of the past two decades; outside London there are still cores of British cities that have derelict buildings galore, and few takers for them. But I would argue that the conundrum needs to be considered when a place is approaching regeneration, not left until gentrification takes off. 

Jacobs’s neglect principle isn’t overlooked for devious reasons, just because it’s inconvenient. It illustrates a wider problem with the urban formula set out in Death and Life. Jacobs was very shrewd at describing the conditions that allowed a neighbourhood to, in her words, ‘spontaneously un-slum’ itself. But that process, once under way, is hard to control, and can barrel uncontrollably into socially exclusive, culturally sterile over-regeneration, where a neighbourhood is a dormitory for the rich, a cash cow for landlords, and a blank space on the map for everyone else. 

Is this inevitable, or can the delicate balance that allows a neighbourhood to stay inclusive and welcoming be maintained indefinitely? The ‘mix of conditions’ rule shows how difficult this is. How on earth can you legislate for neglect? Farmers do have their fallow fields, but when businesses need premises and people need homes it would be monstrous to deliberately restrict use of a building in order to let it decline. It may be the insoluble paradox of urban ecology: sometimes degeneration is as important as regeneration. 

Siezing the moment
Shameless plug: in an overheating, hyper-gentrified city, alienated creatives start to hanker for a more run-down and dangerous past, and see what they can do to restore it – as coincidence would have it, this is the theme of my new novel, Plume, which comes out on 16 May. 

Will Wiles is an author. Read him here every other month.