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The limits of regeneration

The riots have exposed the failures of regeneration – but don’t blame architects, says Christine Murray

We had long planned to feature London 2012’s Aquatic Centre by Zaha Hadid and Wilkinson Eyre’s Basketball Arena in this week’s issue, but as riots erupted, an unexpected irony emerged: our front cover featuring Hadid’s stunning venue had been inadvertently politicised by our smouldering reality.

As an 116-year-old journal of record, we often ask ourselves what message we should send to the AJ reader of one hundred years hence. In an ephemeral, virtual world, where Twitter feeds are unsearchable after two weeks, the permanence of paper is a responsibility. Our solution was to create a second cover featuring the riots’ destruction, to sit alongside Zaha’s glorious building. Subscribers will receive one of the two designs.

The covers represent the two narratives shaping this city, but the riots were not limited to the capital. They were so widespread that the sole unifying cause lies in the emerging portrait of the 2,500 arrested. If at first it was assumed to be a race riot, we know now that the rioters are diverse. They are primarily unemployed males aged 18-24, of every colour, but English, not immigrant, nor European.

What this generation shares is a disregard for authority and a hunger for consumer goods. Trawling through the most-wanted on Scotland Yard’s website is an education: a young rioter laughs, carrying an armful of shoes; another smiles, a bicycle over his shoulder; a third smirks under a pile of new clothes.

The looters are unmistakably happy, painfully unprofessional, and the very picture of moral bankruptcy. They exhibit a notable lack of empathy for shopkeepers and citizens, and little regard for place; they think nothing of destroying their own neighbourhood high streets. The status achieved in accumulating consumer goods is more alluring than the deterrence of any threat of retribution.

The riots mostly took place in areas that have at some point received extensive investment in their regeneration. Thanks to architects, the ensuing improvements to the fabric of the city attracted further development, and some gentrification, in places such as Dalston, Brixton, Clapham, Peckham, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and so on.

What has become clear in the aftermath of the riots, however, is that investment in these areas has often been skin-deep, glossing over complex social problems such as poverty, unemployment and a lack of economic mobility.

Without our perspective, architects could be blamed for failing to ‘regenerate’ these places. The truth is that the excellent work of architects delivered: it attracted investment and encouraged a dynamic social mix. But it was let down by local authorities who used architecture to pay lip service to change. What is a new library without an intelligent programme, or a new public space without a reason to gather there?

Without reflection, history will repeat itself – just this week mayor Boris Johnson announced £50 million to rebuild London, with an emphasis on creating safe places to ‘invest’ in. If the riots have taught us anything, it’s that the regeneration of our cities requires a more holistic approach (we need to get those 18-24 young males working), otherwise the fine work of architects will again be undermined by government incompetence. 

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