Towns and cities are like humans. They undergo several life stages that at some point they decline in terms of their function and physical growth upon reaching maturity. Their physical form deteriorates and their social function becomes obsolete. The tendency of inhabitants of the district is to move out and look for another location that is more conducive to living and working and could offer or meet their needs. To prevent this, the national government, developers, planners and architects must develop ways to revive a “dying” district. One key is urban renewal.
The concept of urban renewal emerged in England as a reaction to the overcrowding of its urban poor in the rapidly industrializing cities of the 19th century, and has evolved into a comprehensive social reform scheme addressing the problems of the urban environment. These problems include sanitation, housing, and land use. It is an attempt to improve the physical environment of the urban landscape. Consideration for an urban renewal surfaces when the needs of the public are no longer meet.
The area where work is to be done is called the plan area. Physically blight areas are improved to make the area of concern livable. Blight areas include unpleasant landscape, poor quality buildings, and inadequate streets.
By maximizing the land use of the urban area, urban renewal helps improve the visual qualities and physical conditions of the district as well as to redefine it from its current state and make it more livable. Unsightly buildings are considered for renovation and can be redesigned for another building use.
Poor quality buildings do not contribute to the aesthetics of urban landscape. They are even accorded as hazard-posing structures. One way to eliminate unsightly buildings is to restore or renovate them into a new look. Old buildings that have significant or historical value should be restored or renovated as they form part of how the city was shaped. The relevance they bear mirrors the city’s rich historical past or whatever significance it has.
However, demolition of buildings is not part of urban renewal. As much as possible, buildings that are no longer “of use” are regarded for renovation or restoration for some other use.
A careful study of the anatomy of the locality is required before making any move. Urban renewal includes the preparation of plans of towns or cities to be renewed. The role of urban planners is to find ways to eliminate the problems urban areas face. Their task is to maximize the use of the district with regard to its land use. However, before a municipality or city can adopt a plan for an urban renewal, the proposal must first be exhibited for at least two months for public scrutiny.
Sectors that will be affected by the proposed renewal are enjoined to air their complaints in order to take measures or solutions.
One good example of a successful urban renewal project from Asia is the Cheonggyecheon river in South Korea. After the Korean war, migrants to Seoul required rapid expansion of the city, and the urban waterway was paved over and a six-lane highway was constructed on top of it in 1976. When local residents lobbied for eco-friendly and historically sensitive design, the neglected river was unearthed and turned into long, modern public recreation space. The $900 million project initially attracted much public criticism but, after opening in 2005, has become popular among city residents and tourists.
The present conditions of the cities within the metropolitan regions might dictate which growth or strategy can be considered necessary and useful. Some regions with a slow progress or growth rate may only need incremental infill. On the other hand, some areas that have a faster growth (with undeveloped suburban land) will need both incremental infill and new growth area projects.
All regional concerns and needs must be dealt with in the locality itself, like equal distribution of affordable housing and jobs, preservation of open space and agriculture lands and opportunities for transit or transportation systems. This calls for policies and governance that can both educate and guide the complex interaction of economics, ecology, technology, jurisdiction and social equity.
Urban renewal projects
Three provocative questions were posed during the exhibition “Smart City: The Next Generation” that I attended last year in Berlin, Germany. “How does your project ‘smarten’ up your city?” “Why does your city need your project?” And finally, “What are the new behaviors encouraged by your project?” This is something that our firm, Palafox Associates, has been recommending and, in some, working with local governments to address.
Palafox Associates has done successful urban renewal projects in the Philippines like the Rockwell Center in Makati and the Riverbanks in Marikina. Rockwell Center used to be a Meralco electric power plant, while the Marikina Riverbanks used to be a Utex factory site. Most urban renewal and redevelopment projects which positively impacted not just the project site but the neighboring communities and cities have successful urban redevelopment and real estate communities that have fit the urban fabrics of Makati on Rockwell, and Marikina on Riverbanks.
For the redevelopment master plan of the Marikina Riverfront, priority is given to locating major activity centers at identified nodes to encourage the use of public transport. One of the most challenging aspects of this project is orienting the redevelopment toward the river while using adaptive measures to address the flooding in these areas.
Urban renewal has been responsible for the rehabilitation of communities—as well as displacement. But progress often goes with so many things. Many are compromised in order to achieve progress such as the destruction of the environment. Some developers tend to uproot trees which are responsible for the fresh air, flood control, and the manufacture of food to afford space for building. Industrialization, as part of progress, contributes to the destruction of the environment. Through urban renewal, it helps revive and redefine our communities, towns, and cities into a more livable, walkable, and bustling place —where every requirement is met, a physical environment that is visually satisfying, and a land whose every square mile is into full utilization.