Urban regeneration: The takeover of ‘cappuccino urbanism’
Tuesday, September 04, 2018
Citizens of "regenerated" districts will find the sight of yet another boutique café opening up on their local main street familiar. But as the pavements in the "thriving" cities of the West fill up simultaneously with cappuccino vendors and a growing homeless population, the cognitive dissonance becomes hard to ignore.
Some are starting to ask if what has become known as "cappuccino urbanism" papers over a shallow approach to urban regeneration and belies a crucial lack of imagination.
Have a set of urban design principles that started off with good intentions now "calcified"? Some have taken it further, asking the question of whether urban design of today is truly morally bankrupt.
Second-hand shops out, café culture in
As I was training as an urban planner, I sat in presentation sessions for schemes designed to "revitalize" the main streets of struggling Northern English towns.
Glossy, Photoshopped mock-up images were used by bright-eyed young designers to illustrate the remedy for these moribund high streets — replacing charity shops and take outs (tell-tale signs of urban failure) with "hipster" street-side cafes, Instagrammable food and retro chic bowling alleys.
This all struck me as a bit too easy. It appears that many agree with me.
Behind the design flourishes, if we browse through the design-led urban regeneration projects of recent years, we find that they soon converge to a similar pattern. The acceptance of a certain set of principles for "good" regeneration has led to a series of "pattern book" city centers.
But if each community is distinctive, we must ask the question of how well do these transformed places align with the underlying realities and rhythms of the place itself.
This trend has its own motifs, which are borrowed, imitated and imported. There is the gradual morphing of local markets into fetishized farmers’ markets — which are perhaps rightly celebrated by localists, but frequently fail to serve the whole community.
However, the raft of cafes, announced by the ubiquitous kooky blackboard sign, is one of the most visible. Welcome to the world of "cappuccino urbanism."
'Café culture' and a failure of imagination
So, what is the big problem with the increasing dominance of this café culture? Are flat whites not harmless money-earners for a changing demographic and economy?
The answer lies in the impact for inclusivity in our towns and cities, social mixing and diversity of use. The generally high price point of many of the cafes in regenerated, master-planned areas, excludes large swathes of the community in our increasingly unequal neighborhoods.
Another obstacle to inclusive regeneration is that is notoriously difficult for authorities and developer to win the participation and engagement of a wide range of community members. While middle-class retired locals are likely to come along to meetings (and who later can afford to frequent the cafes), a single mother who is working two jobs is less likely to make the time.
But finally, "cappuccino urbanism" belies a lack of imagination among planners and urban designers about what a city can be, resorting to the "quick fix" of a carefully sculpted "café culture" that sits well in design guidelines.
A report for the mayor of London by the London School of Economics (LSE) looked carefully at high streets and described their "complexity of place" — a complexity that is too often not captured by the identikit streetscapes we see in regeneration plans.
The alternatives: consumption vs. production
These spaces of "cappuccino urbanism" are fundamentally spaces of consumption rather than production. So what might our neighborhoods look like instead? How might they look more creative and productive?
One option is to think about setting aside space for makerspaces. These collaborative hubs for entrepreneurs, "makers" and young people are on the rise in the U.S. and have been touted as a smart way to draw industry, creativity and production back into the city. They are springing up, from one housed in an old masonic lodge in Georgia to a women-only hub in San Francisco.
Young people flood to them looking for guidance on electronics, sewing, art, metalwork and, of course, creating apps and gaming. Local governments can promote them by making space available in unused buildings and putting them at the core of regeneration initiatives.
The LSE report also discussed how to provide a "range of businesses and services" that draws in the wider neighborhood, not only the "young professional" demographic that has become the key target market of regeneration activities.
It also might mean a more robust role for local authorities in protecting long-term commercial residents and recognizing their contribution to cultural and civic infrastructure, and by displaying a deeper understanding of the powerful social function of the main street.
Conclusions: Repoliticizing urban design
The problem with "cappuccino urbanism" streetscapes is that they are often “imported” into a city with little consideration of the underlying urban fabric. Often these are based on the romantic notion of the café culture of ancient European cities.
But what we tend to forget is that these cafés that we love encountering on holiday often have their roots as places where workers in production would break to socialize — the lokanta tradesmens’ restaurants of Istanbul; the crucial social, and even political, function of the Greek kafenion among the working classes; and how the now-fetishised markets of Barcelona once served as social glue. The "café culture" of post-regeneration cities, meanwhile, has now been commoditized, borrowed and divorced from its community role.
Urban design and architecture used to be radical — not a series of simple solutions, but a rethink of the assumptions that underlie the way we live.
Cappuccino urbanism shows how far we have drifted from those aspirations. Perhaps now is the right moment to repoliticize urban design?
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