By Gabriele Oropallo, on 21 February 2012
In recent years, in Europe and beyond, there has been a trend toward the rehabilitation and redevelopment of waterfront areas. There were several reasons why these areas, which in the past often functioned as entry point to the city, fell into neglect. Amongst these, the the beginning of mass air travel, the redrawing of trade routes and subsequent relocation of commercial harbours. Between the nineteen-seventies and nineties, however, some successful examples as the London Docklands or the Barcelona Villa Olimpica, set the standard for waterfront regeneration programmes as a fast, photogenic and clearly business-oriented way cities could re-shuffle their image and attract foreign investment.
The Waterfront Expo in Glasgow on 2-3 November 2011 was an occasion to present three on-going programmes in three of Scotland’s five cities, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. It was also an occasion to compare these projects with other planned or ongoing experiences in other cities in Europe and Asia and discuss the challenges faced by the professionals working on them. At the conference the speakers representing public administrations clearly highlighted the economic and financial dimension of the projects, confidently assuming the targets stated in their plans are positively achievable and likely to bring wealth to neighbourhoods and wider urban areas. For instance, it is assumed that the Clydefront regeneration programme in Glasgow will bring about twenty thousand new jobs and an equal amount of new homes to the area, which is currently one of the neglected and deprived of the city. The Scottish Exhibition Centre, next to the actual venue where the conference took place, and the BBC Scotland Building were often cites as success stories. Interestingly, a similar enthusiasm was also shared by speakers coming from the development sector, while other private actors and representatives or the local community were more cautious in their forecast.
Amongst the most important questions that were asked was the question of accountability. With programmes projected to take place over a long time frame (ten to twenty years, much longer than the elected politicians’ terms) many asked who would be the ultimate guarantor that the original intentions and budgets. Someone raised the important issue of the fact that the introduction of proportional representation has weakened the decisional power of local councils, since every party involved in the administration of the city has to share the same vision. Other concerns generally touched on environmental issues, but also on the local economy of fishing, which would be disrupted by the programmes, with local fishermen having to relocate further away. Some of the criticisms, however, were actually endorsed by the councillors who were attending the conference. In particular, most seemed to agree that reducing the urban design intervention to the creation of small blocks of flats for young professionals interspersed by retail complexes had failed to built and consolidate a feeling of community in past interventions. The model of the mixed community, with people from different ages, professions and walks of life is more sustainable from a social and economic point of view in the long run. Also, for the same reasons, multi-functional buildings with spaces for small retail units should be preferred to residential-only structures.
The conference included extensive tours of the neighbourhoods which will be transformed by the regeneration programmes. Although connected by economical ties, the three Scottish programmes cover an extremely different range of waterfront areas, from Edinburgh were at the moment there is little connection between the city proper and the coastline, to Dundee, where the waterfront is projected to function as a new city centre. For this reason, the latter definitely seemed the most ambitious amongst the three — and also the most convincing. While in Glasgow and Edinburgh most of the effort seemed aimed at attracting foreign investment through development, in Dundee there was a clearly defined ambition to redefine the identity of the city — and in the process dramatically improve the quality of life for Dundonians. This ambition seem very likely to turn into a success, thanks to the very clever idea to invite the Victoria & Albert Museum to build a local branch and the London institution’s brave acceptance. The V&A centre will represent a much needed venue for travelling major exhibitions, which currently could not be hosted anywhere in Scotland. Also, the closeness to the University of Dundee and to Dundee Contemporary Arts centre leaves one with the impression that the emerging hub will have a true, positive impact on the identity of the city and its quality of life.