Urban regeneration: wastelands no more

Run-down parts of cities are often left to decay, but now architects and urban planners around the world are being commissioned to revitalise these neglected areas, as Vision finds out

In 2008, the proportion of the global population living in cities reached 50 per cent for the first time. It is projected to rise to two-thirds by 2050. The rate of expansion is particularly acute in developing nations, where organic urban sprawl is leading many people to live without basic amenities such as clean water and sanitation. Many cities in both developed and developing nations have reached a critical state, and urban planners and architects are being called upon to propose increasingly radical solutions to the problems.

Masterplanning projects generally involve vast financial and logistical operations that can take years or even decades to implement. However, communities in some cities, particularly in developing countries, regularly create and implement plans to improve their own living conditions. While researching a book on experimental and activistic approaches to urban planning in South America, writer and curator Justin McGuirk visited Caracas, Venezuela, where Torre David – an uncompleted 45-storey office block in the heart of the city’s financial district – has been occupied by more than 750 families. Although the tower is derided by many as a vertical slum, McGuirk and local architecture practice Urban-Think Tank view Torre David as a potential model for urban development.

Symbol of revival

They presented its story in an award-winning installation at last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. “In many ways, it’s a symbol of redistribution, of dynamism, resourcefulness and resilience,” claims McGuirk. “We wanted to ask what can be done with such buildings when they fail. Do we just let them sit there as symbols of financial ruin, or can they be revived?”

The residential occupation of Torre David is reminiscent of the re-purposing of redundant industrial icons such as Battersea Power Station in London, UK, but here it is done on an ad hoc and informal basis. McGuirk adds that slums are no longer viewed simply as a blight on the landscape that should be removed and replaced with something more structured and appealing. “People now value the slums as functioning parts of the city with their own dynamics and their own economic power. The rhetoric has turned towards upgrading and creating formality from informality by building points of connection and transport. For me, Latin America is taking the lead on that.”

Filipe Balestra and Sara Göransson of interdisciplinary studio Urban Nouveau also believe in the potential for upgrading living conditions in deprived urban areas by empowering inhabitants to instigate change through their own knowledge and skills. In 2009, Urban Nouveau worked with residents of Pune, India, to create an incremental system to improve the buildings in the city’s slums. Standardised components can be added to existing structures to create one of three basic house types without having to relocate the occupants.

The system is designed to be workable in any slum scenario. “We see the incremental housing strategy as a work of urbanism rather than architecture,” explains Balestra. “Now governments and private urban enterprises are asking Urban Nouveau to design the informal parts of their city,” he adds. “Why should only the formal parts be designed?”

Within established urban centres, land suitable for development is a rare and precious commodity. One option that has proven attractive to property developers in recent years is the renewal of former industrial sites. Disused factories, rail yards and ports are ripe for intelligent re-purposing and are being revitalised as fashionable destinations for living, working and playing.

Site transformation

In London, the latest of the city’s iconic industrial buildings to be redeveloped is Battersea Power Station. A consortium of Malaysian financiers and developers is backing a masterplan by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly that will see the site transformed into a mixed-use residential and commercial development. The power station’s iconic Art Deco architecture and towering chimneys will be preserved, and will be joined by newly constructed housing, shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, offices, galleries and green space. The contemporary look of these gleaming organic structures deliberately contrasts with the monumental brick building they surround.

This year, work is also due to begin on a masterplan by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. The plan will revitalise the site of a former textile factory in Belgrade, Serbia. The derelict structures currently covering the site, which is located just 500 metres from the city centre, will be removed to make way for a mixed-use development in Hadid’s signature organic style. The new buildings – which will contain residential, commercial and leisure facilities – blend into one another and sweep around a series of undulating outdoor spaces. The development is part of a larger masterplan for the historic Dorcol quarter that will transform this currently inaccessible part of the city into a vibrant waterfront.

While most of Europe’s cities have undergone gradual expansion and development over several centuries, Dubai is currently experiencing some of the fastest growth of any city in the world. Since the turn of the century, the city’s population has more than doubled from around 860,000 to more than two million.

Daniel Hajjar, Senior Vice President of design, architecture, engineering and planning firm HOK, has been based in Dubai since opening HOK’s office there in 2000 and has been involved with many masterplanning projects in the region. He says that developers and local governments recognise the need to think about the long-term implications of urban planning for local inhabitants. “People expect good amenities, walkable communities, sustained growth and a degree of predictability about how their community will develop. A good masterplan provides all of this, and the result is an increase in land value and quality of life.”