Thriving regions: “Stakeholders need to understand the real function of the town, who the potential residents and visitors are, the mix of retail, service, and social activities needed and where they should be located to create employment opportunities and the vibrancy small settlements need.”
How do you create opportunities for growth and development in small cities and towns that are experiencing either stasis or decline? A Building Better Thriving Regions research team reviewed the research literature that relates to the regeneration and revitalisation of these so called ‘second-tier’ settlements. They found that much of the international literature focuses on revitalisation, due to the sense of urgency to find solutions to the problem.
“There is a strong emphasis in the literature on understanding decline in the context of economics and demographic changes. Losing people, aka ‘urban shrinkage’, especially in some age groups, can have significant negative social effects on a town and region, and be detrimental to the built environment. Regeneration activities around the built environment usually require substantial capital investment to improve what is already there, to repurpose buildings, or demolish and rebuild,” says lead author Dr Raewyn Hills from the University of Auckland.
The team reviewed relevant research articles from the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States of America, Australia, and New Zealand to investigate the circumstances behind urban and regional decline, what impact this has had on small towns and what political, business, and community leaders are doing to address this issue and provide a better quality of life for the residents. They examine the approaches and projects that have been successful, as well as those that have limited success and the reasons for those outcomes.
“When looking at the trends and visual signs of shrinkage, we found that there are multiple ways to tackle the problem and they inevitably involve the physical characteristics of a place in some way as various settlements sought to define their niche. This led to a focus on property-led regeneration. We examined the types of public facilities enabled through public funding and the financial incentives for developers to attract residents to specific towns or areas of a town and the effectiveness of these approaches. We want to start a conversation on how social capital can effect change,” says Raewyn.
Raewyn says that critical to success is that new industry niches, to keep towns economically viable, are resilient to changes in global markets, that benefits flow to the community, and that the strategy does not result in jobless growth.
“Quality of life is an important intangible for residents – local authorities and policy makers need to consider the long-term impacts of current activities on the land, and residents and outsiders’ perceptions of the settlement as a great place to live. If a specific target market is selected for in-migration, the infrastructure required to support the inhabitants should be affordable in the future.
“Stakeholders need to be aware that large-scale flagship projects can turn into the ‘white elephants’ of the future that the town cannot afford to maintain. The case studies reviewed show that it can be challenging to establish a unique cultural economy package that will differentiate one settlement over another. Several settlements have selected to go with a particular social movement that is recognizable and has support from around the globe, but such strategies do also rely on cultivation of grassroots networks to gain momentum.”
The team found that property-led regeneration can be short-lived as it is sector and location sensitive and the construction timeframe is finite. They write that residential regeneration initiatives should be demand led and that, counterintuitively, fiscal incentives can actually have a negative impact on a settlement or region in the long-run when there is no clear market failure.
“When trying to attract people to towns through new residential developments, stakeholders need to understand the real function of the town, who the potential residents and visitors are, the mix of retail, service, and social activities needed and where they should be located to create employment opportunities and the vibrancy small settlements need,” says Raewyn.
Read the literature review by the BBHTC Thriving Regions research team:
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