Urban regeneration. Different approaches, similar consequences?

The consequences of urban regeneration in Barcelona and Seoul suggest that in conditions of neoliberal urban policy citizens in different cities around the world face similar problems in their everyday life.

Barcelona and Seoul do not have much in common at the first sight. While Barcelona is often considered as one of the most successful European cities, Seoul is known mainly for its rapid economic development. Yet the ten million megacity seems to have largely run out of the human scale. On the other hand the six times smaller Barcelona has managed to maintain most of her Mediterranean character despite the rapid growth over the past decades. It seems as if Seoul and Barcelona belong to two different worlds.

However, in terms of urban regeneration there are meaningful similarities between them. Both cities share a similar structural position in the global and national urban system. Barcelona and Seoul are subordinated to the most important global cities, while at the same time they maintain a dominant position in Catalonia and South Korea. In terms of financial, economic or political influence Barcelona has a similar position in relation to Madrid or Paris, as Seoul has in relation to Tokyo or Hong Kong. Lower global influence of Barcelona and Seoul is largely related to the role that both cities play as hubs, connecting Catalan and South Korean economy to the global economy. Such role resulted on the other hand in an overly dominating position that Barcelona and Seoul have as economic, social, political and symbolic centres in Catalonia and Korea.

A similar structural position in the global and national urban system is reflected in similar objectives of urban policy in Barcelona and Seoul. Both cities namely try to attract new investments, events and tourists in order to improve their position against the rivals cites nearby. It is probably no coincidence that they both hosted the Olympic games about two decades ago, attracting in this way for the first time a significant international attention.

Notwithstanding the similar goals of the urban policy, the actual approaches by which Barcelona and Seoul try to achieve those goals remain rather different. Barcelona is developing high-tech industry and wants to reduce reliance on the cultural industries and tourism. On the other hand, Seoul focuses on improving the quality of living environment, which has deteriorated due to the unlimited economic growth in the past. It is interesting to notice that the competitive advantage of Barcelona is the high quality of living environment, while Seoul has a well-developed high-tech industry and infrastructure.

Structural position in the global and national urban system also affects the urban regeneration in Barcelona and Seoul. On the other hand urban regeneration also aims to improve the quality of living environment, create new jobs, regulate social and transport infrastructure, protect the environment, and renew existing and build new public facilities and housing at the neighbourhood level. Yet in conditions of neoliberal urban policy urban regeneration is becoming increasingly subordinated to economic and political interests, which affects the instrumentalisation of urban regeneration in Barcelona and Seoul for improving the global competitiveness and image instead of focusing on a more balanced and socially inclusive urban development.

Transformation of Poblenou and Wangsimni, two traditional neighbourhoods in Barcelona and Seoul, is a telling example of such instrumentalisation, where the financial benefits of private investors and political interests of the city administration prevailed over the needs of the citizens.

The urban regeneration approach in both cases differs considerably. The first represents a relatively complex and integral case of urban regeneration, which takes into account and partly adjusts to the existing social, economic and urban conditions in Poblenou. 22@ Activity District plan provides measures to deal with the negative consequences of urban regeneration on the local economy and living environment. By contrast, Wangsimni New Town pays no attention to existing conditions in the neighbourhood, anticipates large-scale demolition of Wangsimni and construction of entirely new neighbourhood with no meaningful relation to the former. There are also no measures planned in the case of Wangsimni to mitigate the negative consequences of such radical urban regeneration approach.  While urban regeneration in Poblenou deals with the long-term transformation of the neighbourhood and promotes social and spatial diversity, the Wangsimni New Town plan focuses only on the final image of the new neighbourhood and does not deal with the social or economic aspects of urban regeneration.

In both cases the disparity between the anticipated goals of urban regeneration and its actual consequences in Poblenou and Wangsimni was rather obvious. Financial speculations and new residents moving to the neighbourhood affected rising property prices and living costs. At the same time traditional jobs were lost and many former residents were forced to leave the neighbourhood. Extensive demolition of existing housing contributed even further to the gentrification in Wangsimni. Moreover, the residents were systematically excluded from decision-making process on the future of their neighbourhoods, which negatively affected their perception of urban regeneration and eventually resulted in a serious conflict between them and city administration. The later lost its political legitimacy, what has eventually slowed down the urban regeneration in Poblenou and Wangsimni.

The dominance of financial and political interests at the expense of citizens’ was thus the main reason for the negative consequences of urban regeneration in Poblenou and Wangsimni. Due to the gentrification, decline of social cohesion, loss of traditional jobs and political exclusion the residents in Poblenou and Wangsimni are nowadays faced with similar problems in their daily life, calling into question otherwise positive consequences of urban regeneration. The consequences of urban regeneration in Barcelona and Seoul in this sense confirm the findings of geographer Neil Smith, who points out that urban regeneration has become a universal expression of neoliberal urban policy. Smith notes that neoliberal urban policy is not about improving the quality of living environment, but mainly about new investment opportunities for speculative capital and gentrification of cities. In his view, urban regeneration is increasingly an excuse for gentrification, which is expressively illustrated by the above shown graffiti from another neighbourhood in Barcelona that became a part of urban regeneration.

How about urban regeneration in Ljubljana? During the past decade the financial and political interests in Ljubljana also took precedence over the needs of citizens and thus directly affected the urban development of city. Citizens were at the same time systematically excluded from the political decision making process, or were insufficiently involved in the later to make any significant contribution to the future of their city. In this respect Ljubljana is no different than Barcelona or Seoul.

Yet the negative consequences of urban regeneration in Ljubljana do not reach the extent reported by Smith for other cities. Relatively slow progress of urban regeneration in Ljubljana is also more of a consequence of recent financial difficulties of the private investors and city administration, caused by the recent financial and political crisis. The city administration has therefore an opportunity to involve the citizens in the urban regeneration in the future more actively than was the case of Tobačna, Spodnja Šiška or Tabor neighbourhoods in the past. In the opposite case the experiences from Barcelona and Seoul suggest that the city administration may lose its political legitimacy, what can also affect the long-term success of urban regeneration. Such conclusion nevertheless assumes that the city administration in Ljubljana is well aware, why the success of urban regeneration cannot be measured by financial or political benefits. Urban regeneration is namely all about the needs of citizens and their living environment.

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