The greatest infrastructure project we need to build in the Northern Powerhouse? Re-enchantment with who we are, where we live and where we’re going, urges Rachel Armstrong
It has been billed as a once-in-a-generation chance to bring much needed investment, jobs and economic growth to our region, building brighter futures for our cities and towns.
And yet, none of the discussions so far about the Northern Powerhouse have convinced me that the north east is ready to grasp this opportunity with any original thinking.
My inbox is packed with invitations to events that address the “future of our cities”. But as I scan these emails I notice that most use the same language and ideas around businesses working in partnership with local government to meet central directives. The agendas for these conferences and events focus on the invention of new technologies to update urban infrastructures such as transport, information services, telecommunications, energy and utilities. They aim for built environments where emissions are reduced, spaces are greened, energy is renewable, buildings are efficient, everything is smart, data flourishes and architecture mimics nature.
But, what exactly will this mean for the people who live in those cities and towns? Will our north east conurbations be prosperous, or downbeat? Will they treat everyone fairly? Will they be happy places to live, or increasingly austere? What freedoms, rights, responsibilities and experiences will we enjoy? And who exactly will benefit from these built environments, their products and services?
In economic terms, the Northern Powerhouse might make it easier for our city regions to compete on a global stage. We may find strong regional leaders who will ensure the north east receives its share of the investment and resources, that our cities don’t become subservient satellites to Manchester. And we might figure out how to upskill our workforce to deliver whatever infrastructure and construction projects come our way.
These are important issues to discuss… but only if we’ve first discussed what kind of cities and towns we want in the north east in 20 years time.
Sadly, everyday voices are absent from these conversations. The Northern Powerhouse initiative offers us the chance to bypass the usual homogenous approach to cities, and instead give communities in the north east the opportunity to think creatively about how their values might be expressed in the built environments that surround them
I’m not talking about artists in lofts, tidy walkways along rivers, or inviting more businesses to serve their own interests. We urgently need radical experiments in urban living that ask the important question – how do we want to live?
For example, existing future city agendas promote an unabashed global corporatism. That’s fine if you are one of the “haves” who has something to protect, save, or reduce. But what about the “have-nots”, the poor and dispossessed who have nothing? Could our aspirations of the Northern Powerhouse and the built environment not extend to reducing social inequality too? And if so, are we ready to consider ideas about shared ownership of land and utilities so that no-one goes without basic levels of shelter or comfort.
Of course “carbon counting” and ‘building efficiency’ are important in the better design of buildings, or being careful with scant resources – but they are secondary to what happens to people. We must not confuse proposed solutions and infrastructure projects as substitutes for the visions they serve. They are a means to an end – not the end in itself. The greatest infrastructure we need to build in the Northern Powerhouse? Re-enchantment with who we are, where we live and where we’re going.
Rachel Armstrong is Professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University. You can follow her on Twitter.
“Northern Powerhouse or Northern Powercut?”, a debate organised by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Royal Institute of British Architects, Royal Town Planning Institute, Landscape Institute and the Institution of Civil Engineers is being held at Northumbria University on Tuesday 26th January at 6pm. Tickets can be bought via this link.
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