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When words build walls: challenging the language of regeneration

3 June 2019

Kristel Tracey – Creative Projects Engagement Lead

One morning a couple of years ago, I was sitting at my desk in the Marketing and Communications department of the property development company I worked for. During my routine scan of the day’s news, an Eva Wiseman article caught my eye: ‘Beware the vibrant, emerging, misleading language of gentrification’.

As one might expect, it held no punches:

“… the phrase ‘vibrant neighbourhood’, meaning ‘still has enough poor people to feel like real life’, and ‘emerging’ in the context of boroughs that middle-class people have recently colonised. There’s a sense you get, through these words that are hurled against building hoardings like leftover milkshakes… that the areas they talk about have just been discovered, dug up overnight by archaeologists in Topman suits. That, until the Waitrose came, all this was just dust.”

As I read the article, I couldn’t help but feel complicit. I wrote these types of glossy terms on a near-daily basis, on behalf of a company that specialised in large-scale regeneration schemes. I printed out the article and stuck it to the back of my desk as a reminder to never use the words ‘vibrant’ or ‘emerging’ ever again (but swiftly proceeded to consult for suitably evasive replacements).

I’ve always had a huge appreciation for the power of words; few things give me as much of a buzz as being able to deliver a message succinctly, clearly and powerfully. But as with anything, with power comes responsibility. As our current political landscape shows, talk is cheap but the impact it has can be seismic. In my numerous roles in Marketing and Communications across the private and charity sectors, I often found myself frustrated at the disconnect between rhetoric (carefully crafted by yours truly) and reality. It was my job to make things sound and look as good as possible, but I had no influence over what actually happened.

I still have a lot of fondness for my former employer and think they are one of the better intentioned in their commitment to doing things differently in an industry that has far more villains than heroes. But as I sat there having an existential crisis, I wondered how the language we used landed with the people living in the places we were ‘regenerating’. Did all of our talk of ‘rejuvenating’ areas, ‘unlocking potential’, ‘placemaking’ and ‘community-led regeneration’ provide any reassurance to the people who would be most affected by change? Who are the people behind the amorphous ‘communities’ we speak of? Did our ‘aspirations’ for the area reflect those of the people who had lived there long before our diggers arrived? As the article highlighted:

“The vagueness of the words on new buildings’ hoardings reflects the vagueness of the processes that got them built in the first place. Public consultations on redevelopment are famously opaque.”

Questions like these led me to my current role with make:good. It feels great to be able to apply my communications and engagement background to being directly involved in ensuring that people are able to engage in meaningful processes of participation and shape neighbourhood change.

Change is inevitable, but it’s a process that can be fraught with conflicting ideas of what that change should be and who it should be for. Addressing the priorities of disparate stakeholders on often complex and emotive regeneration schemes can be difficult, but that is by no means an excuse to avoid it. Systemic pressures often end up playing out at the local level – for example, a lack of affordable housing, local services or job opportunities, shifting socioeconomic demographics of an area that are perceived to be at the cost of existing populations. These are far bigger questions, but when people aren’t adequately involved in neighbourhood-level change it can add to a sense that change is a runaway train – uncontrollable and destructive. It creates boundaries in places, both real and imagined.

The aim should be to go above and beyond the minimum standards stipulated in a Statement of Community Involvement or Section 106 agreement when it comes to showing a commitment to thorough local engagement and sensitive development. These might be places that people care deeply about, have a strong connection to or form an important part of their personal identities and stories. By not engaging you also risk missing out on a wealth of local history and knowledge, which could be a source of inspiration for subsequent plans.

When it comes to matching words to action, fluffy language that isn’t backed up with meaningful consultation processes has all the substance of candy floss – sweet for a fleeting second, before leaving you with a tooth ache and potential cavity. The most insightful words you can encounter on regeneration projects are often the ones you get from simply listening.