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Definition: urban renewal from The Macquarie Dictionary

the rehabilitation of urban areas, by regeneration, replacement, repair, or renovation, in accordance with comprehensive plans.


Summary Article: urban renewal from The Dictionary of Human Geography

A term referring to a range of strategies aimed at reshaping urban landscapes and remedying social and economic problems associated with run-down inner-city neighbourhoods. These strategies, generally promoted by state actors and business interests, are frequently questioned and/or directly opposed by residents of central-city neighbourhoods. Nevertheless, they generally result in massive landscape change and the displacement of large numbers of existing residents. Debate around urban renewal tends to focus on the interests that drive it, the specific strategies employed to achieve it, and the impacts of renewal strategies on targeted neighbourhoods and their residents.

Urban renewal has a long history, with antecedents in the Haussmannization of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s, for instance. Yet, it generally refers to massive state-led building projects in the wake of the Second World War in Europe and in North America. The first phase of postwar urban renewal, in the 1950s and 1960s, was characterized by massive public works projects that razed established neighbourhoods in favour of new commercial districts, housing projects and highways in the name of modernization (Berman, 1983). These projects were conceived and driven by powerful state bureaucracies and, in some cases, by powerful individuals such as New York’s Robert Moses. Bureaucrats wielded their power not merely to address self-evident urban problems but to actually constitute specific neighbourhoods, and by extension, certain people and ways of life, as problems to be remedied. Narrow definitions of ‘blight’ were central to the identification of areas in need of renewal; a fact that highlights the often problematic combination of power, discourse and space in urban renewal (Weber, 2002).

Growing criticism of these strategies – the negative impacts of which largely fell on the poor and racial minorities who were forcibly displaced – led, by the 1970s, to a wider set of renewal policies. These new approaches responded to critiques, levelled by people such as Jane Jacobs (1992 [1961]), of the high-handedness of planners and the deadened nature of the new spaces they produced.

In the next three decades, individual urban renewal projects have been marked by combinations of strategies, the relative weight of each being governed by the specific context in which each project is operationalized. Massive state-led redevelopment projects continue in some contexts while, in others, the refurbishment and preservation of older neighbourhoods, often with the involvement of neighbours in localized, participatory planning processes, has emerged as an important approach. These strategies have been accompanied by the emergence of public–private partnerships as a business-oriented, often property-led strategy, which still dominates a great deal of urban renewal and is exemplified by large-scale urban developments across Europe (Moulaert, Rodriguez and Swyngedouw, 2003).

Contemporary studies emphasize the role that the arts, tourism, mega-events (such as the Olympic Games) and gentrification play in urban renewal and the uneven benefits that stem from these strategies. Others highlight alternatives to dominant public–private approaches, involving various forms of community development – from co-operative ownership models for housing to alternative methods of investing in inner-city communities – all of which indicate the ongoing tension and struggle that accompanies attempts to define problem areas in cities or to formulate and implement equitable solutions to those problems.

Suggested reading

Full bibliography is available here.

Berman (1988)

Moulaert, Rodriguez and Swyngedouw (2003).

Eugene McCann
Associate Professor of Geography
Simon Fraser University, Canada
© 2009 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd except for editorial material and organization, © 2009 Derek Gregory, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael J. Watts, and Sarah Whatmore

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