(Re)viewing the Past

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Paper from A&DS Head of Urbanism Diarmaid Lawlor for the International Conference on the vestiges of industry. A PDF version can be found here.

And did you get what you want from this life even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.

[From ‘Last Fragment’ by Raymond Carver]

Our industrial heritage forms a key element of the built and emotional landscape of our towns and cities. They are beloved. The paradox is that these landscapes, by virtue of their scale, physical complexity, management and use, or lack thereof, do not sit easily with an increasingly globalised, and generic notion of what a good place is or looks like. These spaces of labour still speak of the toil of human effort and technological advancement that enabled many a nation to achieve high levels of wealth. The output of this production for profit, for citizens, for export, and advancement defined the character of many towns, cities and nations. Firmly bound up in these spaces is a heritage of meaning; not just meaning in terms of the physical identity of a particular part of a city, but also meaning in the sense of purpose for people.

The processes of production, and the comprehension of how resource inputs created something tangible which generated effects at local, national and international scales enabled people to identify within themselves, and within their communities a sense of purpose. Whole place identities formed around this phenomenon, often related to a singular industry or form of production. Skills and talents were nourished. Social and cultural networks formed. Therein, values established; ethics, rules, and norms all shared and understood, though not always universally accepted. This memory of purpose is strongly linked with notions and perceived memory of community, shared existences, spaces of social value to the cultural character of towns, cities and nations. In this context, the disruption of the factors that supported the processes of production, a product of a globalising world, disrupted not only the way in which capital was deployed to the process of production over consumption. It also disrupted whole ways of life, whole emotional landscapes where a sense of purpose and predictability guided the lives of millions.

There is something compelling about the sheer presence of both the buildings that house the processes of production and the machinery within these spaces. Empty sheds, a legacy of the postindustrial world, create gigantic spaces, cathedral like, whose interiors are often haunting. The booming of light through the windows, the complexity of the roof formations and the bare-ness of the enclosing walls create a kind of peace, a noisy peace that even in this emptiness invites you to listen, to re-connect with the bustle of a place that used to be active. Similarly, with the machinery. The mechanical complexity of these servants of production form systems of fascinating intricacy, the operation of which creates a curious regulation of time, a reassuring pacing of moments that sometimes creates a kind of calm. It is though the very presence of this calm, the absence of noise, the noise that is the product of people with purpose deployed in space that has the ability to transform that same sense of calm into a form of grief. In these moments, our heritage of industrial fragments might be viewed as redundant spaces, bereft of meaning, hulking but vulnerable. Many such spaces have been redefined in our

globalised world to become spaces of consumption, centres of retail and leisure experience, where engagement with the extraordinary, the spectacular, and the commodity envelop people. These are spaces with a different kind of noise, a different kind of order, a different set of values. They can be confusing, challenging and alienating.

Within these dramatic shifts in the meaning of places and spaces, it is reasonable to ask the question ‘What kind of place enables us to feel beloved, to be fulfilled?’ This not simply a question of how the physical environment looks. This is a question of the basic infrastructures that support our ability to seek and find meaning in our lives, and to do this in a way that is rewarding for us individually as citizens and collectively as a community. Aristotle said that the purpose of the city was to enable ‘the good life’. This can mean many things. Perhaps though at its core, at its most ordinary, ‘the good life’ is about the ability of a place to enable us to learn, to have worth, to feel good. If these conditions are in place, we can create the space to find meaning within ourselves, to find space for our fellow man, to nourish the bonds that make community in the widest sense one of the most powerful of all human achievements. Without these conditions, it is hard to see how we could, as Carver does in his piece, call ourselves beloved.

In these changing contexts, there have been attempts to re-assert what the conditions for the good life are, or should be. As the economic foundations of our places and cities change so too do the social and cultural patterns that respond to these shifts. Often there emerges a new emphasis on remediation, changing the appearance and character of a place, fixing the damage of the past, re-inventing a place to enable it to participate in an increasingly commodified and globalised concept of place identity. It is easy to not recognise our place, the place we thought we knew between these shifts in meaning. A lot gets lost.

The French philosopher Marc Augé suggests that the idea of place has something to do with a form of constancy. A place, he argues is defined by its relations, its history and its identity. Each of these aspects of place have a heritage, a depth of time and learning that is accessible to citizens who seek to extend and redefine the meaning and purpose of their place. This heritage, this industrial heritage is an important resource for communities. If we understand the physical fabric of our towns and cities as a kind of archaeology of ideas about how we shape and manage the world, we can read each mark in the surface, each bridge, each building, factory and space in terms of their learning potential, their potential to inspire. It is the process of inspiration that enabled the creative thinkers of the past to re-imagine the resources available in a way that overcame social and cultural challenges that enabled the processes of production that bound the cultural fabric of community life. We need to unlock the creative potential of postindustrial places to re-imagine the present and the future in a way that works with their existing and potential relations, their authentic history and their multiple identities. This is not about creativity solely in the sense of arts and culture. This is about creativity in the processes of urban governance, equity and sustainability, social innovation and economics. It’s about the creativity that enables places to be places for people. Its about looking at places like the Emscher region of Germany and learning from the imaginative, and pragmatic approach to re-imagining concepts of industry, worth, beauty, nature and value.

Jan Gehl, the Danish urban designer says that it takes a hundred years to create a community. In any hundred-year period there are cycles of change and elements of our environment that remain fixed. Economic and political cycles can follow short and medium term time horizons of 5, 10 and 20 years, where as the physical environment often remains relatively stable and intact. In part this is due to the significant capital investment in the physical structures on the one hand, and the shifting relations that define the social, political and economic landscapes of our world on the other. A key challenge in the difference between these dynamics is the search for meaning; authentic meaning that can fill the physical spaces of our towns and cities in a purposeful way. This enables places to re-establish as ‘centres of collective meaning’.

Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School suggests that this search for meaning in economic terms, in a local and global context, is about the mobilization of three important factors: concepts [the ability to generate new ideas about the challenges of our time], competencies [the ability to translate these ideas into products and services] and connections [the physical and cultural networks that enable ideas and products to be passed from place to place, to be exchanged, traded, and developed]. At the root of Kanter’s argument are the ideas of knowledge and creativity. These are the foundations of the ability to mobilise the factors of production. The challenge is to become, again, the kind of place that can achieve this mobilization. People are key. Knowledge is key. If the challenge is about knowledge, then it is worth interrogating the idea a bit further.

The legacies of our industrial past are places that used to be expert in doing something. There was mass awareness and knowledge of complex processes. This structured a skill pool, but also a means of transferring knowledge from person to person, from generation to generation. These places were knowledge places. The only trouble was that a huge bulk of the knowledge related to a narrow range of industries. The supporting knowledge though, the surrounding network of community, cultural and social knowledge, the knowledge of survival, identity and history has enabled some of these places to achieve a kind of resilience. This idea of networks and resilience seems important. As an economic and cultural resource, knowledge should not be something that is just transferred in a school. It should be within the fabric of a place. This place should enable whole life learning, cross-generational learning, institutional learning. It should become first a learning place that applies this resource to the social and economic challenges of our time to generate useful and helpful concepts, form new connections and hone more diverse competencies.

One key feature of the industrial economy was that there was tangible evidence of the way in which the knowledge resource of the place was applied. Chimneys, factories, structures and networks were all built, competently, to capitalise on opportunities. People saw the connection between knowledge, production and value, whether these factors were distributed equitably or not. In a similar sense, the structure of our towns and cities demonstrate place learning. Edinburgh for example, is a fantastic, complex, cultural, hilly city. This basic structure of the city is formed around a historic street, the High Street that stretches between the castle at one end, and an old monastery at the other. All this takes place on a rock formation, the basis of which led Patrick Geddes to note that urban planning is a ‘drama in time’. The paradox of the structure of Edinburgh, and Glasgow, and indeed many of the towns in Scotland, industrial and post industrial is that there are other locations that were easier to build on, more sheltered. Colonising a rock isn’t easy, but the knowledge of how to make places that work in these contexts, that are both trading places and open to the outside, and defensive at the same time is present in every stone of their streets. As a complex, Edinburgh works, it inspires, it makes you think; how did people do this? It is tangible evidence of the ability to operationalise a set of contexts and work through inherited physical constraints. Its presence is its success; it is a learning resource. It used the art of the possible to create a resource, which has lasted generations, constantly adapting the internal meaning of the physical structures to the changing contexts of time.

Not everywhere will be an Edinburgh in appearance. However, tapping into the principles of creativity, innovation and knowledge, we can create new, authentic people places, places of our time. Heidegger said that the presence of the past is the basis of modernity. This surely suggests that, in the case of our industrial heritage, it is imperative to work with the relations and history of this heritage to create our new places, re-colonising old structures to enable the formation of new meanings. It is not easy, however to fill the hulking structures of our industrial past with new sustainable meaning and enterprises. It is not easy to reconnect a sense of purpose for people. It is particularly difficult to achieve these place objectives in a singular way. Although much of our industrial heritage relates to singular historic uses, the future of our places, and its enterprises is likely to be about ‘lots of small’ adaptable, diverse and innovative industries which re-colonise large spaces in creative ways.

More than half of the companies on the 2009 Fortune 500 list were launched during a recession or bear market. A large proportion of these were small and medium industries. The path from small to big enabled some places to achieve transformational change, and achieve a new sense of purpose. This raises a critical question: what kind of place enables this form of transformation to happen, to grow new value in old places working with different scales of meaning? In seeking an answer, we might posit that his place must have an excellent understanding of economic structures that enable new business start up, and conditions that permit a new community of users and entrepreneurs. It should be a place that advocates and delivers joined up thinking, institutionally and at community level.

Building typologies should be also challenged; for instance, horizontal production methods might revert to vertical forms that more easily incorporate mixed use elements, and sit within the legacy of old industrial structures. Embedding industry in the city, as a necessary and defining aspect of the sense of place of our communities is essential. We need then a new concept of how to deal with our old places, a concept which embraces mixity, enables a range of values to be created, a place where the aesthetic expression is a reflection of a complex of production, consumption, living and learning processes. Most of all, the opportunities of this place should be equitable, and accessible, enabling all citizens to participate in a range of ways, if they choose, their way for the benefit of all. This raises the question as to whether or not we need to re-imagine also the institutions and networks that support the delivery of these ideas.

On the basis of the above, an essential starting point for this type of place must be the citizen, understanding their pathway through a place, and the learning environments that support them in this journey. In seeking to achieve this, we must find new ways of bridging the gap between the professionals, amateurs and citizens in the act of re-imagining our cities and urban places. In this context, we need new methods of imaging the potential for places, processes like the British Council’s ‘Future Cities Game’ and a networking of knowledge from other places who have had similar experiences to share learning. A recent exhibition in Glasgow entitled ‘Spaces of Labour’ visualised how these changes might take root spatially in the Scottish landscape. The process of re-imagining the vestiges of industry is critical to the future of better placemaking, better society.

In 1999, Glasgow as European City of Culture showed that the resources of the city could be mobilized to represent the city as a place where things are possible, as a place where people do want to be in. Critical to this success was the power of creative thinking to address and redefine the industrial heritage of the city. We are now in a different time, a different set of contexts. Budgets, politics and patience are being tested, and will continue to be. There is uncertainty on the horizon. However, there is a legacy of achievement in Glasgow and Scotland that is rooted in the creative potential of the people, the culture of innovation and resource management. This inheritance is important. People are important. They matter. David Barrie says it best. ‘urban renewal is not a technical process but a process that connects people. It’s all about the networking of people and organizing support for their ideas. If you know how to organize and mobilize creative potential, there is often much more possible than initially suspected. The key question is whether you, the city, dare to give people the space and confidence’. In a world of challenges they who dare win. This is a challenge that the spaces of labour, the inheritance that is our industrial heritage, the towns, cities and nations must embrace.


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