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Published  21/02/2003
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How cities renew, rebuild & remember

How cities renew, rebuild & remember

Perhaps it was just a little ironic that, at a time when the bombing of Baghdad was in the offing, a conference should be held in The Lighthouse, Glasgow, Scotland on Sense & the City. Addressed by speakers representing Glasgow, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and New York, the conference was accompanied by an exhibition called Information Exchange: How Cities Renew, Rebuild & Remember organised by the Van Alen Institute in New York.

The cities examined were Berlin, Beirut, Kobe, Manchester, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Sarajevo and New York. Some had been devastated by war, some by terrorism and one (San Francisco) by an earthquake. Berlin was the exception. A city divided by a wall that, after 38 years, had finally come down, the former capital of Germany has been given an opportunity to renew itself in a way that symbolises the reunification of the country.

Since Glasgow hosted both the conference and the exhibition, it was not surprising that the regeneration of the city should be the first topic examined. Various speakers, including Councillor Charles Gordon, Leader of the City Council, presented an historical account of Glasgow's growth from a medieval crossing on the River Clyde to a centre for the tobacco trade and then to Britain's 'second city' of the Empire noted for its shipbuilding, railway locomotives, engineering and textiles. However, despite optimistic remarks about its 6,000 design jobs and 600 enterprises, it remained unclear as to how Glasgow is going to recover from its long, industrial decline - or break out of the boom and bust cycle that has accompanied the Garden Festival of 1988, the Year as European City of Culture of 1990 and its Year as European City of Architecture & Design of 1999. Business tourism seems the main answer.

A much clearer plan of action was presented by Esther Agricola of KEI Rotterdam, an organisation founded in 2000 which now has 180 participants, including local authorities and private companies, devoted to renewing the city. During the 1980s, she said, the focus on the New Towns led to the stagnation of the cities whereas now, in the case of Rotterdam, massive government investment is leading to the redevelopment of its waterfront with architects like Sir Norman Foster and Renzo Piano playing their part. Similarly, renewal has also been introduced in Amsterdam. At the same time, the 'top down' decision-making on planning and design adopted after the Second World War is being replaced by local consultation and decision-making which is especially important as some two million houses (one-third of the country's stock) are in need of renewal. Nevertheless, she admitted that it is much easier to find solutions for waterfronts (inspired by Barcelona and London) than for some of the country's huge, run down housing estates.

Speaking about the US, Ray Gastil, Executive Director of the Van Alen Institute, said that America has no policy for its cities - a situation that might have been different had Al Gore been elected President. Indeed, as Mike Davis says in his new book, Dead Cities (not cited by Gastil), Americans are currently paying no attention to the threats to their cities which, he says, range from gang culture to deregulation, and from local government corruption to the dumping of toxic waste.

Of all the cities in the US, it seems that Seattle is the best, a place where, said Gastil, its citizens will ride on a bus because it's the right thing to do. New York, on the other hand, is in a worse state than it was when the I Love New York campaign, with its logo designed by Milton Glaser, was introduced in the early 1970s. Today, it is on the brink of bankruptcy and is faced by rising unemployment. What the Van Alen Institute is doing is to promote the renewal of specific areas such as Governor's Island, Pier 40 (a 16-acre site which is mostly parking lot), the East River Project (aimed at putting right 40-50 years of neglect) and Queen's Plaza (an area beneath an elevated railway that is reminiscent of a scene out of Kojak).

And, of course, there is the site of the World Trade Center. Gastil said that Daniel Libeskind's winning design was not his choice (he would have preferred THINK'S two, latticework towers) and how exactly the Wall of Remembrance, the sunken plaza and the garden in the sky will materialise remains to be seen. But it is certainly a bold and dramatic concept and, as the exhibition accompanying the conference showed, the natural or man-made devastation of cities has enabled some very positive and imaginative renewals to be put in place.

Dead Cities by Mike Davis is published by New Press. The catalogue on Information Exchange: How Cities Renew, Rebuild & Remember is published by the Van Alen Institute, 30 W 22 Street, 6th floor, New York, NY 10010, www.vanalen.org.

Richard Carr

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