Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Unwelcome Truths from the American Rust Belt

Folk in and around the North Staffordshire area may be interested in this event, due to take place on November 1st:

I am writing to invite you to a public discussion on the future of Stoke-on-Trent and its housing needs on Thursday 1st November 2012 at 6:30pm in the North Staffordshire Conference Centre, Hartshill Road, Stoke-on-Trent, ST4 7NY.

Earlier this autumn, Len Gibbs, Director of the Epic Housing association in Bentilee, went on a research trip around the American rust-belt cities of Buffalo, Detroit and Pittsburgh. This will be his report back to The Potteries on the harsh lessons we need to learn so we don’t end up with the kind of wastelands which America’s post-industrial cities face – with acres of boarded-up housing, extensive depopulation, and racial segregation. But he will also be presenting some challenging and interesting new policy ideas for getting Stoke’s housing needs solved and, with it, some much needed economic regeneration.

Responding to Len’s presentation will be Dr Alexandra Jones, director of The Centre for Cities. Alexandra has worked extensively on the North Staffordshire economy and now leads the UK’s leading urban affairs think-tank. She is very well-placed to comment on Len’s report and its meaning for cities like Stoke-on-Trent.

The floor will then be opened for public debate and discussion to question Len further and test the relevance of his analysis.

I hope the evening is able to offer some new perspectives on the City’s future housing needs and prompt a productive discussion within the community about options for meeting these future challenges. It would be a great privilege if you felt able to join the evening’s debate.

As spaces are limited, I would ask that you RSVP if you wish to attend this event, as soon as possible. Please email or phone the office on 01782 410455 to confirm your attendance.

By way of prefacing his presentation, Len had this to say:

In September this year I visited the cities of Cleveland, Buffalo, Youngstown, Pittsburgh and Detroit. These are all cities which have gone through severe economic and social transitions – from wealthy to poor; from growing to shrinking; from busy to quiet; from White to Black and from big league players to bit part actors in the unfolding drama of America’s wider economic transformations.

All of these cities have faced the same kind of problems that we are dealing with in Stoke. They have seen their core industries close, they have lost population, the suburbs and adjoining areas have stolen their middle classes, their populations have grown poorer and their civic leaders have had to balance diminishing resources against increasing needs.

Of course, America is not Britain – there are some things that are very different but the core problems are very similar. These cities lost their competitive edge and saw their Steel mills, Car factories and coal mines close. These industries also left toxic legacies which have scarred the environment with polluted rivers and land, derelict buildings and low skills and expectations. The geography which stimulated their growth has turned against them as new geographies have emerged – lower transport costs, cheaper labour elsewhere, long distances from the new centres of commerce and a cold climate.

Some of the consequences that these cities are grappling with include:

• Collapsing demand for housing
• Collapsing house prices
• Increasing housing abandonment
• High rates of joblessness and welfare dependency
• The flight of the better off to the suburbs
• Declining infrastructure
• The emergence of gang cultures and ghettos

These cities have had to deal with these problems for a long time and they are pioneering some great work. Their political leaders now talk about right sizing, they are stimulating new entrepreneurs, their educational and medical institutions are playing active roles in neighbourhood renewal, they have great community based organisations and they are pursuing agendas around neighbourhood stabilisation and smart growth.

They are on a long road to recovery and some are further on that journey than others. If there is one key lesson from America it’s this: start at the neighbourhood. Understand that your city is made up of neighbourhoods and that neighbourhoods are made up of people, activities and organisations. Work to stabilise and restore the places that have decent prospects and find new uses for the places that people don’t want to live in.

The road has been a hard one; there have been many mistakes but there are also some fantastic successes. Stoke has now entered the kind of economic and fiscal environment which these cities began to endure 20 years ago. An era of difficult choices is upon us – will we go the way of Detroit or will emulate Pittsburgh’s recovery? It’s time for us to seize the opportunity and learn from others.

Sounds interesting. Expect a post on the discussion shortly after.

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