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| Sharing experience in changing housing

An ageing housing stock and a shifting population create environmental problems at home. City planners perpetually struggle with how to address the problems that occur in the large post-war housing estates of Europe. The Restate project is a Europe-wide consortium of housing research groups whose members are collecting shared experiences and common approaches across the spectrum of problems encountered. Coordinated from the University of Utrecht, many of the project outcomes are already in print, and a handbook is expected at the end of 2005.

Housing blocks in Fuzine Slovenia.
Housing blocks in Fuzine Slovenia.
No matter which city you visit in Europe, you will always see areas of concentrated high-rise housing. The big blocks of apartments tend to look the same, and are often on the edge of the city or in run-down areas where new investment seems reluctant to venture. These are post-war developments, carefully planned when Europe was rebuilding itself after the war to accommodate the expected boom in population. Many millions of European families made their first home in these blocks during the 1950s and 1960s.

Decline of a grand dream

Such buildings are now a byword for unemployment and social exclusion. Immigrant families are routinely housed where city natives do not want to live, and low-income households struggle to maintain a decent environmental standard where civic money is also in short supply. Two decades of efforts at rehabilitation have not solved the continuing problem of physical and social decline that blights the existence of many large-scale housing estates all over Europe, despite some notable successes in reintegrating them into the housing market.

The sheer quantity of these large housing developments also makes them a problem. They constitute a large proportion of the existing housing stock in Europe and, as more housing units are being demanded by a growing population, the successful rehabilitation of these blocks is edging higher up the agendas of urban planners.

Stimulating positive change

The Restate project is an attempt to collect approaches and solutions to common problems in this kind of housing, by sharing experiences between policy-makers, housing companies and researchers. The project focuses on the conditions on these large post-war estates, on policies to counteract negative trends, and on activities that stimulate positive developments. With the full title of ’Restructuring Large-Scale Housing in European Cities: Good Practice and New Visions for Sustainable Neighbourhoods and Cities’, Restate is funded under Key Action 4 ‘The City of Tomorrow and Cultural Heritage’ in the ‘Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development’ programme within the EU’s Fifth Framework Programme. It is coordinated by Ronald van Kempen at the Urban and Regional Research Centre, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Restate acknowledges that much has been attempted by urban planners to sort things out in the big housing estates. But experience shows that merely pouring money into a problem does not result in an automatic solution. Imaginative new ways forward need a different response. The first step was to find out what had worked in the past, and why. Co-operation and integration seemed to be the answer. When different departments talk to each other, and share practice, and work together to enhance each other’s work, results can be miraculously simple and effective. Restate’s focus is on the policies to counteract negative trends and stimulate positive change. The complex collaboration between private partners, local communities and different cogs in the government machine requires careful study to identify the social and economic pointers. The goal is to change a bad place to live into somewhere people will want to move to.

Building on case studies

Restate has followed 29 case studies from ten European countries, from Stockholm to Madrid, and Warsaw to Birmingham. The project is looking at the range of situations that housing estates encounter, and examining different social, economic and political solutions applied to them by a range of actors. The research teams are drawn from academic bases in France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Coming up on 19-21 May in Ljubljana, Slovenia, the Restate conference ‘Restructuring large housing estates in Europe: Policies, practices and perspectives’ will be asking these questions:

  • Which policies have been successful in revitalising these estates?
  • What good practices do other cities have?
  • How can local government, private partners and commercial partners be involved in redeveloping the post-war estates?
  • What future visions on post-war estates are feasible?

One of the planned outcomes of the Restate project, to complement regular national reports on work packages and deliverables, is a handbook for local authority urban planners. Due to be published at the end of the project’s duration in autumn 2005, the handbook is designed to make users conscious of the issues before offering them solutions.

Sustainability and practical results

Restate programme manager at Utrecht, Karien Dekker, described how the project fits into the EC’s sustainability policy. ”It has to focus on sustainability. We look at what works best, and how that can be incorporated into plans for the future. Sustainability can be interpreted in many ways, but we think that Restate will have an effect on long-term social and physical change.“

The Restate researchers interviewed around 5 000 residents on the large-scale housing estates in its studies, and recorded their opinions. These will feed back into assessments of what policies have worked best. “We hope the outcomes will make the future better for the inhabitants of these estates. We have to educate local government on how to manage these estates better.”

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  • Professor Ronald van Kempen, Urban and Regional Research Centre, Utrecht, The Netherlands
    Tel: +31 30 253 2243