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Is ‘Ruin Porn’ A Good Approach To Regeneration?

March 31, 2011

The Centre for Cities 2011 report published in January makes for interesting reading, especially in its focus on the challenges ahead for places like my home town of Liverpool. The debate earlier this year at the launch – which, sadly, I had to miss – will have been compelling. The Centre’s 2011 projections are fairly upbeat for locations such as Bristol and Edinburgh (both, of course, renown for their knowledge-based economies), but the news for cities such as Liverpool (and Birkenhead), Newport and Swansea is measured and dire.

Bearing in mind that Liverpool and Birkenhead are separated by a mere half-mile of water, it looks as though Merseyside is in for a pretty rough ride: Birkenhead is predicted to suffer the highest level of welfare cuts (£197 per capita) anywhere in the country, and Liverpool, at £192 cut per capita – £17 per head more than Glasgow – will be the overall hardest hit major city.

Which leads to the big question of what to do?

Civic challenge
Given the government’s emphasis on localism, there’s not much hope of significant help for Merseyside from national sources. So local, the response will indeed have to be. But the challenges in this for city leaders are great.

Does Liverpool for instance take the ‘chin up’ approach so often espoused by the PR people? (We’re the best, because…) Or will we return to the whinge-a-lot positioning of the 1980s? (Nobody loves us, we’re so hard done by..)

Perhaps there’s a lesson here from across the Atlantic.

Learning from Detroit?
Degeneration in the US city of Detroit has recently become the subject of a major publication The Ruins of Detroit by the young French photographers Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre. Their images have resonance for any once-great and cultured city. They could easily be replicated, albeit on a much more modest scale, in any northern British city (if you don’t believe me, please enquire about the guided tours which any regeneration officer in Liverpool and most UK other cities could provide).

We can, and must, distinguish Detroit and similar States-side locations from cities in the UK, not least because even now nowhere in Britain has the horrific experience of guns that US citizens must endure, and, unlike the USA, we have not as yet seen all state support withdrawn from some parts of our own cities which are thought to be irredeemably collapsing.

But in another way there is a parallel: the people who still live in these cities do not enjoy being reminded of how negatively their city is seen, fairly or unfairly, by ‘outsiders’.

Ruin Porn
It is via reviews of Marchand and Meffre’s work that I came across the notion of Ruin Porn – images of desolation which some now claim dryly are Detroit’s most successful export. These photographs may broadcast very effectively the desolation of some citizens’ experience, but they also rub salt in very sore places.

As Sean O’Hagan of The Guardian says in his review:
Cumulatively, the photographs are a powerful and disturbing testament to the glory and the destructive cost of American capitalism: the centre of a once-thriving metropolis in the most powerful nation on earth has become a ghost town of decaying buildings and streets.

We can however be fairly sure that the dramatic approach alone won’t work. This side of the pond, where ‘localism’ is now officially the answer to everything, ways to secure regeneration in austerity need some fundamental re-thinking.

Northern cities in the UK
Positively, Liverpool for instance has now inaugurated an ‘embassy’ in central London with the task of promoting the reasons why investment and business development in Liverpool is a good proposition. But on the negative side, we are doubtless about to see a resurgence of major trade union action, as the ‘coalition cuts’ bite and jobs are lost, and prospects for (especially northern) cities recede.

For local politicians the pressure from disadvantaged electors, the temptation perhaps to over-egg disadvantage via some form of ruin porn, will be great. But these leaders will also need to cheer on potential investors. There is a balance somehow to be achieved between the ‘it’s OK for locals to say things are bad, but it’s not OK for others to agree’ when seeking investment and support elsewhere.

In the words of reviewer John Patrick Leary, ‘ruin porn’ and its like ‘… dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city’.

Analysis not just angst
Or, to put things more bluntly, feeling the pain is not enough. We need also a thorough analysis of the economic and socio-political forces which cause it.

There are good reasons for using all the armoury available when making the case for a city to survive and flourish, but you have to segment your market very judiciously as you select and compartmentalise the most effective approach for each audience. To take different perspectives:

Those who live in such cities demand both that the best case be presented for them elsewhere, and that their dignity and identity be respected by others; whilst also locals themselves often feel free to talk their home town ‘up’ and ‘down’ at the same time.

Different perspectives, different prospects
Those elsewhere who don’t understand the seriousness of some cities’ (partial / site-specific) degeneration may need to see the evidence vividly. Images of ruin can help here; but so does a genuine grasp of the fundamental dynamics of de- / re-generation and the national contexts which underlie this.

And those who endeavour to procure external business for their cities must be unrelentingly (as well as truthfully) upbeat in their dealings with potential investors.

In the context of a bleak national economy and of a government which is avowedly hands-off, it will take all the skill and inventiveness city leaders can muster to navigate a positive path through this delicate territory. That, however, is exactly what must be done.

A version of this commentary was posted on the CLES / New Start ‘Your Blogs’ website on 31 March 31; a related article by Claire Goff, drawing in part on further comments by Hilary Burrage, can be found on the CLES website.

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