Improving Connectivity 

Almost everywhere you look, there are signs of urban regeneration. From small-scale projects to revitalize a single neighborhood to massive developments aimed at overhauling large swathes of the downtown core, many civic governments are eager to regenerate their urban environments.

For some, changing economic and demographic patterns have turned large areas of prime real estate into a derelict wasteland. Those that remain in the downtown core are left to battle heavy traffic congestion and aging, decaying infrastructure built to reflect the needs of a bygone era. Even those cities where industrial activity and residential occupancy have remained steady are seeking to renew; many are looking to add more green space to reflect environmental demand, others are upgrading their mass transit systems and road networks to reduce congestion.

Community catalysts

This is by no means just a rich-world phenomenon. In the developing and emerging markets, urban renewal is equally – if not more – important. In part, this is because many cities in these markets have historically developed with little central planning and, as a result, suffer from high levels of traffic congestion, sparse green space, and little to no room for infrastructure expansion. In other cases, lack of affordable housing stock has combined with the incessant pressure of urbanization to form massive slums in downtown cores.

But while the symptoms may manifest themselves differently in each market and city, the underlying prognosis is remarkably similar around the world: economic decay. Recognizing this, many civic governments are now looking to infrastructure renewal as a viable way to revitalize their urban economies and, as a result, are avidly seeking new opportunities to create new jobs, increase tax proceeds and enhance productivity.

When viewed against those criteria, many jurisdictions are starting to rethink their traditional approach to the way that infrastructure delivers value to the economy. When examining the potential of mass transportation investments, for example, it becomes apparent that, rather than simply linking two points on a map, mass transit delivers value by connecting businesses to labor markets, businesses to businesses, or businesses to consumer markets. In other words, it’s about improving connectivity.

That awareness tends to lead civic leaders and planners to the recognition that there are other ways to improve connectivity. In the UK, the Greater Manchester region has led the charge towards a new approach that started with civic leaders thinking about regeneration programs as a way to improve business connectivity, and housing programs as a means to improve labor markets. So rather than simply building inter-regional transportation systems to reduce commuter travel times, they began to think more clearly about how housing, planning and transport can be improved to not only boost labor markets, but also to deliver a catalyst to communities that were less connected.

Bigger bang

Essentially, what it comes down to is the question of which investment will deliver the most potential for job creation and productivity. Suddenly, rather than deciding on the value of a single mass transit system, the scope is thrown wide open to include civic planning, housing projects, business promotion and a host of other approaches and investments that may deliver a bigger bang for the investment buck and – as a result – deliver economic renewal through urban regeneration.

There will be significant challenges for sure. Government departments will need to integrate their approaches to investment to rally around common objectives. Leadership will be required at the highest level to provide the political will to do what is best for the economy as a whole. New agreements and close co-operation must be adopted between civic, regional and national governments to drive balanced investments and benefits.

Co-ordinated masterplan

There is one rather sure-fire way to achieve a massive amount of urban regeneration and economic growth in a fairly short time: host a major international sporting event. London has revitalized entire neighborhoods and developed a massive amount of transportation infrastructure ahead of the 2012 Olympics. Brazil – which will host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics – is virtually exploding with new infrastructure in almost every sector and (as evidenced by some of the projects included in this edition of Infrastructure 100) achieving significant urban regeneration at the same time.

For those civic governments unable to attract such major events – and that’s probably more than 98 percent of today’s cities – the path to urban regeneration will be somewhat longer. However, with time, they should be able to benefit from developing and executing a thoughtful and co-ordinated masterplan that accounts not only for the different types of funding required for each asset, but also how different streams of development interrelate in order to create real and lasting urban economic growth and productivity.

By Lewis Atter, KPMG in the UK

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