The URBACT project SURE helps small and medium sized towns build strategies for the social, economic and physical regeneration of their deprived central neighbourhoods. Smaller municipalities can lack the expertise and resources to tackle the complex web of issues that cause urban areas to decline. SURE’s partnership of small and medium sized cities found much of the ‘good practice’ available on integrated regeneration to be based on the experiences of large cities, despite European Commission’s calculations that 56 % of Europe’s urban population lives in small and medium sized cities (Cities of Tomorrow, 2011). In response, for three years the partner cities exchanged experiences and investigated ways for smaller municipalities to develop integrated socio-economic regeneration strategies that build on local strengths and opportunities to answer local needs. Core themes included tourism, enterprise, physical improvements and community.
Five topics provided the focus of analysis, learning and exchange during the SURE project.
1. Strategy Development
Analysing a target area’s challenges and opportunities, assessing resources available, identifying and choosing options. SURE approached this topic both from a high level strategic perspective, on the development of a town within a European context (study visit to Larnaca); and from a local perspective, on developing a strategy to improve the physical fabric of the town centre and its links to the local tourism industry (study visit to Gheorgheni).
2. Social Enterprise
As government budgets are squeezed, SURE explored social enterprise contributions to socio-economic regeneration, focusing on a well-established social enterprise network in Albacete. There, Cáritas Albacete organisation runs shops selling recycled or donated goods, creating volunteering and paid work. One such shop was relocated to the SURE target area.
Unlike institutionalised, top-down development of urban spaces, placemaking is an ongoing process in which local communities express their desires and aspirations then participate in their realisation. Many public agencies struggle to invest in such community engagement and high quality urban spaces. A SURE study visit saw how placemaking worked in Louvain-la-Neuve’s Wallons Square, with its complex mix of interests. While the area’s institutional stakeholders had participated in SURE’s strategy process, private property owners stayed away. However, placemaking soon changed this, and the previously chairman of the private landlords associations approached the Local Support Group to discuss how he and other investors could get involved in the area’s regeneration.
4. Social Inclusion
The inclusion of Roma communities presented a particular challenge for a number of SURE partner cities, who confirmed a widespread difficulty in turning European policy intentions into actions that really benefit excluded communities. This was explored in a study visit to Komotini.
5. Community Development
How should neighbourhoods and their inhabitants be ‘regenerated’? One widely accepted approach is to build deprived communities’ capacities so they can help themselves. But according to SURE this often accentuates differences in values, norms and expectations, encouraging fragmentation and isolation. SURE explored community development as a way to enable local people to accept differences and to benefit from them (study visit to Dún Laoghaire).
SURE participatory planning toolkit
SURE’s partner cities put their experiences into an easy-to-use toolkit that helps small and medium sized cities understand and adopt the methodology of participatory planning. It encourages local governments, communities and local stakeholders to cooperate on urban development issues.
SURE describes the Participatory Strategic Planning process as “a consensus-building approach that helps a community to join together in explaining how they would like their community or organisation to develop over the next few years”. The approach requires constant communication, so that planning, implementation and feedback are merged into a single process.
Designed as a catalogue to support the work of cities and Local Support Groups in ensuring extensive participation in Local Action Planning, the SURE Toolkit includes tips, tools and practices identified by partner cities in three key phases of the Participatory Planning Process: “Community Engagement”; “Strategy and Programme Development”; and “Developing and Disseminating Local Action Plans”.
The Guide warns that before choosing a tool it is crucial to analyse the target area’s local environment, relations and processes. Tools must be adapted to local contexts using creative approaches. “While these tools might seem like simple things to do, they are well developed and structured techniques. In well adopting the techniques success can be achieved easily, and members begin to cooperate, share ideas that can be visible for all within a short period of time,” states the SURE Toolkit.
The Toolkit also features an evaluation system for categorising participative tools. Using this, SURE’s partner cities analysed a wide range of tools for each step of the planning process, and set out six basic “recommended” participative tools to be used by Local Support Groups and cities:
- Organise a minimum of 10 forums for Local Support Groups during the life of the project;
- Organise an award competition to gather ideas from youth about the target areas;
- Send out regular newsletters for local stakeholders to promote and disseminate results of the programme and upcoming events;
- Inform the public and gather feedback and ideas through press conferences;
- Organise a local dissemination event to publish outcomes and Local Action Plans, feedback, and network development;
- Hold a transnational study visit in each partner city, encourage international knowledge sharing.
SURE model of integrated strategy development
SURE’s partner cities built a model of integrated strategy development covering three stages of strategic planning – analysis, development and implementation – as well as three key tasks, all involving Local Support Groups:
- Research and ideas generation;
- Consultation and benchmarking (Local Support Group members compare an initiative in another city against their own needs and capabilities; SURE’s exchange visits enabled this, but local residents rarely benefit in this way from regeneration resources available to municipalities);
- Examining and prioritising options (often this decision-making stage is led by municipalities, but a Local Support Group /Local Action Plan focus can involve local communities more closely).
The SURE model represents strategy stages and tasks as ‘building blocks’ of the strategy process. While these blocks vary in the time and effort they require from the Local Support Group, high level inputs on some “A” blocks might support decision-making processes in blocks “B” or “C”. The principle underpinning this model is that all the blocks should be in place before any project is released for implementation.
The SURE Model of Integrated Strategy Development
SURE partner cities found their model of integrated strategy development can provide a number of useful strategy-making aids, including: a checklist for sequencing and assigning strategy development tasks; a tool for monitoring and evaluating progress; and a framework for exploring the complex processes of interactions between officials, citizens and institutions.
SURE says its model offers a valuable alternative to project-level case studies. Although the facts and figures in typical case study interventions are certainly helpful as each city can adapt ideas to local circumstances, SURE found exchanges of practice between cities tend to miss a higher level conceptual framework that allows citizens and officials to understand each stage and task of strategy-making. SURE says its model might fill this gap and support cities to learn more effectively from each other in future.
Key policy messages
The experience of the SURE projectsupports the argument that small and medium sized cities have distinctive features which should be taken into account when designing policy and funding programmes for urban regeneration. Surprised that policy makers have not invested more heavily in targeted capacity building initiatives for small and medium sized cities, SURE underlines the importance of URBACT having such cities among its core constituents. The SURE project demonstrates that this capacity can be quickly developed and the SURE model of integrated strategy development would appear to be well suited to support such capacity building initiatives in future.
“The SURE project, and many other reports on the renewal of deprived neighbourhoods, suggests community development remains a significant problem for many municipalities. Local politicians and municipality officers publicly accept that there is no shortcut to achieving community engagement, but in practice they struggle to deliver such goals. While residents’ lack of ability to engage in complex strategy development and implementation is frequently presented as a barrier, the lack of capacity within municipalities to work with their communities is rarely mentioned. The time has come for small and medium sized towns to be open about their development needs and demand capacity building support to enhance their ability to engage local communities through structural policy instruments.
“We need more research and less evaluation about the way in which small and medium sized cities approach strategy development and implementation. Evaluations suggest we know what should happen, yet even this relatively small SURE project points to a diversity of possible approaches to strategy development which defies meaningful evaluative assessment. We need to learn more about the processes that lead to desired outcomes. Here we could build on the approach taken by the SURE project in designing and learning from study visits. These are important messages for policy makers, particularly in the light of the strong CLLD focus contained within the new Structural Fund plans.”
In most cases the strategy development process initiated through the SURE project will continue to lead to tangible, integrated regeneration interventions. These processes will be embedded in municipality-led strategic planning frameworks, such as in Pori or Eger. Elsewhere, partnership-based organisations will continue to work on specific project ideas, such as the European Business and Innovation Centre (CEEI) in Albacete, the Gestion Centre Ville in Louvain-la-Neuve or the Target project in Dun Laoghaire. The SURE project has broadened the perspectives of many participants, particularly in recognising that socio-economic regeneration goals can only be achieved through multi-agency partnerships and genuine integration of citizens’ interests in the strategy process.