Looking backwards it is easy to be critical of the decisions which were made in the last one hundred years and the way that they have resulted in neighbourhoods which need intervention and regeneration today.  Cities like Dundee and other urban conurbations suffered from rapid urbanisation and poor quality housing which was often thrown up to house the rural workforce needed to drive Scotland’s burgeoning industries.  The legacy of this was inner city slums with poor sanitation, low space standards and the myriad of social and health problems which resulted.

The solution which evolved between the wars and immediately following the wars was comprehensive redevelopment.  Much of the inner city tenement housing stock in cities like Dundee was flattened and replaced with green field housing and a new vision based on higher space standards, better sanitation and the use of the car to commute to work and commute for leisure.

The building of high rise housing and the building of peripheral estates appeared visionary and creative, but what it lacked was alliances.  It was done by planners and architects for people and, while it created work and certainly improved housing standards, it did not in every case create communities which were sustainable or successful models of regeneration.

I would argue that the missing ingredient was the alliance with those who were to live in these communities.  I would also argue that the speed of change mitigated against building the kind of communities that have proven to be successful.  Images of the East Neuk of Fife  which have evolved organically over many hundreds of years, which change slowly, which reflect use of local building materials and have a character which is very hard to recreate in any building form that is placed on the ground within the same decade.

Fast forward to 2010 and Dundee’s solution to the problems which it faced has been the use of Semtex.   In the last six years Dundee has demolished 41 high rise blocks, removing 3,781 flats and reducing the high rise stock in the city by two thirds.


In the same period we have removed the former Regional Headquarters Tayside House built in the early 70s, we are about to remove the Hilton Hotel and the casino and the Olympia Leisure Centre also using the Semtex approach!

What we are doing today is undoing the solutions of a generation ago, creating a canvas in the inner city within which we can develop a new connectivity to the waterfront and a new urban environment which will draw from some hard lessons.

In the same city, the Ardler regeneration which also replaced high rise and low rise block housing has proven to be attractive and shows every indication of creating a more stable and attractive neighbourhood within which to live.  The reason is that is has happened more slowly, it involves a variety of building forms, there have been robust consultations with local people on design and building standards have sought to create a quality environment which will result in warm, energy efficient, attractive houses of a human scale.

The evidence is that those who “do” urban regeneration are getting better at connecting with those who “do” community development.  There is still plenty scope for creativity and plenty scope for new alliances but there is an understanding and a much clearer analysis of what works and what doesn’t.

Twenty years ago the creative challenge was how to structure community decision making, how to balance participative with representative democracy and how to balance off physical regeneration with economic and social objectives.

In the last decade there has been an increasing recognition that these decisions are always negotiated and that creativity and indeed ingenuity is key to arriving at solutions which are sustainable, attractive and practical.

So, we have enough experience to know regeneration has to be done as a partnership process.  As Patrick Geddes made clear, the challenge is to create neighbourhoods which develop a sense of place, provide opportunities for employment and are based and developed with the people who are to live there at the heart of the process.

The irony is that the development process which so often excluded people has ground to a halt as the money ran out.  Today we have the will to do it differently; we also have an imperative to do it in a way which is slower and more sustainable and to allow people to do more of it for themselves.

Dundee’s stories of community and cultural regeneration have run in parallel.  It is only in the last few years that these separate but related activities have been drawn closer together.

What they have in common is:

  • a shared ambition for the city, its people and its institutions;
  • a shared pride both in what is created and also in the sense of place;
  • a stance which reflects the city’s motto and which is prepared to rediscover and explore new ways of doing things;
  • an intolerance of inequality and a desire to see a better future which provides people with a high quality of life through meeting economic and social needs;
  • and finally, an absolute recognition that it is impossible to do this without doing it in alliance with others.

Creative alliances in community regeneration require a strong sense of social purpose; those involved thrive best when they are enjoying the process, when they are committed to it, when there is a shared sense of fun and when the driver is to do it to the highest possible standard within the resources available.  A creative challenge indeed!


Stewart Murdoch

Director, Leisure and Communities, Dundee City Council