I've always been a little doubtful about the "let's be like Barcelona" school of urban regeneration. This leads to enthusiastic proclamations about how Bradford will be the "Shoreditch of the North", as if this is somehow either achievable (Bradford's not two stops on the tube from the City of London, for a start) or desirable (why would we want a child free and expensive city filled with achingly trendy beards). I do think, however, that we can look at what other places have done successfully - even Shoreditch - and ask if some of what they've done can help make our place a better place.
We've been visiting Estepona on Spain's Costa del Sol off and on for over a decade. And during that time, we watched the building explosion of the 2000s, fevered speculation about high speed railways and more recent twitchiness about Brexit, at least among ex-pat residents. Oh, and most of the local council went to jail:
The socialist mayor of Estepona, Antonio Barrientes, and ten other council officials have been arrested on corruption charges related to property development fraud.It has dragged on a little too:
Since 2006 a judge has been diligently carrying out an investigation before bringing the case to trial. Some 113 witnesses have been interviewed, 26 police reports written, 800 volumes of documents have been collated and the final report ahead of the trial is 226 pages long. Of those questioned, 94 are still formally under investigation. The inquiry has taken so long that three people being investigated have died.In and amongst all of this Estepona has slowly transformed as a place, mostly through old-fashioned place-making - public and private - and a realisation that today's Costa visitor is less interested in the flash night life of Puerto Banus (now a decidedly Russian affair albeit with the same number of Ferraris, Aston Martins and Lambos as ever) and wants a quieter, more-measured place to enjoy. We are, after all, ten years older, a little greyer and just a tad slower than we were when we first visited.
The result is a really lovely town where residents, businesses and the council (helped by a few dollops of EU cash) work together to keep it looking good:
The streets of the old town - like the one above feature coloured pots filled with geraniums. Every night in summer council workers water these pots - a pretty big commitment but it makes for a fantastic display:
What this investment - over about ten years - has done is encourage residents to add their own pots and plants to the show:
Each street has it's own colour schemes - red in one, yellow the next, one street has yellow with pink polka dots - and it melds into some brilliant public squares:
This square not only features a lovely stone elephant (alongside a lovely restaurant Casa Dona Jeronima) but some brilliant features and details:
The most recent public space - once a tatty square where the buses used to stop - not only has an underground car park (what a good use of the space) but more great planing as some lovely murals:
Most of the town is pedestrianised (or with access limited to residents) and has been gradually improved with the same palette of colours and materials mixing with creative tiling and mosaics to make a pleasant place for an evening stroll. The whole town centre has the feeling of a park albeit one where people live, where businesses are run and where visitors enjoy beer or tapas (often both). And on the back of this better public space, you get the refurbishment of great old buildings:
The result of this (and I've no doubt that thousands of Northern European visitors - semi-resident in many cases - is a factor in the town's success) is that the old chiringuitos are sharpening up their act to serve this affluent audience and not lose them all to traditional street cafes and restaurants in the town:
There's also investment in the beachfront (Estepona has an artificial beach but beyond the town itself the beaches are smaller and rockier) like this boardwalk:
To return to where I started, this isn't an argument for other places to do the same - that doesn't work. Rather it's for us to think how these relatively simple investments in the street scene, in features and details, and in soft elements such as plants or flowers make a place so much more effective. When I argue for us to treat city and town centres like parks rather than as CBDs or "economic drivers", it's this sort of work I'm talking about. Andalucia isn't a rich place (per capita income is lower than for Bradford) but this town has, having escaped from the mania and corruption of Spain's housing boom, focused its efforts on making what it has work well.
Of course, Bradford isn't the Costa del Sol any more than it's Shoreditch but I do think the lesson here is to step back from those voices telling us it's all about some sort of competitive race between different cities for investment, business attention and development. Perhaps we should think more about paint, flower pots and park benches than about whether one or other bunch of sharp-suited developers are going to arrive in town to build.