Inner City Regeneration: Friend or Foe?

Inner City Regeneration: Friend or Foe?

This is an emotive issue for many on our scheme. Much of the old housing and tenements have now gone from what was, historically, regarded as ‘old’ Niddrie. In its place are green fields, building sites, new flats, houses and a variety of government agencies and voluntary services. Almost everything feels new and shiny. The school, the doctor’s surgery, the new library being built, the mini Asda and even our church building. Even the blocks of flats near us are being given a facelift. The council is busy digging up the local burn (river) and putting in a road system leading to the new children’s hospital. It’s all looking good. Regeneration, at this level, is our friend. And then..

It appears that ‘community life’ has now been pushed to the fringes. For instance, real ‘Niddrons’ congregate at the local miners club and socialise together. The new, young, up and coming middle class, on the other hand, would not be seen dead in there. But, then again, you do have to be recommended By a ‘local!’ The local community centre runs the odd club for the young and the old but not that much for the hundreds of unemployed in between nor for the new working/middle class. The immigrants just lock their doors and keep their heads down at night. In all the building work there doesn’t seem to be much thought given as to how we bring all these new social groups together. The indigenous locals have a strong sense of ‘community’, the arriving middle class have brought a strong sense of materialistic individualism and the immigrants have imported their commitment to maintaining cultural identity. Even early on, tribalism is evident.

Sociologists talk up regeneration as an opportunity to ‘reinvest’ in communities. But reinvest what? Building firms are getting rich, certainly. Grants are being handed out to every social issue pressure group you can think of – so they are doing very well for themselves. There are many here who work in our community but are not in any sense a part of it. Niddrie, in many ways, has become a giant socio-economic experiment and a sort of proving ground for progressive urban policies. Refurbish the place, build some decent(ish) homes, attract young, first time buyers, hand out a bit of social housing and ensure a place for the city’s growing immigrants/emmigrant populace. Generally, all of this at the expense of the poorest. Where are they going? That’s my question. All of our social issues are not being resolved by regeneration here in Niddrie. They are just being diluted and, like chess pieces, problem people are being moved around the board that is Edinburgh City.

For instance, many of the ‘new community’ meetings I have attended have been run by outsiders. Likewise, many of the ‘old community’ meetings I have attended are attended only by cultural insiders. There does not seem to be a real consensus nor a merging of the two worlds the powers that be have foisted on one another. Positively, the drug problem has abated somewhat (although it is still very much prevalent). The streets do seem safer, certainly cleaner (in parts) at least. On the other hand, the poorest are being removed from homes they have lived in for generations. Many are running scared by forces outside of their control that are telling them to either keep up or get out. For many of the residents it feels like they are merely hedgehogs in the face of the massive steamroller of social change. Bob Lupton agrees:

Resisting gentrification is like trying to hold back the rising ocean tide. It is surely coming, relentlessly, with power and growing momentum. Young professionals as well as empty nesters are flooding into our cities, buying up lofts and condos and dilapidated historic residences, opening avant-garde artist studios and gourmet eateries. If market forces alone are allowed to rule the day, the poor will be gradually, silently displaced, for the market has no conscience. But those who do understand God’s heart for the poor have a historic challenge to infuse the values of compassion and justice into the process. But it will require altogether new paradigms of ministry.

Granted, he is talking out of an American context but I still think his point travels. In all of the council’s concern for urban regeneration and the ‘betterment’ of our scheme, this does not extend to any spiritual element whatsoever. Better buildings and facilities won’t make a jot of ‘real’ difference to the lives of many here if the middle classes see community investment in purely (and only) financial terms. If, then, they won’t invest wholeheartedly in the community, we Christians need to. We need to do more than just move in to these areas. Indeed, moving lock, stock and barrel into the community has to be more than about some vague, incarnational idealism and more about investing into our community in a comprehensive manner. What could that look like?

  1. Christians should seek to join community committees and boards (schools, neighbourhood watch, community festival etc). We should have a stake in local discussions and decisions. Within this we should be living by the justice principles of the Bible in seeking to speak up for those who perhaps cannot speak for themselves or find trouble communicating effectively. I sit on some boards and people trust me to speak up for them because I live in Niddrie, and I love the people and my community.
  2. We could offer night classes for training and development. Do you have a particular skill you could pass on? We should be passing whatever skill set we have on to those around us and looking at ways at which we can share this within the community for the benefit of all.
  3. We should be innovative in how we do our personal outreach. Of course, the gospel and the local church must remain at the core of this. We should be feeding our members a good, biblical diet, but encouraging this broader community mindedness. Of course, the church must not get caught up in social action for the sake of social action. Our mission is much more eternal than that. But, we must not use the mistakes of the past to justify an intellectual ‘Word only’ approach to our community living. The gospel primarily, the Word centrally, and mission constantly should be our motto.
  4. Christians must work harder at trying to build a rich and authentic community, that starts with us. We must be the catalysts for bringing people of all stripes together. We must model it in our fellowships and we must beat the drum in our communities. People will only buy into that which they see in action first. Look for ways in which your church can do this.

For all the talk of ‘missional intentionality’ in church planting circles, we must be intentionally biblical and gospel focused as we work out how to respond to these issues which, for us, though painful, are not going away.