11.00 Staging Regeneration: The Story of an Unbuilt Shopping Mall
In this paper, I will explore an example of urban regeneration: an ambitious project in a post-industrial British city, intended to reinvigorate the city, with shopping and leisure at the heart of new “public” space. If the discourses around the planning seem familiar enough, the realization (or lack thereof) is perhaps more unusual, and the project’s vicissitudes reflect problems inherent in regeneration and attendant in relationships between government and capital.
In 2004, the multinational mall developer Westfield (best known in Britain for their Olympic complex) announced a plan to build in Bradford, a major city in West Yorkshire. The ambitious scheme comprised a large shopping mall, with “public” areas, restaurants and cafés, and was to be “sympathetic” to the local landscape (using, for example, the local stone prevalent in the surrounded buildings). The project necessitated the demolition of a very large area of the city centre, including sections of the city’s road and public transport infrastructure, significant parts of a 1960s pedestrianized zone, and civic structures attesting to Bradford’s heritage as a Victorian industrial power-base. A site was fenced off, and bold slogans soon proclaimed “Bradford Westfield.” Behind the hoardings, demolition was quickly completed, but construction barely started before slowing, and then ceasing completely. For a decade, the centre of the city was a flooded crater, impeding circulation and exacerbating the city’s longstanding economic and social problems. A project intended to “save” the downtown area seemingly hastened its decline.
With construction on the site finally having started in the last year, I will examine the decade during which there was a “hole” in the centre of the city. I will explore the historical heritage and significance of the site, flanked, on the east, by a plaque commemorating the foundation of the Labour Party nearby in 1893 and, on the west, by the Wool Exchange, built as an international trading centre during Bradford’s boom in the nineteenth century. The site replaces a 1960s pedestrianized shopping and office-block complex that had, when conceived, promised “a city of the future.” I will consider the reasons behind the ten-year construction hiatus, which today remain complex, even somewhat mysterious, but may hinge on the relationship between the local authorities and the developers, with the politicians seemingly powerless to press for the delivery of the project, and the multinational unwilling to prioritize, in a shifting economic landscape, this scheme among several more pressing or lucrative ventures elsewhere in Britain.
As a strikingly apt symbol of failed redevelopment and economic inequality, I will examine the diverse uses, official (a temporary “urban garden”) and unofficial (a protest campsite), made of the construction site as a stage for political events: the financial crisis (with the site “mothballed” with the economic downturn), the rise of the far right (it hosted a “static protest” by the EDL, keen to manifest in a city with one of Britain’s largest Muslim populations), shifts in British parliamentary democracy (in 2012, a candidate spoke of the “hole at the heart of the city” during the campaign, and was subsequently elected, the only British member of parliament from a left-wing party). Recounting the complex story of a troubled, faltering, or indeed failed civic planning project, I will consider the politics of space and place at play in such a site, and examine how the site, as symbol or as stage, became a battleground for opposing notions of heritage, conflicting ideologies, and a struggle between versions of history. My analysis of this site will summon the history of industrialization and deindustrialization, and interrogates the spatial politics of contemporary cities, in Britain and beyond.