Date posted: 14/06/2017 6 min read

Culture and authenticity in urban regeneration

Urban regeneration can make or break a city’s economic and social prospects. To build the cities of the future, architects are learning lessons from the past.

In brief

  • Restoring and protecting authenticity has become one of the great challenges facing urban planners and designers.
  • Authenticity is lost when development is allowed to override good social outcomes.
  • One of the key attractions of a country are its unique cities. If authenticity continues to be lost, a competitive edge will be lost.

After you land in many of the world’s major cities, trying to work out exactly which city you’re in has become difficult. On the shuttle or in the cab from the airport the same box-like towers whizz by. Hong Kong? Paris? Singapore? Sydney?

This bland monotony is a symptom of the increasing density of cities. More and more people need to be housed in urban areas. The response has been generic around the world.

“The same medium- to high-density towers,” says Sacha Coles, director of ASPECT Studios, one of Australia’s leading landscape architecture and urban design practices.

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But that generic response is threatening something that can’t be directly measured: authenticity – the subtle, often magical, differences that make a city unique.

Restoring and protecting authenticity has become one of the great challenges facing urban planners and designers as they attempt to manage the growing urbanisation of the world, particularly through regeneration of existing urban precincts.

Unless authenticity is restored and protected, leading planners such as Coles warn that our cities will not only lose their souls, but their ability to compete in the future battle for the world’s tourists. They will also struggle to attract the next generation of talented young workers who will drive growth.

“The challenge for urban regeneration and design is to create authentic communities which are rooted in place,” Coles says.

City life

In 1950 just 30% of the world’s population lived in cities. Now 54% does and, according to the United Nations, that will rise to 66% by 2050. Along with population growth, that means another 2.5 billion people need to be housed in cities.

Coles, who has worked on major regeneration projects including the multi-billion-dollar Barangaroo development on Sydney harbour, says there is a simple explanation for urbanisation: jobs.

“Employment is usually in a city.”

Workers, of course, want to live close to work, so urban planners are designing denser cities, squeezing more residents into city centres particularly.

“That [higher density] is a good thing from a sustainability perspective,” Coles says. “But the risk and challenge is we potentially lose authenticity of place because this is all happening so fast. You see the same towers in New York as we’re getting in Sydney and any major capital in the world.”

Coles says authenticity is “the particular qualities of space” reflected in the Latin term genius loci – the spirit, atmosphere or ambience of a place. Sydney’s genius loci is very powerfully connected to the coast, harbour and big sky. Melbourne’s is greyer, harder and cooler, which has contributed to the way the city has developed its indoor culture, and thriving food and bar scene.


James Lunday is general manager of strategy and regeneration planning at Regenerate Christchurch, the body established in 2016 to lead the rebuilding of the city following the devastating earthquakes of 2011. He’s a 35-year veteran of urban planning and, like Coles, has worked on many major regeneration projects around the world.Lunday says authenticity is “at the core of the city’s image and sense of place”.

“Authenticity is created by our modern merchants: the baristas, specialist brewers, restauranteurs, clothing designers, IT workers, sound and moving image artists, writers and free thinkers,” Lunday adds. “The exchange of hand-crafted goods and ideas is the thing that makes Greenwich Village different from Manhattan, Surry Hills from Pitt Street, Brunswick Street from Bourke or the Melbourne lanes from Collins.”

"[Higher density] is a good thing from a sustainability perspective, but the risk and challenge is we potentially lose authenticity of place."
Sacha Coles, director, ASPECT Studios.

The likes of Lunday and Coles now want to put authenticity at the heart of urban planning and regeneration.

Protecting authenticity is a strategic planning issue. One of the key battle grounds is open and green space which is under enormous pressure. Coles says one city that does a good job of promoting well-being and nature in a highly urbanised environment is Singapore, which shifted its self-concept from being a “garden in a city” to being a “city within a garden”.

But Australian cities are also beginning to better develop open space.

One of Coles’s recent projects, The Goods Line, turned an elevated disused rail corridor that ran from Sydney’s Railway Square to Darling Harbour into a “public campus” or “civic spine”. Students at the nearby University of Technology Sydney (UTS) now sit and work at communal tables. Locals use the space to take their kids for walks and exercise. Commuters, particularly those working in Chinatown and at the nearby Powerhouse Museum, use the corridor to get from Central Station into Darling Harbour.

The Goods Line now “almost acts like a city common”, Coles says. “It was an opportunity to create new open space in the city which is rare these days.”

Just like starting over

Protecting authenticity becomes a major challenge when you are building on greenfield sites, and even more so when you are rebuilding a city that has lost most of its historic buildings, like Christchurch.

“Where do you start?” Lunday asks. Christchurch is embarking on two large regeneration projects, the central city area, and the Avon corridor, 530 hectares of land in the city’s east badly damaged in the 2011 earthquake.“Urban regeneration

In both, the river and its landscape loom large,” Lunday says. “We hope to create an urban grain that more respects the past and creates the spaces that our citizens have asked for. A vibrant, human-scaled, pedestrian-friendly and green city centre.”

Lunday says Christchurch’s regeneration will be about retaining what heritage is left, retaining parks and boulevards and working with the city’s topography and ecology.  

But the emergence of authenticity is also an organic process that flourishes outside the planning process. Sometimes you need to step aside and accept what’s changing. Since the earthquake Christchurch has witnessed the emergence of temporary installations, murals and graffiti art.

“Our city has become edgier than before,” Lunday says. “We try and capture that.”

Something borrowed

Many of the unique city precincts, such as ethnic-based villages, the Chinatowns and Little Italys, were never planned. But Coles says regenerators can look at what’s successful about a city and try and recreate that organic authenticity in new developments.

“You can’t transplant a design style or design thinking to a site and expect that will be successful,” he says, adding designers and planners need to think about context. “But you can borrow from the success of existing, authentic city areas and spaces.”

Another one of Coles’s projects is Darling Square, a development by property giant Lend Lease, just a ten-minute walk from Sydney’s city centre. The project sits in a valley floor just below Chinatown. Coles says the project aims to create authenticity by drawing on both Chinatown’s energy and its design. Chinatown is a heaving mass of people, cheek by jowl, serviced by undersized spaces.

“It [Darling Square] is not ever going replicate Chinatown proper,” he says. “But we’re trying to draw down the vitality of Chinatown into this city precinct.”

One way is to create several laneways with “fine grain” tenancies – retail and food outlets with small frontages. They will attract local food and fashion rather than generic global brands, Coles says.


Authenticity is lost when you let development override good social outcomes, Coles notes.

“You can have density and you can have a great public city if the guidelines are written.”

Authenticity is about people, and Coles says policy makers and planners have a responsibility to protect equity and deliver equitable social outcomes that leave society better off, including housing affordability, particularly for vital service workers, teachers, nurses and child care minders.

Lunday says there are many reasons authenticity is reduced as cities become denser. Government intervention can distort cities with large public projects dominating.

“Probably the biggest threat is corporate architecture,” he says.

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Christchurch as it regenerates must guard against the “anywhere school of architecture” and strive to create a localised architectural language, Lunday warns, but also try and encourage developers to choose their architects and engineers carefully.

But the costs of an unchecked loss of authenticity are becoming clearer. “People lose a sense of belonging,” Lunday says.

The losses are not just sacred, but profane. An aging population around the world means countries and cities will increasingly compete for younger, talented workers to help fund the retirements of their growing bulge of retirees.

Christchurch as it regenerates must guard against the "anywhere school of architecture" and strive to create a localised architectural language.

One of the key attractions of a country are its unique cities. Lunday warns that if authenticity continues to be lost, a competitive edge will be lost. Generic, soulless environments, he says, fail to capture visitors and tourists.

“They also seem to lose out on attracting creative industries and ventures.”

Cities such as New York, Spain’s Barcelona, Scotland’s Glasgow, Australia’s Melbourne, and England’s Manchester and Newcastle are cities that have managed to protect and build authenticity, Lunday says.

“It’s many of the older industrial cities that are embracing their cities and waterfronts and falling in love with them again.”

Ultimately, it’s about embracing what is different about our cities. It’s protecting the “quirky parts of a city where collisions have occurred over time between two things you didn’t expect,” as Coles describes it. “You discover that and it becomes your local place.”

This article was first published in the June/July 2017 issue of Acuity magazine.