Cure the blight of the inner cities

You don't need to be a town planner to work in urban regeneration. Elaine Knutt looks at the options
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The Independent Online

Urban regeneration may not be as rapid as the sort practised by Doctor Who, but it can be just as miraculous. The next area to feel the regeneration effect will be London's Lower Lea Valley, set to become a new hub of the city by 2012, and the Olympics.

But turning an area around is a complex business. As well as architects and engineers to design new buildings, you need economists to make sure the regenerated area doesn't fall victim to the next dip in the economic cycle, and community development workers to ensure that local people benefit rather than buy-to-let investors.

According to a Government review, more than 100 professions are vital to successful regeneration - which means means plenty of career opportunities. Graduates in planning and other built environment disciplines have the clearest route into the sector, but there are also entry points for geographers, economists and business studies graduates - or, indeed, for anyone who's seen their city transformed, and wants to make it happen elsewhere.

"One of regeneration's unique selling points is that your degree doesn't necessarily matter. It's about being visionary, and that's more about your personal approach and emotional intelligence than your degree discipline," says Louise Rowland, head of development at Regen West Midlands. This organisation is a centre of excellence set up by the Government to attract new talent into the sector. It runs a placement service linking undergraduates and graduates interested in regeneration with employers. Of the 18 individuals who have completed placements so far, two-thirds have already secured their first jobs.

One is geography and town planning graduate Claire Bryan, whose interest was sparked by seeing her home city of Birmingham reinvented during the 1990s. "Regeneration is quite visible; you can see it happening and benefit from the changes yourself. Birmingham had quite a poor reputation, but regeneration helped to change perceptions," she says.

Bryan's new job as a community project manager for the environmental charity Groundwork involves changing perceptions on a smaller scale. By developing parks, gardens and sports facilities in south Birmingham, her aim is to improve the quality of life in the area. "It's not so high profile as the city centre, but the impact can be just as meaningful," she says.

One area with a severe skills shortage is planning, a discipline suffering from the same blight as the high-rise housing it championed in the 1960s. But Chris Murray, the interim chief executive of the Government's Academy for Sustainable Communities, has a different historical reference. "A hundred years ago, planners were urban heroes who built the sewers and separated people from disease, and maybe we're entering an era where they'll be heroes again."

Many of these urban heroes will graduate from the new fast-track MAs offered by 17 universities and accredited by the Royal Town Planning Institute, which are open to graduates in geography and planning.

Another option is the new graduate development programme run by English Partnerships, which helps to regenerate publicly owned land. Twelve recruits start a two-year scheme in September, during which they will spend nine months at EP and 15 months in various public- and private-sector placements. The first intake includes five candidates with relevant masters degrees, but also graduates in law, geography and business studies.

But for many people enthused by regeneration, the best route into the sector will be voluntary work. Biochemistry graduate Aurangzeb Khan was active in youth work in Bradford before he applied for the post of community development worker with Bradford Trident. The job involves improving access to health, education and housing services for 300 to 400 households.

"You're dealing both with communities and with directors of organisations. It's rewarding, because you're actually making changes," he says. "In this job, I'm learning skills I can take anywhere in the field. The issues in regeneration are so broad, the opportunities are there to do many different things."

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