Coventry’s Phoenix Initiative: Sustainability and the Symbolism of ‘Re-birth’ in Contemporary Urban Regeneration

Derek Cottrell,
Dr. Kathleen Watt
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The City of Coventry in England has sustained itself through war and economic recession. Following devastating bombing in the Second World War, Coventry rallied the population and obtained aid for rebuilding the city by appropriating the symbol of the Phoenix, the mythical bird who rose from the ashes to repeat its former life. In 1997 the same symbol was re-appropriated for a new regeneration project intended to spur the recovery of the city following economic recession.

This paper argues that the continued use of the Phoenix symbol in Coventry is inappropriate in the context of urban design theories rooted in notions of sustainability. The Phoenix symbol perpetuates a modernist approach to regeneration, which advocates a ‘tabula rasa’ or sweeping away of the old prior to redevelopment. The Phoenix Initiative swept away the recent past, but reinstated vestiges of an earlier past revealed as layers of history. This fossilised simulacrum of a hybridised past which never existed has little purpose for the contemporary city except as a site for cultural tourism. The detritus of the past threatens to compromise the future. This is because Coventry has frequently relied upon inward migration to maintain its economic vitality. New immigrant groups have brought different memories and cultural values to the city, but these are in danger of being marginalized by the excessive reverence of a past valued only by the pre-existing population. Far from representing a “City Reborn”, the Phoenix Initiative is another example of the commodification of the past, which attains a limited ‘shelf life’ as it becomes increasingly irrelevant to the majority of the population. Basing regeneration on a celebration and repackaging of past cataclysmic events relies on finite and dwindling resources. Sustainability depends on avoiding the cataclysmic, in favour of a ‘steady state’ maintained through continuing proactive adaptation.

Keywords: Urban design
Stream: Cultural Sustainability
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Coventry’s Phoenix Initiative

Derek Cottrell

University of Lincoln

Dr. Kathleen Watt

University of Lincoln

Ref: S06P0375