Don't Turn Bradford into Barcelona

By Hunt, Tristram | New Statesman (1996), October 16, 2000 | Go to article overview

Don't Turn Bradford into Barcelona


Hunt, Tristram, New Statesman (1996)


Richard Rogers, our most influential architect of urban regeneration, should find his vision in Britain's past rather than in her neighbours.

Despite the great contribution of Harvey Nichols to Leeds, British cities remain in crisis. From Birmingham to Newcastle, Liverpool to Bradford, our cities lack confidence.

Last month's desultory conference of Britain's big seven provincial cities -- Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield - confirmed the trend. Since 1981, according to a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the country's 20 largest cities have lost more than 200,000 jobs, while the rest of Britain gained 1.7 million. Our major conurbations continue to display levels of social exclusion, poverty and unemployment well above European averages. A recent report on city competitiveness by academics in Cardiff showed that England's urban centres were performing badly on wealth creation, average earnings and jobs. Bristol was a solitary exception.

The government will shortly publish its urban white paper in an attempt to stem the suburban tide and renew civic life. Much of it will bear the imprint of the Labour peer and architect Richard Rogers, whose life quest is to turn every British city into an Amsterdam or Barcelona - stylish regional centres that have led the way in publicly funded civic aggrandisement.

Much of what he proposes is sensible and timely. Few could disagree with the need to develop more brownfield sites, increase living densities and improve urban amenities. The problem with the Rogers approach is that it is blinded by the light of Barcelona's success and takes too little account of Britain's instinctive civic strengths. Pump-priming cities with Moorish piazzas and Dutch "spaces" can go only so far, while the embedded corruption of 1980s Paris should stand as a clear warning of the danger of excessive municipal vanity.

Cities prosper not by copying imported schematic models, but by playing to their own historical strengths. Barcelona achieved this by pursuing, in the words of its former mayor, a "moderately nationalistic project as the Catalan capital". Not an option necessarily open to Sheffield. Today's policy-makers would do far better to learn some lessons in fostering civic pride from what one Victorian author termed "the age of great cities".

During the 19th century, Britain was home to the greatest civic renaissance in Europe. Across the country, from the gothic turrets of Manchester's town hall to the splendour of Birmingham's Chamberlain Place, cities resonated with civic pride. They enjoyed a vibrant civil society, with thousands of local clubs and institutes. They had strong political leadership, with dynamic mayors who went on to become national figures. And they were adorned with sumptuous town halls, churches, even prisons.

Rogers, rather than trying to emulate these successes, has bizarrely dismissed the Victorian city, "with its pollution, its slums and its short-term vision", for destroying "our confidence in the ability of the city to provide a framework for humane civic life". Contemporaries saw it rather differently: they regarded the Victorian city as a triumph of civilisation - symbols of a confident and prosperous society. The cities testified to the victory of commerce and manufacturing over the feudalism of agriculture. Their art and culture showed the supremacy of the urbane over "the boorish squirearchy" of the provinces. Yet it had not always been this way.

Conditions in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds in the early 19th century were indeed terrible. The young Friedrich Engels described with horror how Irish immigrants in Manchester lived "in ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskins, sprung doors, and rotten door-posts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench". The River Irk was "narrow, coal-black, stinking, full of filth and garbage. …

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