UK cities are enjoying a renaissance, but which branch of the urban evolutionary tree to follow? Continental cities are much beloved, but policy-makers look to the States for inspiration, say Adam Marshall and Max Nathan of the Centre for Cities.
We Brits just can't get enough of European cities. We spend holidays in romantic Rome or alternative Amsterdam, and rave about the cafes, shiny new tram systems and striking public spaces on our return.
A lucky few are even living the Continental dream, with the strong pound bringing a flat in Prague or Paris within reach.
But instead of going abroad, why can't we bring a little more Continental flair to places like Manchester, Leeds and Bristol? With urban regeneration a top government priority, what kind of cities do we want - and how do we get them?
Our attitudes toward European cities, like so much else European, are conflicted. We hanker after European standards of city living, but these are expensive - and few are willing to pay Continental levels of tax for the privilege.
What's more, most of the big regeneration ideas being implemented in our cities don't come from Europe. Instead, they're imported principally from the United States.
How best to characterise European and US cities? As it is impossible to generalise, it is perhaps easier to look at two very different places on opposite sides of the Atlantic, both in their ways quintessential.
- Integrated urban transport (rail, metro, trams, buses)
- Investment in creativity and culture
- Dense new development
- Strong city leadership
- New squares and parks
- Strong economy... but
- Growing pains from population growth
- Poor public transport
- Sprawl, unplanned development
- "Edge cities" compete with old downtown
When seeking fixes to the UK's urban problems, both Labour and Conservative governments have tended to look to places like Chicago and Boston, and policy-makers in Washington DC.
Them and us
The Anglo-American "special relationship" isn't just limited to foreign policy. Ministers like John Prescott and David Miliband have made study tours of US cities a high priority.
The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is also a well-known admirer of the US - and a lot of the Government's cities' agenda falls within his Whitehall domain. Over the past decade, city mayors from across the US have become informal Whitehall advisors on everything from neighbourhood regeneration to transport infrastructure.
New York's clean-up of Central Park is influential
So what have we got from this special policy relationship? A number of US policies have helped the UK's urban areas.
Business improvement districts, where city-centre businesses pay extra taxes to fund street-cleaning and safety patrols, are one recent import. There are now about 25 of these dotted about the UK. Birmingham Broad Street's BID, for example, has funded streetscape improvements and extra public safety officers.
Government efforts to promote "clusters" - concentrations of businesses in industries like biotechnology or fashion - are another. Manchester has adopted a "knowledge capital" strategy in the hopes of transforming the city's economy into one with more knowledge-intensive jobs, and Sheffield plans to develop a creative industries cluster.
And a huge range of US experts have been drafted in to draw up and roll out versions of their ideas for the UK market, with Bob Kiley at Transport for London among the most high-profile.
But have US policies and policy-makers made our cities into better places, like the Continental cities Britons really love?
The stark facts suggest that the answer is no. While US cities score high on productivity, and have large numbers of jobs, they often do much worse on social cohesion, transport and environmental measures. European cities - though diverse - tend to have a better quality of life and sense of place.
Ah, gay Par-ee
Many have interesting and varied street scenes, strong cultural programmes, pedestrianised areas, good transport access, high-quality parks and well-designed public areas. European cities spend much more time and money on such features than comparable UK and US cities - and the resulting streetscapes are what Britons most admire, and most hanker after.
The UK's policy-makers are starting to wake up to this fact. Recently, there's been a lot more interest in what's going on across the Channel, instead of across the pond. Rather than just admiring the paintwork of the best European cities, ministers are now starting to look under the bonnet.
So how can we get more of the European city feel here in the UK? What are Munich's lessons for Manchester, and Bilbao's inspirations for Birmingham?
Birmingham's new Bullring is devoted to pedestrians, not cars
We need to do a better job of understanding European cities.
We can't bring Barcelona to Britain, but there are a number of transferable ideas that politicians, officials and the public can bring home from their mini-breaks. More investment in local transport, parks and public spaces would be a start, as would more mixed-use development, with homes, shops, and cultural amenities clustered together.
Translating ideas from the Continent requires a lot more profound thinking and investment. It's not just about lofts and latte.
Adam Marshall and Max Nathan are senior researchers at the Centre for Cities at the Institute for Public Policy Research, and co-authors of the discussion paper Them and Us: Britain and the European City.
Below is a selection of your comments:
If you want an example of how cities should be planned from scratch, take a look at Almere in the Netherlands, about 40 miles east of Amsterdam. With integrated transport, pedestrianised areas, good open spaces and even a centralised heating system (via hot water pipes) it's a great place to visit and live in. Road and rail links are fantastic and it's a short journey to open countryside or waterfront. The architecture is adventurous too - how it should be in a new city, not just regurgitated boxes for people to live and work in.
Karl Johnson, Thetford, UK
Bogota had an incredible mayor, Mocus, who looked to Europe for inspiration on how to turn the city around, not the traditional US centred view of Latin America. The results were astonishing with great improvements to the quality of life and a 60% reduction in crime. We can all learn from that.
We should look to Sheffield as an example of how our towns and cities can be redeveloped tastefully; low-rise buildings, extensive open spaces and little squares have given it a definite Continental feel in the last few years. Cities full of malls and car parks are claustrophobic and depressing by comparison.
I live in Leeds, and every time a plot of land becomes available or a cinema (such as our city centre Odeon) closes down the wise and venerable city planners build a new shopping centre or a block of flats. We have virtually no green spaces in or near the town centre and the investment in the arts is paltry.
Keith, Leeds, UK
Warsaw is the best example of the worst city in Europe in terms of public transport. What made me leave this city is that so many good opportunities have been lost - new bridge, new trams etc. It is the largest city in Poland (even central Europe) and there is only one, uncompleted underground line.
Wojtek, London (ex Warsaw)
Am a Brit in the US for 10 years. The US only builds cities for vehicles. They care nought for pedestrians, green space nor public transport. Charlotte, while a friendly and relatively crime-free city, is a prime example of urban/suburban developers flattening the land to plonk down cookie-cutter housing regardless of the topography, while city elders make money. Schools are over-crowded but housing continues unabated with no development impact fees.
Dan Wilkes, Charlotte, North Carolina, US
Can I draw anyone's attention to Milton Keynes? This has been planned on a grid system, with smaller estates off the main dual carriageways. It definitely splits the city, physically and mentally. I think that if a city is allowed to evolve naturally over hundreds of years, like most European cities, there is so much more charm.
Munich has a fantastic modern, clean, integrated and punctual transport system, with underground, trams, buses and local trains all providing a seamless transportation system. In addition, the city is covered by a network of cycle paths, which are used extensively. This is not the result of a one-off policy, but results from years of urban planning, where public transport has always been a major priority. The city is also incredibly clean, green and pleasant, again as a result of planning policies which have quality of life high as a priority. The UK should definitely follow the European model!
John, Munich, Germany
Get rid of new shopping "malls". Plymouth has one going up at present, but they are expensive and kill off the city centres. Already shops are closing to move in the development, and others will close as a result of no one shopping outside of the new mall.
I think the authors underestimate just how awful the strip-mall and shopping mall sprawl of so many US cities is. Boston and New York are almost sane, Atlanta and Orlando are terrible examples of the sort of mess that can be created. And when petrol prices rise, some of the shopping malls there will become economic disaster areas.
Steve, Dorset, UK
While there is much wrong with the US model, many cities (including Orlando) are putting significant effort into creating vibrant downtown areas. Downtown Orlando is going through a boom with new office and residential condos, improvements to it's public parks, free public WiFi, concerts, events and a focus on the arts. It's a long way from Disney World.
Will, Orlando, Fl, US