Gateway to England

With its stunning buildings and cosmopolitan character, Liverpool deserves the title of European Cap

Almost two and a half thousand years ago, King Ptolemy wondered how to increase the glory of his new capital city, Alexandria. He created the grandfather of all museums and the greatest library of the ancient world, which attracted a flock of leading academics. Thus adorned, Alexandria could rival more venerable cities such as Athens. Ever since, cultural institutions have been a hallmark of great cities. As the fast-growing towns and cities of industrial England were given greater powers of self-government in the mid-19th century, museums, libraries and civic buildings began rising throughout the regions.

The story post-1945 is less happy. De-industrialisation, suburbanisation and architectural disasters combined to leave our cities poorer, uglier and less func-tional than ever before. The near-failure of our regional cities and the overwhelming hegemony of London and the south-east began to create a lopsided economy and society.

With the virtual collapse of Liverpool's local authority in the early 1980s, things could only get better. Glasgow became the test case for urban revival. Following what appeared, at the time, to be a fairly silly advertising campaign (Mr Happy and the slogan "Glasgow's miles better"), the Scottish city won the European City of Culture gong in 1990 and is now Britain's third most popular tourist destination. The work of the urban task force chaired by Richard Rogers and the urban white paper published in 2000 were signs that the Labour government intended to make the urban renaissance a serious issue. The revival of Manchester city centre has been well documented; downtown Birmingham is once again a pleasant place to shop, to stroll and enjoy; Newcastle glitters with trophy projects such as the Baltic and the winking bridge.

Unsurprisingly, the competition for which British city was going to be European Capital of Culture 2008 was intensely fought, with cities from Belfast to Brighton peddling their cultural wares. On 4 June 2003, Tessa Jowell announced that Liverpool had been selected. In spite of high levels of unemployment and unloved social housing, in spite of an unjust media image of whingeing, thieving and skiving, Liverpool won.

For some time now, the rebirth of Liverpool has been gathering speed, with cultural institutions ranging from the robust and long-established - such as the Walker Art Gallery and Liverpool University - to the much younger FACT centre, Liverpool Biennial and Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. A recent Guardian headline about Liverpool's new appeal summed up the current mood: "Even the taxi drivers are moaning less".

We know that Britain's cities still rate rather poorly in terms of gross domestic product per capita when compared to Continental cities. Theories du jour for urban success range from the American don Richard Florida and his three Ts - tolerance, talent and technology - to the thinking of more right-wing ideologues who have opted instead for the two Ss: sun and sprawl. However useful, or not, such shorthand may be, certainly more thought than ever before is being directed towards analysing what makes post-industrial cities work for their citizens. Much of the talk about Capital of Culture has focused on what has been called the "Bilbao effect" - namely, how culture and cultural institutions (particularly when housed in "iconic" buildings) can be used to regenerate neglected cities.

The figures put forward for Liverpool are indeed impressive. Projects include the Fourth Grace (a waterfront building designed by Will Alsop), a new liner terminal, an £800m downtown shopping development and the continued growth of John Lennon international airport. These and other developments, and the events taking place before and during 2008, will bring investment of more than £2bn, create around 14,000 new jobs and generate another £200m through spending by tourists. Liverpool's museums, galleries, football teams, architecture and performing arts all need to be encouraged to continue raising expectations.

In recent years, planners and conservationists have been paying increasing attention to "characterisation". Liverpool's character very much rests on its past as the greatest mercantile city of the greatest empire in the world. Everything about Liverpool, from its dazzling stock of significant buildings (second only to London) and its many cultural institutions to its global outlook and cosmo-politan character, derives from its historic role as the pre-eminent gateway into and out of England.

The rebirth of a great city - especially one with a potentially global status - is tremendously exciting. All the elements of success are present in Liverpool: deft civic leadership (both political and executive); a confident citizenry; an eager private sector; robust cultural institutions; a distinctive and inspiring local environment. The Capital of Culture will be the catalyst to bring together existing strengths and will also, I hope, remind many (including those in government) that success in Liverpool will prove our determination and ability to bring our cities back to life.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2004 issue of the New Statesman, After Madrid, does urban life have a future?