La dolce vita

Public space - Malcolm Clark is unconvinced by attempts to "re-imagine" British cities in a Continen

They will soon be putting out the tables and chairs in Trafalgar Square. The north side of the square, alongside the National Gallery, is being pedestrianised and this will, the mayor's office assures us, help turn the whole place into a grand piazza. From pigeons to panini in one fell swoop as the sound of coffee machines mingles with the rustle of falling leaves. Or that's the theory. In truth, it may well turn out to be yet another tourist trap.

Across the country, there's a slew of new urban developments under way or proposed that we are told will breathe new life into our cities - and almost all of them turn to southern Europe for inspiration. In Yorkshire, they've even gone so far as to promote new identities for six major towns each of which claims to be inspired by the example of Italy. Each town has its own firm of architects working on what the urban development agency calls "re-imagining".

The firm of Will Alsop, for example, has come up with a proposal to renew the civic life of Barnsley by encouraging the concentration of building within a medieval wall. The idea is that the density of population will be increased within the centre, to the sort of levels enjoyed in - yes, you guessed it - ancient Italian cities. It's an exciting idea that has only one small drawback: Barnsley has no medieval wall.

Last week, Alsop exhibited its plans at the Venice Biennale. The new medieval wall that the firm proposes will be cobbled together from existing buildings, and, er, some new ones. In the plan, these buildings could be up to ten storeys high. In the model on display, most of these are fantasy constructions, in translucent wibbly-wobbly shapes, which may not be very medieval or particularly Italian, but what the hell?

All the rooftops are to be public spaces, complete with regulation cafes, which should prove entertaining as customers try to stop the froth on their cappuccini being blown halfway across Barnsley on a December evening. All this, according to the firm's PR man, was inspired by the inhabited medieval wall of Lucca in Tuscany. If only it had known, Manchester City Council could have used the same logic, and sold us the tarted-up Arndale Centre as a cluster of medieval towers: the San Gimignano of the north.

Alsop's plans envisage a first step in which a giant halo will be projected above the town. This, apparently, represents the halo of hope, which is presumably closely related to the halo of wishful thinking. Maybe Colgate will sponsor it.

We've been here before. All through the Sixties, development was sold to a sceptical public on the basis that it would inject a little Continental flavour into our urban experience. From Paisley, with its wonderful old Victorian buildings, to new towns such as East Kilbride and Newton Aycliffe, piazzas were constructed. The results, all stained concrete and a few litter-bins round the chip shop, stubbornly refused to evoke Orvieto or Siena.

In the Gorbals, the walkways of the new tower blocks were supposed to make them a "vertical piazza", and councillors were taken to Marseilles to see similar buildings bathed in sunshine. Then, though, there was an excuse. We knew so little about Europe, the only place you could buy olive oil was at the chemist's, and "courgette" sounded like something you did behind closed doors.

We should know better now. But still the architects talk the Italian talk. It may be a recognition that we don't have a tradition in this country of using urban public space in the way the French, Italians and Spanish do. So when planners want to justify a scheme by pointing out the benefits to the public, they are forced to come over all Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, this ignores the practical reasons why we don't do the passeggiata of an evening. It's usually too cold and wet, for a start . It also ignores the reasons why Italians, say, congregate in public squares. For one thing, there is less to keep them at home. Let's force people to watch Berlusconi TV for a week in the UK and see how long it takes for Barnsley's market place to fill up. It's also quite normal for young Italians to stay in the family home until they are in their thirties -so they have to get out and about to get away from their parents. And they don't drink as much. The public space inhabited by young Brits is the pub or the club, which is probably where Alsop and his friends dreamt up that halo.

Where Continental style has come to British cities, it has happened for two reasons, neither to do with the grand ambitions of architects. Either, as in London, hordes of young, good-looking Italians and Spanish kids have come to work, and insist on sitting sipping coffee outside, whatever the weather; or idiotic planning regulations and licensing restrictions have been relaxed, as in Leeds.

The real lesson from Italy is that successful urban public space is a reflection of the long-standing lifestyles of real people. It's also rooted in a thriving local economy and the competing interests of, for example, small traders and manufacturers. There is precious little evidence that architecture can induce any of this behaviour.

The character of much Italian public space is also a reflection of the self-confidence of locals who believe their city is the best in the world. You can't encourage that self-belief by inviting outsiders to tell locals how to run their city, or even "re-imagine" it. Maybe Alsop should try and tell the people of Lucca what to do. Now, what is Italian for a flea in the ear?

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Bush and Blair, on a wing and a prayer