Drawn and quartered

Observations on urban renaissance

Tony Blair was 25 per cent right when he offered us a New Britain. In recent years towns and cities all over the country have found themselves with new "Quarters", with many more planned.

When we talk of a city quarter we tend to think of an area with a unique identity created over hundreds of years. Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter earned its name from 200 years of artisan production in a community that exists to this day. Similarly, Paris's Latin Quarter, still a haven for bohemian intellectuals, is so called because Latin scholars came there to study at the Sorbonne.

The modern British quarter is quite different, and no more romantic than "mixed-use development". But, from the bravely named £1bn Titanic Quarter planned for Belfast Docks to Croydon's ambitious Cultural Quarter, developers and urban planners are falling over themselves to create "unique" historical areas.

The idea that a sense of identity - even history - can be planned has roots in a government-commissioned report by the architect and peer Richard Rogers. Transformed seven years ago into a white paper on cities, the first in 23 years, Rogers's report called for an "urban renaissance" and championed the idea that you could create identity and community harmony through planned use of space.

"There's a lot in the language used," says Rebecca Edwards of the Cardiff School of City and Regional Planning. The word "renaissance" evokes images of big squares in Europe, in Paris or Florence, she explains. "It has a powerful meaning. It's making the comparison with cities where you can walk everywhere and have lots of social interaction." But, she also says: " You can't just prescribe something for it to work."

Desperate to brand their regeneration projects, planners frequently draw on an area's history. Swansea's new Copper Quarter looks back to the time when the city produced 60 per cent of the metal's world supply. But it is still just the name of a Barratt estate of 560 homes and a shopping precinct.

Other cities, such as Bristol, choose the wrong bit of history. The £500m Merchants' Quarter had to be renamed Cabot Circus after community groups complained that the name glorified Bristol's role in the slave trade.

A curious reversal of the normal order of events - designating an area as a quarter and waiting for history to happen - is at the heart of these "renaissance" projects. As a Croydon Council official commented enthusiastically about the proposed Cultural Quarter: "It is expected this will deliver a sense of place and belonging, bringing people together and fostering an enhanced sense of pride."

History, however, will judge whether these qualities can actually be planned and paid for.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time