Most cities are gap-toothed beauties

Eixample BarcelonaNot many gaps amidst that lot: Ildefons Cerda's famous Barcelona grid plan
One of Liverpool’s great thinkers – and doers – around urban policy, John Flamson, once memorably described Liverpool as ‘a gap-toothed beauty’. He was referring, of course, to the fact that for all the enormous progress in turning around the city’s physical fabric, much remained to be done.

He could just as well have been describing any post-industrial western city set on the long journey of regeneration and renewal. No matter how much has been achieved, there’s always plenty more to do.

I spent a year in Barcelona in 1988 just as the city began rolling out the JCBs to prepare for the 1992 Olympics, which it hosted to much acclaim. The place was on the bones of its backside, only recently free of Franco’s jackboot and unsure of its place in the world. What it did know, however, was that the Olympics weren’t about completing the city’s regeneration: they were to kickstart it, such was the scale of the challenge ahead.

Its poverty and physical decline were almost Dickensian and this closeted suburban kid surveyed them with wide-eyed horror. In a city with more than 300 days’ sunshine a year there were children suffering from rickets because they never escaped from the dark, damp streets of its moody old town, the Barri Gotic. Even today, 27 years later, the scale of the regeneration task remains huge and the city’s throngs of tourists don’t have to wander too far off the beaten track to see it for themselves.

In Liverpool, as with Barcelona, the response to all this has evolved as the city has improved and in the light of funding constraints. Out go more grand projects such as the arena and convention centre and in come a patch-work of smaller scale developments such as the renewal of Lime Street, a key gateway for the city. Much of the current momentum is being driven by the private sector, emboldened by the city’s progress and helped by a planning authority with imagination and flexibility.

And, for all the relative absence of the major schemes, the smaller in-fill developments – the ones that will complete Liverpool’s smile, as John Flamson suggested – are having a pleasingly disproportionate impact. The sight of a building that has lain derelict for more than thirty years being imaginatively refurbished to house an upmarket restaurant (take a bow, Neon Jamon in Chinatown) can do as much for an investor’s confidence as any of the bigger projects.

I know this because I have a London-based client buying a building nearby as much drawn by the bit-by-bit regeneration of Bold Street and Chinatown as by any of the larger schemes that were delivered in the noughties. He can see the direction of travel and see how quality smaller developments are changing the mood and feel at street level. He plans something equally imaginative himself.

Back in Barcelona it’s much the same, although the city is further up the curve than Liverpool. It is now struggling to cope with its own success, as millions of tourists place enormous pressure on services and change the face of neighbourhood retail provision. Wealthy northern Europeans keen to find a weekend pad are driving up property prices in mediaeval neighbourhoods like El Born, simultaneously thinning out the population and making it harder for neighbourhood grocery stalls and bars to survive. It’s creating huge social and political tension as the city comes to terms with its new role as Europe’s ultimate urban playground.

I suspect that such pressures would be welcomed in Liverpool. For one thing, it would make its smile whole again.