All cities are historically constituted patchworks of areas and activities. They incorporate transport infrastructure, residential neighbourhoods, cultural and creative areas, ‘gaybourhoods’, knowledge quarters, commercial districts, administrative zones, retail and recreation amenities. Each patchwork forms a distinct and complex ecosystem which supports and reflects diversity in populations and differing distributions of business sectors.
As we write elsewhere, the future success of our cities depends both on backing the right business sectors and investing in built environments that stimulate innovation, organic growth and specialisation. Cities must preserve their heritage whilst also regenerating and reshaping or adding additional connectivity to facilitate future growth. Those that get it right will attract and nurture both businesses and the array of talented people needed to work in them. Those that fail will be indistinct cities that lack a cultural identity and the sense of community which city dwellers crave.
As cities grow and evolve, the distinctiveness of district quarters derives from a careful blend of the old and the new. One city striving to retain the best of its heritage whilst reinventing for the future is Birmingham. Just a few of its ‘gems’ (adding economic value, vibrancy and identity) include:
- The Jewellery Quarter is a historic industrial area in central Birmingham. In the eighteen and nineteenth centuries It made a huge contribution to the city’s total wealth and growth. English Heritage stepped in to secure the future of the J W Evans silver factory, which opened to the public in 2011, and today the area is still home to Europe's largest concentration of jewellery businesses but has also been undergoing some reinvention as a hub for creative businesses (as well as conservation of many of its heritage assets).
- The Creative Quarter, centred on Digbeth. Over 400 creative companies have chosen to locate their businesses here, including fashion brand ASOS and the BBC’s new Digital Innovation Unit, making it a powerful digital hub. Regeneration plans in this part of the city aim to further build the cultural identity of Digbeth.
- The Chinese Quarter and Balti Triangle demonstrate Birmingham’s Far Eastern and Asian cultural influences.
Birmingham city is, quite rightly, proud of these and other areas. It is also extremely ambitious and has set out a Big City Plan to guide regeneration aimed at future prosperity.
Distinctive identities for city quarters also contribute to placemaking, and tourism. Other cities have developed – sometimes by serendipity, sometimes through social cohesion, and sometimes through careful urban planning – similar neighbourhood brands. Meanwhile:
- Manchester’s Chinatown, for example is the second largest in the UK while its LGBT-friendly Canal Street area is described by Visit Manchester as ‘party central and a living piece of social history’.
- In Belfast, the clue’s in the name: the Titanic Quarter is a 185-acre regeneration project aimed at capitalising on Belfast’s shipbuilding and maritime history.
- Not to be outdone, Cardiff’s Castle Quarter exploits its history of Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades and aims to provide the ‘experiential’ shopping environment which (we argue elsewhere) will help city centres succeed.
- King’s Cross in London similarly makes use of historic features including canals and warehouses.
These initiatives aim at providing distinctive and specialised textures within any given city, affording the visitor and the resident alike a variety of places to live, work and play. We expect that, by 2040, the identities and rich history of individual neighbourhoods within a city will be a crucial part of city branding (which we write about elsewhere). Furthermore, regeneration and development will increasingly be based on the idea of exploiting, rather than erasing, local heritage and community ties as it is recognised that these add financial value. Words like ‘distinctive’, ‘authentic’ and ‘full of character’ are already used routinely in the marketing of commercial and residential property – in the future it’s increasingly likely that it will actually be true.