We're busy reshaping our cities... but will people really want to live in them?

Yorkshire's cities are changing faster than ever. But are we building a dazzling future - or just more blots on the landscape?

WHEN Will Alsop unveiled his radical masterplan for Bradford, he said he wanted to "create a place of extraordinary difference". His radical vision was to unite the city's rich heritage and create a futuristic urban landscape that challenged our ideas of what a city could be.

Some critics thought it was all pie-in-the-sky, but at the same time it captured the imagination – and, five years after Alsop first revealed his blueprint, Bradford is experiencing the kind of redevelopment not seen since the days of the wool barons in the 19th century.

It's a scene repeated across Yorkshire where our city skylines are changing at a dizzying pace. But are we seeing a brave new world unfurl before our eyes, or are we descending into an Orwellian nightmare populated by high-rise towers and security cameras watching our every move? Some may claim the latter is already happening, but few people would argue that Hull, or Sheffield, for instance, were better places 20 or 30 years ago.

Back then somewhere like Leeds was described, perhaps not unjustly, as little more than an industrial backwater. But now it's reinvented itself as a cosmopolitan hub and become one of the country's biggest financial centres.

Irena Bauman, director of Bauman Lyons Architects, based in Leeds, says that although the city has changed dramatically in the last 15 years, too much control has been handed over to private developers. "Leeds is an example of what happens when there is uncontrolled growth."

Maxwell Hutchinson, former chairman of the Royal Institute of British Architects, warned a few years ago: "They're forgetting to build communities at the same time as putting up these great ugly blocks". It's a concern that Bauman shares. "There have been too many developments that aren't needed and you think, 'what on earth are we going to do with them?'

"There's no health centres, no schools, so families can't stay. City centre living is for a small number of transient people who live there for a couple of years and move on. But to have a prosperous city you need people to stay."

Fears have also been raised that the legion of apartment blocks could become tomorrow's slums. But Bauman, whose firm is involved in regeneration schemes across Yorkshire, believes they could end up having a more practical use. "Climate change is going to have a huge impact and we have to think about how we're going to deal with this as a society. My vision for the city centre in Leeds is that these flats could be used to help environmental refugees and the elderly."

Despite her concerns, she says the city's transformation

has been exceptional. "When I came to Leeds 30 years ago it was grim and black with soot, there was no life in the city centre after five o'clock, so what has happened is incredible," she says.

"We can go on congratulating ourselves for having all these bars and cafes, but it can't keep going because the idea that growth is indefinite is going to disappear."

She believes thriving cities in the future will revolve around smaller, sustainable developments rather than grand statements. "Iconic buildings are part of our culture but they aren't vital to the success of a city.

"I think there is huge potential over the next few years but the success of Leeds will be determined by its sustainability. People want to work here and live in places like Knaresborough. Having good places to live and work is a special selling point in Yorkshire."

There is, of course, intense rivalry between Yorkshire's big cities. Jeremy Till, director of architecture at Sheffield University, believes Sheffield has benefited from redeveloping at a less frenzied pace. The key to this, he says, has been striking a balance between public and private investment.

"Sheffield has been very canny, politically speaking, by putting money into the public realm which a lot of other cities have failed to do.

"You can walk up into the city centre from the train station through some of the best public spaces in Europe – there's the water feature at the station, the Peace Gardens and the Millennium Galleries. Where else in Britain do you get the same sense of arrival? The answer is nowhere."

Prof Till admits the city was "down on its knees" a decade ago but believes it has learnt from past mistakes. "If you go back to the Sixties, Sheffield was seen as a utopian city of Europe but that was financed by public sector money and now it's a mixture."

However, just as the high rise towers and concrete office blocks are the visible scars of the last big attempt to modernise our cities 40 years ago, so today's rebuilding programme throws up some eyesores.

"Student housing is a rash on all Yorkshire cities and much of it is cheap dross that doesn't seem to be sustainable and that is a worry," he says. "With the onus often on speed, design sometimes gets pushed to the bottom and there's been some terrible buildings built in the

last five years. But it doesn't cost any more to design a good building than it does to design a bad one."

He is, though, optimistic for the future. "The most important thing for any city is to retain its identity, whatever that may be, otherwise they can end up looking the same.

"But Sheffield has a robust masterplan, the new retail quarter will be good, and I'm reasonably confident we're not going to have a repeat of the Sixties disasters."

Will Alsop agrees that cities are undergoing huge changes, but feels opportunities are being missed because architects ideas end up being diluted. "Cities can excite people but then you start hearing things like 'best practice' and I can't help but feel it's the dead hand of the committee making the decisions and I worry about that."

He points to his proposed lake in Bradford city centre which he says has been "shrunk" to the size of a pool. "There's this fear that people will laugh, but nobody laughs at the Leaning Tower in Pisa, or the Eiffel Tower, and people visit cities to see things like that. They want the extraordinary but they rarely get it," he says.

"If you look at Leeds, for example, it doesn't have any really exciting new buildings. There are some nice ones, but nothing challenging or amazing in the way the Corn Exchange is."

He does, though, believe our cities can flourish as long as they cater for everyone.

"There are still thousands of people living on the edge of cities who have very little to do with them and that needs to be addressed, because for people to have some sense of belonging is vital to the success of a city."

THE CITY TRANSFORMATIONS

LEEDS: About 3.2bn worth of developments have been built since 1997, 1.4bn are in the process of being constructed and a further 5.8bn have been proposed for the city, with the largest regeneration project being the Holbeck Urban Village.

BRADFORD: Since the city's regeneration began, investment has poured into Bradford. Schemes include The Channel village, a 350m residential waterfront scheme, the 120m Listerhills development and the Westfield Shopping Centre.

SHEFFIELD The city was chosen by the Government as one of three pilot projects for urban regeneration companies (URC). The scheme, launched in 2000, aimed to attract 500m of investment into Sheffield over five years. Since then, projects like the Sheffield Digital Campus, the Retail Quarter, Castlegate and Sheffield Station Gateway have brought the city back to life.

HULL Plans for the city include the 100m transformation of Humber Street, the centre of Hull's historic fruit trade for nearly 200 years. The city has set itself the ambitious target of creating 10,000 new jobs, by 2011.