Villa Olimpica, Barcelona, developed in 1992. © Christopher Hope-Fitch / RIBA Library Photographs Collection New estate in Corby, Northamptonshire, built between 2002 and 2008. Pictured in 2011. © MDA A new type of urbanism on display in Northern England. © Image Courtesy of Visit Leeds Beetham Tower, Manchester, completed 2006. © Colin Jarvis / RIBA Library Photographs Collection View of Oakley Vale housing in Corby, Northamptonshire. Pictured in 2011. © MDA

The car society had stimulated suburban spread. By the 1990s environmental concerns led many to conclude that such sprawl ate up countryside, contributed to carbon emissions and condemned urban centres to decay or, at best, use as sterile business districts.


Continental models in urban living and 'café society' became the way to attract life back to UK cities. Sociable places that provided a harmonious mix of work, rest and play were encouraged by policy makers keen to attract investment and transform the idea of what city living could be. New public and private partnerships emerged around urban renewal projects that brought people of different backgrounds together.


Yet while city centres such as Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle started again to boom, families with cars and the means to choose still opted for sprawling housing estates. Despite ever larger house-building schemes, prices escalated and many first-time buyers found themselves unable to get on the housing ladder and own their own home.


            From this...
Commercial Wharf, Narrow Street, Tower Hamlets, London, seen from the river
Commercial Wharf Tower Hamlets, London.
© John Donat / RIBA
      ...came this, which...
China Wharf apartments, 29 Mill Street, Bermondsey, London
China Wharf apartments, Bermondsey, London.
© Reid & Peck / RIBA  
              ...led to this
Urban living units in central Newcastle
Urban living units in central Newcastle 


Starting with old warehouses and derelict industrial buildings, new forms of living developed around the financial and new service economies, based on consumption – eating, drinking and buying. Young professionals were drawn towards apartment blocks on revamped watersides, sometimes alongside showy cultural centres. Building types first developed in London’s docklands shot up in all UK cities. The flats were compact, light and low-maintenance and promised a seductive and convenient lifestyle as luxurious as the glossy magazines and adverts that promoted them. As the market for them increased, so too did their scale.