Some regenerated areas become fizzing centres of creative energy whereas others are, well, a bit dull. But what is it that makes the difference? Amanda Levete has a theory …

The Olympics are over and we can no longer watch television with the same lack of guilt as we did over the past couple of weeks. We’ve had an exemplary display from China of the iconic power of a great new structure, but we are being told the main benefit the Olympics will bring us is the regenerative legacy to a part of east London, although I doubt that’s what we’ll be thinking as we watch someone win a gold medal.

Renewal is complicated and takes many forms. And as was also demonstrated by the Olympics, ideals too can bring people together and create a momentum for change. Maybe it’s that sense of change through renewal that defines the 21st-century zeitgeist.

Visible in micro and macro scales, and across the spectrum of our society, change through renewal is about sustainability. It crosses all generations and is one of the few areas in which our somewhat disengaged children engage with the future to the point that they pressurise us into action. At the micro level it’s about feeling and acting on a collective sense of responsibility through whatever means you have, such as recycling your waste and clothes. At the macro level it’s about creating communities that are sustainable. And at this level the design of cities and buildings have all to play for.

Sustainability is one of the few areas in which our somewhat disengaged children engage with the future to the point that they pressurise us into action

How do you create a sense of community in a city? Contrast the emergence of districts such as Paddington Basin and Shoreditch. Although Paddington Basin makes valiant attempts to create a mixed-use environment, it is somehow negated by the corporate nature of the planning and the architecture, and, to me at least, it doesn’t feel real. Even its location – right next to Paddington station – almost suggests people want to run away from it. At the more landlocked Shoreditch, where change has been effected through renewal, there is an edge and a reality to the place. And perhaps there lies my point. When it comes to creating a sense of place it is hard to find examples of large developments that really work. I don’t know what the tipping point is – when the number of people you need to house or make office space for demands the fairy dust of the old to make the new work, but I suspect there is a number.

The jury is still out on King’s Cross, but it will be interesting to see what happens. It is an area that will house rich and poor, and where there will be a mix of old and new. And the mix is looking good. They have already attracted a contrast of neighbours. Central St Martins is moving there and The Guardian and the Observer are just about to move in. Having an art school is a smart move that will help give the area a defining edge. I have long maintained that young, creative people with little money at their disposal can do far more for an area’s vitality than the enforced mix-use imposed by city planners. Perhaps in King’s Cross we will get the blend and contrast of Paddington Basin and Shoreditch.

I accept that sometimes people don’t want that contrast – like Canary Wharf, where corporations want to work next to like-minded corporations. That works, just so long as it’s boom time – it will feel pretty tragic when the foundation of its existence is rocked by the behaviour of global markets.

When it comes to creating a sense of place there are few examples of large-scale developments that work

And sometimes contrast can be too extreme. Take our American friends in Grosvenor Square, where they have effectively created a mini Baghdad Green Zone in the middle of Mayfair. Relations between the embassy and the neighbourhood have deteriorated to such an extent that it is under pressure to move elsewhere. It is an extreme example, but one where the contrast is so great that it has upset the balance beyond what is workable or sustainable. Of course, if the embassy does move out it will call into question the issue of sustainability in another guise – what to do with a building that was designed and built to last a very long time? But that is for another column.

So the key to the success of a place, a city or a society is about contrasts and variety, and how contrast, whether it is light and shade or old and new, alters your perception to the extent that you see things more acutely and more brightly. And if it is contrast that is so vital to our vitality, then it can’t just be about things physical; it must also be about things cerebral. Connecting people with things they might not otherwise experience, which is about a much wider issue of creating life opportunities, is a part of the contrasting mix. A somewhat oblique but hugely unexpected – and in my view inspired – example of this was the recent tie-up between The Sun and the Royal Opera House – a more unlikely partnership is hard to imagine, but it was a rip-roaring and resounding success, and hopefully one with an encore.