First person Two communities: a medieval Arabian labyrinth or ideal American exurbs. Which has the most to teach the UK?

What makes a community? Three recent experiences have caused me to think again about this ever-interesting topic.

During the spring bank holiday, I went to Morocco, to the ancient city of Fez (where the hats come from). The medina of Fez is a traditional Arab city, all narrow, winding streets, with stalls and shops and clutter, and animals and children and touts. It is like a maze and, for novice visitors, easy to get lost in. It is equally obvious to visitors that it functions wonderfully as a community. People know each other. People interact with each other. There is a network of verbal communication which passes on information faster than the Internet.

Of course it has disadvantages. Those disadvantages include obvious poverty and lack of modern amenities. For example, the alleyways are so narrow that no motorised vehicles – if these days they can be classified as an amenity – can get in, which means that pedestrians keep having to edge to the side of the alley to make way for beasts of burden (principally donkeys) and men carrying burdens almost larger than themselves. But, as I say, it really works as a community.

A few days after I got back, I saw, at the National Film Theatre in London, a documentary called The City. It was beautifully shot and edited, and it had a vision. Made in 1939, with the participation of Lewis Mumford, the noted American critic of architecture and urban planning, it pictured in despair the poverty and slums of New York City and compared and contrasted them with newly built exurban modular cities, groups of dwellings marooned in the countryside whose inhabitants rode bikes, participated in quilting-bees and shopped in something novel that looked like a present-day supermarket.

These “modern” cities were clean and airy (and inhabited solely by white people) and, to me, they were simultaneously idealistic and soulless. They were the progenitors of the kind of bland suburbs featured in Sam Mendes’ movie American Beauty. That alarming Oscar-winning film was set in a 1990s version of Mumford’s ideal community, and Mumford himself, who died in 1990 at the age of 95, lived to see how reality exposed these developments as lacking in the élan which makes a true community.

In this film, Mumford and his associates created a future that would not survive the 60 years of disillusionment that were to come.

These modern cities were clean and airy and, to me, they were simultaneously idealistic and soulless

So, where does that leave us today, at the end of a century that has seen more disillusionment on urban policy than perhaps on any other social issue? We are trying again, and that brings me to my third experience. Just before I went to Fez, in the Longsight district of my Manchester constituency, I attended a Home Zone event. The creation of Home Zones was recommended last year in the report, Towards an Urban Renaissance, issued by the urban taskforce set up by John Prescott and under the chairmanship of Lord Rogers.

Longsight was chosen for a pilot Home Zone, and Manchester Methodist Housing Association, which owns many of the properties in the designated area, took charge, although Manchester City Council was involved, too. One street, in what had been a run-down and neglected area but is now experiencing a renaissance, was chosen as the core for activities, but the catchment area was considerably wider.

The capsule specification of a Home Zone was stated in the Rogers report as “a neighbourhood where pedestrians are given priority and cars move at little more than walking pace”. For several hours on a Saturday, no traffic entered the street, but large numbers of local residents, families and individuals drifted in to hear the music, eat the food, look at local art, complain to me about local problems but, most of all, relate to each other. The experiment was helped by lovely weather. But I could see that people were genuinely pleased to be part of the event.

Moreover, the organisers are not stopping at arranging one enjoyable afternoon. Other events are planned, and a former Co-op hall is to be refurbished to provide 19 flats, plus shops and a community resource centre.

There was a time, as when the Fez medina developed, when communities came into being gradually, spontaneously and organically. There was a time, as in the Mumford experiment, when careful, unsuccessful attempts were made at planning them. Today, we are having another go at finding ways to design-in community. It would be heartening if they worked.