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Friday, 29 August 2014

Rediscovering hidden Liverpool

There are many things for an Urbanist to love about Liverpool. I rediscovered many of them when I revisited the city this summer to attend the International Festival of Business. 

I studied Urban Design at John Moores University in the late 90's, did a couple of consultancy commissions there in the early Noughties and have been back a few times since on social/cultural visits. I know the place reasonably well, but it's been over a decade since I went off the beaten track there and thought it was worth a post.

Parts of the City have been completely transformed. The central area now links seamlessly to the waterfront via Liverpool One and connects a 21st Century retail and leisure experience to the waterfront which contains the maritime DNA of the City. 

Link from Liverpool One to Albert Dock on what was previously Chavasse Park

Mixture of old and new on the waterfront

New restaurants and bars that help link Liverpool One to the waterfront

The maritime culture of Liverpool has given the City its distinctive accent (via the immigration of Irish labourers), its food (the lobscouse broth from which the city's inhabitants derive their nickname) and it's trading history which catalysed the building of banks, warehouses, trade halls and pubs. 

Whilst the new additions to the City are important, it is the older parts of the City that make Liverpool what it is. There is an interesting architectural language that binds maritime cities like Liverpool to Hull, Cardiff (Butetown / Mount Stuart Square), Bordeaux, London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and many others. Of these Liverpool, I think, communicates this maritime character most convincingly because so little of it has been polished and Disneyfied as a 'visitor experience'. You won't have to look far to see the City that Liverpool once was and arguably still is.

The economic marginalisation of the City in the 70's, 80's and early 90's has meant that much of the city's grit (even some of the detritus) have remained, which is actually really positive because it provides such a strong sense of place and a palpable link to the past.

What really struck me about returning to the City is how the older, gritty, parts of Liverpool are often only a street a way from the glossy consumer-driven places. In cities like Cardiff, Leeds and Manchester the really interesting (slightly feral!) parts of the city are not always that easy to find, having been cleaned up or swept away by previous generations of development. In Liverpool, you don't need to walk far to find interesting backstreet pubs, 'lost' streets and old port buildings still bursting with a myriad of activity. Just because these parts of the City don't have a Costa coffee franchise doesn't mean that they aren't desirable, or valuable to the City's economic wellbeing or sense of place.

Vacant tobacco warehouse on Stanley Dock awaiting a new purpose

 Side streets between warehouses being used for (not very sexy) employment uses

By James Brown

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Connectivity the key to a successful City region

The publication of today's report by an alliance of five cities - Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield should be a wake up call to other areas of the UK.

The recognition that inter-city region connectivity is key to forming a successful northern economic counterbalance to London demonstrates the maturity of the City Region psyche across the north. It also demonstrates an evolution of Prescott's 'Northern Way' - a sinuous economic link across the M62. It is significant that the rail zeitgeist has infused the latest incarnation of Northern urban connectivity. However, what is really telling is that whilst they may not have solved all of their internal challenges, the leadership of these cities have reached a capacity at which they can collectively strategise for a £15bn investment from the Chancellor, much of which is about improving connectivity.

(Image courtesy of BBC News)

This is particularly relevant to Cardiff but also potentially relevant when one looks at Cardiff, and Newport (and potentially Bristol) together. For example, the urban areas around the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal (which include Widnes, Runcorn, Salford, Warrington, Liverpool and Manchester) are already collaborating to deliver an ambitious connectivity, open space and economic development agenda under the banner of Atlantic Gateway.

The need for the very highest levels of frequency, quality and integration across regional public transport is something that the Cardiff Capital City Region Metro will hopefully address. The importance of today's publication by other cities with whom Cardiff should be competing immediately raises the stakes for the Metro in South East Wales. If the region isn't able to deliver the kind of system that globally relevant city regions now require as standard then Cardiff, Newport and the Valleys will see other regions of Britain accelerate into the economic distance.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Streets in the Sky for Cyclists

Having awoken from a Quality Street induced coma on the 2nd January, I fired up twitter to see with interest a proposal for an elevated cycling network in London from Foster and Partners. SkyCycle, hoisted above London's rail corridors would carry cyclists safely and swiftly through London, segregated from traffic. Like a High Line for cyclists. The mainstream media have picked up the story (Guardian, The Express and The Times) and from a glance appear to have reacted warmly to the proposal. 

Foster & Partners Vision of SkyCycle.
Yet the proposals are actually celebrity endorsement of a concept promoted back in the Autumn of 2012 by another architect, Sam Martin of Exterior Architecture (link to article in Daily Mail).

From the lay-persons perspective, what's not to like? SkyCycle offers the vision of being able to avoid potholed roads, not worry about left turning HGV's or having to become an aggressive cyclist as a form of self preservation. Sir Norman has also put a social spin on the vision; that SkyCycle could be used to enjoy cycling with friends as a leisure pursuit.

All of this is an alluring vision. Yet I'm concerned that many commentators are ignoring the cumulative impact of the details that could damage the connectivity and vitality at street level. The 200 access points, many of which will include ramps, will not be the easiest of structures to blend into a city. They are likely to jar against the places around them, whilst the transition points between the ramps and streets could become awkward junctions. This will probably occur because local highway authorities will apply their standard rulebooks to the interactions between different 'highway users' at these points. The results are unlikely to become celebrated places.

The other aspect of SkyCylce that concerns me is that it advocates the segregation of the City. With this we are at risk of returning to 'streets in the sky' (Le Corbusier) or 'graded separation of people and traffic' (Buchanan, Traffic in Towns, 1963).

1963 vision of traffic at street level and people on elevated walkways
It was exactly these notions that we have spent the last twenty-five years trying to unravel. 
(Ironically, it was the publication of Richard Rogers' Urban Task Force report in 1999 that validated the need to remake more British cities to become more humane and integrated).

If we learned anything from placemaking in the 20th century it is that cities work best when they are integrated at street level. 

Admittedly, space at street level in London is at a premium. Lessons from Copenhagen (which I visited on a cycling study tour last May) and Amsterdam can only translate so far because the street widths are often more generous. This means that we need to find new physical solutions that give people the confidence to cycle. Potentially, we might also consider adopting a similar legal framework to the one that exists in Denmark that presumes liability upon the driver in the event of a collision with a more vulnerable road user. The impact of this legal change upon street level interactions between drivers and cyclists in Copenhagen is enormous.

I'll be surprised if the SkyCycle concept is capable of withstanding further scrutiny. I'll be equally taken aback if this vision, beneath the glossy image, offers something that is holistic and in tune with what makes places function. In fact, when it comes to superimposed infrastructure like SkyCycle, history proves the opposite.

By James Brown

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Successfull cities adapt: can Newport be a successful city?

Great cities adapt. They always have. The ones that don't? They either slide slowly from relevance or find a new lower purpose, often via a series of unpleasant convulsions that can only really be observed in retrospect.

I was fortunate to have been a student of cities in Manchester at the very point in history when the Trafford Centre, an out of town palace of consumption, opened its gold leafed halls and at exactly the same time that the IRA detonated their largest ever and final bomb in an English city centre. This was a potentially catastrophic combination of events for city centre and Manchester City Council found themselves in a situation where they had to make not only repairs but undertake rapid and transformational surgery to enable the city to adapt to the new challenges that it faced.

With this in mind I turn my attention to my current hometown, Newport.

Tonight the City Council will vote on whether to make available a £90m loan to their development partner, Queensbury, to provide the funding necessary to complete the development of a new retail and leisure development.

Many local commentators are sharpening their knives for the Council, should they decide to make the finance available via a Public Works Loan. Typical negativity stems from the parochial view that Newport shouldn't have this kind of retail/leisure development because Cardiff has one and that Newport’s proximity to the Welsh capitol means that Newport must to do things differently.

If cities have an inbuilt need to adapt then Friars walk is about adapting to changed retail and leisure expectations. Shoppers and retailers both prefer large, regular shaped units that are easy to get to and easy to display goods in, but conversely, people also want real experiences that have memory, richness and meaning. The very things that one seldom extracts from a visit to an edge of centre retail park (or should I say car park!). So combining the best of both worlds has been a proven means of adaption for many British town centres.

In places like: Exeter, Bristol, Liverpool and even smaller Welsh settlements like Carmarthen and Wrexham have all integrated the expectation of retail and leisure predictability with more organic experiences with distinctly local provenance. In all of these cases, I guess that each had the right scheme at the right time. Sadly for Newport it has had an unfortunate a multi-generational track record of promoting the right scheme at the wrong time or just the wrong scheme. (Kingsway Centre - wrong scheme - right time) (Friars Walk 1 - Modus - right scheme - wrong time) 

Those that argue that Council backing of Friars Walk is just trying to make Newport into a poor version of Cardiff are out of touch with current trends in how people like to shop and how retailers like to sell. Friars Walk is a necessary adaption to the fabric and commercial offer of Newport just as the creation of Exchange Square was to the post-bomb Manchester.

I have to say that I am not a career supporter of the Council. For instance I feel that the broader economic strategy for the city lacks specialism and bravery and I also feel that the the Council have lauded Friars Walk as the end game when it is in fact only the beginning of the adaptive process. The fact that it remains so opaque as to the kind of place that the Council see Newport becoming simply sustains the argument that Friars Walk is not appropriate to Newport.

I think that local government often gets a raw deal for failing to make big and bold decisions. Tonight Newport Council will make a significant decision about whether the Newport will be enabled to adapt to changes in society or whether the City will be held in perpetual limbo because it doesn’t understand its place in the new world. 

I hope that the Council take the bold step that allows Friars Walk to begin so that we can use this as a platform for future interventions, which funnily enough, is exactly what happened to post bomb Manchester city centre.

by James Brown, Director of Powell Dobson Urbanists

Thursday, 20 June 2013

A first impression of an unfamiliar city: Nottingham

I visited Nottingham today to study the design of the NET Metro public transport system and meet some of the people behind it. While I was here I thought I would have a look around.

As an urban designer I love cities. Discovering new cities, or parts of cities, is a bit of geeky hobby of mine. As a city nerd I am also quick to be critical about a city: what it does right, what it does wrong, what excites and what disappoints.  This was my fist visit to Nottingham. Here are some first impressions of the city...

My first impression was formed by the NET Metro itself. Quiet, efficient and clean. It gave me the impression of a forward thinking city. Somewhere that is investing in the future, not just clearing up the mess of the past.

I got off in the Gustavson Porter designed Old Market Square. The only reason for this impulsive departure was because it was the only thing about Nottingham that I knew about. So I thought I'd go and have a look. 

Old Market Square showed what can be achieved when the designer is brave enough to take out all of the crap and clutter. That level of emptiness can look terrifying when its on the drawing board, but alongside a building like the imposing, but unfortunately named, Council House it works beautifully. The materials were carefully contrasted with the sandstone slabs used everywhere else in the city and the details and standard of maintenance were top class. However, it was very sad to see that the innovative water feature, which was so important to the original design, was out of commission.

After Old Market Square I followed my nose and tried to spot something interesting and walk towards it. What took my eye was the cities way finding system, an effective network of signs and columns that is effectively a finger post system and a roving Rough Guide rolled into one. Taking the time to read and follow it transformed my experience of Nottingham.

Having seen part of contemporary Nottingham I was cast back in time to the Old Lace  Market. National chains gave way to smaller indie businesses in handsome red brick buildings, side streets and intimate squares. More info panels explained that whilst the city's lace production went back to Saxon times it was Thomas Adams' approach to production and employee welfare that helped put the city on the map.

Having had a glimpse of 19th century Nottingham and the hint of a more ancient past, I thought I'd try to see what the city could reveal about its medieval history. I followed the frequent info panels and found my way to Maid Marion Way, a cruel urban motorway surrounded by grey brutalist car parks, towering facades and stark structures that arrogantly divided the new city from its medieval past. Most British cities have places like this, but the experience was still a bitter disappointment. This area must be a future priority for the city council who will need to unstitch this sorry mess that segregates the city from 1000 years of history.

Once I'd reached the gates of the Castle I was disappointed to see carelessly located planters, devoid of actual pants (just mud) in front of probably one of the most important buildings in the city. It seems that the attention to detail, so evident in Old Market Square, had not managed to cross Maid Marion Way and had given up and turned back. This wasn't the only example. Other historic buildings, that would be celebrated in other cities, were left marooned in amongst disabled parking bays and double yellow lines. It seemed that the City Council, or certainly departments of it, are guilty of not being precious enough with some of their most prized possessions.

A short walk around the sandstone outcrop upon which sits the castle revealed Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, England's oldest inn, dating back to 1189 and a stopping off for medieval squaddies on route to the holy land. I expected to find some of them still there trying to master the most addictive pub game in the whole of Christendom. I was thankful that I got lucky and beat the game after twenty minutes.

In two hours, thanks to the information provided by the city council, I had a good feel for the city, it's past, present and its future. The question that i was left with was: for a city as good as this why does it have such a non-descript national persona? If half of this stuff had been in Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow the whole world would know about it. In a competitive market place for tourism and business investment Nottingham has more than enough assets to stand out but needs to shout more confidently about what a great little city that it is. 

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Enabling Change of Use in Town Centres: A step in the right directionbut not the solution

Recently, amongst almost daily updates in the national news on the state of our high streets, new changes to permitted development rights in England were reported.   The changes, which came into effect on 30th May, were widely reported as a boost to town centre regeneration that will make it much easier to bring new uses to empty units on the high street.  But how much impact will these changes actually make?

Summary of the changes
Changes were made that enable certain changes of use without the need to apply for planning permission.  In relation to town centres the key changes are:
  • Premises in B1(a) office use will be able to change to C3 residential use.
  • Buildings with A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, B1, D1 and D2 uses will be permitted to change use for a period of up two years to A1, A2, A3 and B1 uses to help new and start-up businesses.
  • Premises in B1, C1, C2, C2A, D1 and D2 use classes will be able to change use permanently to a state-funded school.
This means that the costs and delays associated with the need to apply for planning permission in these cases can be avoided.  The intention here is to speed up the process and make it easier to fill currently vacant space in town centres.  This  helps to bring planning in line with wider town centre revitalisation initiatives that are based on diversifying uses, promoting new local businesses and increasing vitality.  Allowing the change from office to residential use has the potential to increase footfall in town centres which will increase demand and it is therefore a step in the right direction.  

However, planning is only one of a number of hurdles in bringing empty spaces back into use in town centres.  Therefore the changes may not have the degree of regenerative impact that is being anticipated.    

There are a wide range of challenges that need to be overcome along side the matter of planning.  Some of the key issues include:
  • Prior approval - The changes of use that no longer require planning permission will require an application for prior approval which will consider matters including highway/transport impacts, contamination risk noise and flood risk.  
  • Building Regulations - Whilst planning permission will not be required, the conversion of buildings will need to meed building regulations.  Our experience indicates that this can be a significant barrier particularly in the conversion of upper storey offices to residential.  
  • Demand - A relaxation in planning alone does not create demand for new uses or developers who will undertake the conversions; it is not a case of ‘permit it and they will come’! 
  • Management - The residential use of a property has different management implications to commercial uses and landlords may not have the capacity or inclination to accommodate these changes.  

The changes are welcome in principle to facilitate change but it is unlikely that they will, in themselves, bring about substantial revitalisation of town centres in England.