The forgotten fringes of city and town living


Exeter Retail Park situated on western edge of city centre - and ten minutes walk from Exeter St Thomas station - an example of a successful development owned by Aviva Investors

Why are the fringes of cities and towns so often overlooked for good planning and design? Future Cities Forum has been talking to one of our architectural members Stride Treglown about the reasons and what can be done. Associate Nik Hoggarth described the context and the challenges:

'Following the relaxation of planning laws in the late 1980s, a decentralised retail offer emerged with a burgeoning development of out of town shopping centres and open air retail parks. De-industrialisation created surplus, underutilised land on the edge of urban areas. This was repurposed and provided businesses with an opportune way to distribute goods, as well as a convenient way for their customers to shop.

'And so, for the latter part of the last century, the periphery of towns and cities has been a utopia of the private vehicle. In the UK, ring roads are peppered with open air retail parks and out of town shopping centres near housing estates. They have provided a cost effective and convenient alternative for people to pop in and ‘pee for free’. While our town centres, as municipal and commercial hearts, have remained host to our prized institutions. They are places to invest time, to experience culture and to be immersed in the character and sense of place.

Bricks and mortar still account for a large proportion of retail spending. However, in a digital era, these large format ‘big box’ shopping centres and other car-dominated developments are facing their own challenges. Environmentally, the majority of these developments appear distinctly in Google Maps primarily due to their Planning Use Class isolation. They have become islands of planning policy and would benefit from becoming more integrated with the local communities in which they serve.

Nik went on to point out how fringe sites could be improved:

  1. Establishing clear routes for pedestrian and cycle access and provide greater permeability with the local community – increasing sustainable transport links

  2. Introducing new uses such as different types of residential – allowing the introduction of live/work developments and enable new types of manufacturing use classes and maker spaces.

  3. Creating events spaces for one off gatherings to create a local destination / variety / intrigue and generate culture. With a rolling programme of events to generate interest and engagement.

  4. Reinvigorating or integrating green spaces within developments - Creating a place that is inviting and attractive. Places to pause relax / spend time – be multi-generational. Sustainable / Biodiversity gain. Improve well-being to soften the hard edges and create a more integrated and variety of spaces.

  5. Generating opportunities for more local economic growth e.g. car park market stalls or covered market halls for SMEs with incubator facilities to help businesses grow.

  6. Combining big format shopping centres with community-led amenities to integrate them back into their local neighbourhood.

'By stitching open air retail developments back into the neighbourhood, introducing a greater variety of uses (health centres, co-working and work spaces) and extending the hours of operation, there is an opportunity to reinvent these spaces to properly serve their local community. By casting a net within a local catchment area these spaces could also reduce the reliance on private vehicles for journeys made to and from them.'

Future Cities Forum went on to ask Nick whether there any lessons to be learned from the planning of The Barbican in the City of London?

'The Barbican is a fantastic example of a mixed-use development which served to reinvigorate (and repopulate) the City of London in the Post-War era by introducing national institutions with world-class amenities alongside high-quality residential development. Following the COVID crisis and the rise of home working, we could be looking at a similar flight from city centres, and so a few (tenuous) parallels and lessons could be drawn: mixed uses which integrate residential with education culture and leisure, big interventions from local government to revitalise areas as well as generating a sense of place with considered use of landscaping and public space.'

Nik suggested that other boroughs could learn from Waltham Forest’s master-planning:

'A number of London Boroughs are taking a proactive approach to development. The Leyton Town Centre Strategy & Delivery Plan 2016-2020 looked specifically at integrating the Leyton Mills Retail Park with the broader high street through increased permeability and way-finding to encourage a more holistic identity for the town centre as a whole. Waltham Forest has partnered with developers and charities to promote urban renewal such as the three station sites at Lea Bridge, the Coronation Square development, Walthamstow Wetlands and EMD Granada Cinema on Hoe Street.

'This proactive approach is not uncommon or new in London. It’s evident in other London Boroughs with schemes such as Brick-by-Brick in Croydon where the Local Authority is helping the community by taking an active role in development.'

Future Cities Forum's 'Master planning and cities' report is due to be published next weekend.

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