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Bringing life back into the city centre post pandemic

Coventry is using its heritage buildings to create new interest for the visitor economy. Image of Lychgate Cottages, Priory Row which survive from the 1400s - courtesy Historic Coventry Trust):

Despite losing important historic street patterns in Coventry due to the city architect Sir Donald Gibson's shopping precinct plan presented just before the Second World War, Coventry is reviving place-making in the city centre, where people can 'live, work and play', reassured that net zero goals are being met with reductions of motor traffic and adding an abundance of trees.

After the Blitz of 1940, Gibson's radical plan for traffic free city centre was realised, but the remodelling meant sweeping away centuries old medieval streets.

Nevertheless the city retains some important historic buildings which Coventry City Council is determined to preserve with help from Historic Coventry Trust - some being turned into visitor accommodation such as Priory Row Cottages. The city region is at the centre of the battery manufacturing, so it is hoping to be ahead of the curve on electric vehicle usage.

Coventry City Council and Chapman Taylor joined our recent 'New Districts' discussion on how to attract visitors back to city centre post pandemic.

Cllr Jim O'Boyle remarked:

'Coventry was flattened during the war but was the first city in the world to bring in pedestrianised streets. It really invigorated the centre and would become a template for other areas. Over the last fifty years, the centre has grown quite tired in places and there have been some amendments which looking back now perhaps weren't such good ideas. The council decided it needed to do something and we have poured forty million pounds into regenerating the (shopping) precincts which has been very well received. We have opened up sight lines to the cathedrals and created a new plan that respects the original and older buildings of the city.

'Coventry is now thriving and footfall has gone through the roof. Prior to the war there were lots of people living in the centre and the plans made over ten years ago favoured seventy per cent retail. Now that has been turned on its head and thirteen hundred new homes will be built in the centre. It is going to be a place where people want to come and feel safer and we started working on new residential places over five years ago. Now there will be seventy per cent homes and thirty per cent shopping. Much friendlier.'

Adrian Griffiths, Group Board Director UK at architects Chapman Taylor, who is in charge of the masterplan for City Centre South, Coventry, commented:

'It is not just about living, you have to have the right offer when designing masterplans. It must be inclusive and authentic. Unfortunately Gibson took all the uses out of the city and just put back retail. It was a time when people were happy with suburbanisation but now they want to live back in the centre. We have taken the essence of historic streets, buildings, skyline and brought back some uniqueness, with independent shops. It is very important that the public spaces that we have designed are curated on a regular basis with cultural activity because people like variety. But we have built in a pavilion for activities and revived the indoor market building which used to sit in the middle of a service yard.

'Biodiversity has been embedded into the public realm, but retention of some buildings wasn't an option as they didn't work with the street patterns. Retrofitting is an important part of the master-planning process and you must have a good idea of how the wider area beyond your site will develop. There needs to be a long term vision based on solid urban design principles. You always need flexibility so that the streets and squares over time can adapt and it is the big shopping centres that prevent this as they are so hard to change.'

Jim O'Boyle agreed:

'We are moving away from the centre being areas of retail to multi-faceted opportunities, with things to do and places to sit and ponder and spend time. We have twenty two of our culturally best buildings which have been given over to the Coventry Historic Trust, and they include the city gate-houses which are being turned into visitor accommodation. We have put in lighting at night to make it more friendly and create different things for different people.

'Importantly, we are championing lots of different low carbon transport options. You don't need a car in the centre. We are taking part in e-scooter trials and most journeys that people are making in the city are a mile or less. We don't have a large transport infrastructure in Coventry so we are working on a very light rail system that will link up important economic parts of the city. We also have segregated cycle paths from and to the suburbs. Coventry is the location for the country's battery installation centre, so we are working on the batteries of the future because by 2030 no one will be able to drive a petrol car. We are at the forefront of this important revolution.'

Watch out for Future Cities Forum's report next week on how the town hall in Hammersmith is at the centre of a new creative and tech district in West London and the ambitious plan that Camden has been carrying out with green public realm to meet its net zero goals.

Chapman Taylor's masterplan vision for City Centre South, Coventry, for Shearer Property Regen - at night. Courtesy: Chapman Taylor.


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