How can heritage be used to create place in new 'digital' districts?
City of Gloucester aerial view, showing transport hub in foreground with The Forum, King's Square and cathedral beyond (Reef Group)
How can new sustainable districts in cities be created while embracing heritage and how can that heritage help create a sense of place? Gloucester City Council and developer Reef Group have been planning a new 24-hour district in the historic city called 'The Forum' but the area is rich in Roman and Medieval finds which have needed excavating and recording.
Work has been carried out to de-risk the site and some of the archaeological finds - such as an intact Roman figurine of Venus made out of a porcelain French clay, which would have sat on a plinth as a place of worship - have been saved and preserved. Investigations are now complete with the help of the city archaeologist, Andy Armstrong, and these finds will be put on display along with a 3-d model of the site in the public realm of The Forum.
Esther Croft, Development Director at Reef Group, commented at our 'New Districts' discussion this week:
'Understanding the heritage and being able to exhibit the wealth of the site of The Forum from the outset has been really important. We knew there was enviable heritage below the ground from the Roman and medieval periods and we have been lucky to have the advice from the city archaeologist edwho has been essential to the team. We have been able to move forward with the programme, with our eyes wide open, de-risking the site as much as possible with the council's and archaeologist's blessing. We have therefore been able to streamline the time frames and do things at a fast pace. There were six to nine months of enabling works and we have now completed King's Square. The Forum will be built completely by Spring/Summer 2024.
Above: Roman figurine of Venus, discovered during 'de-risking' of the Forum site in the City of Gloucester (Reef Group)
'We have to ensure that we work closely with Historic England and the council and where we can we have been re-using existing piles reducing disturbance in ground. Our thorough site assessment has been recorded and we are using new digital techniques to bring the heritage to life, creating that sense of place in a process of development that will continue to evolve over hundreds of years.'
The new development is vital to Gloucester to bring more visitors into the centre and the Leader of Gloucester City Council, Richard Cook, stated that while it is wonderful for the town to have so much rich archaeology, it can also make it difficult when progress needs to be made. He described which elements would make up The Forum when complete:
'The Forum includes 125,000 square feet of office space, a new 4 star hotel, car park with green wall, new retail and housing - all important to bring into the city centre, to make it sustainable. At the moment, we have people coming in largely between nine to five but the city should live twenty-four hours. By bringing in cultural development such as a new project in King's Square which is opening this weekend, we can create a longer day for visitors.'
Richard also talked about making Gloucester the centre of the UK cyber security industry through the new business facilities at The Forum:
'I think the closest competitor we have is Cheltenham but we are ahead of that city in terms of cyber-centric development - we are setting the stage. Gloucestershire is the most notable centre in country outside London for cyber-security and we are delivering something for the whole of Gloucester and whole country.'
While The Forum is an exciting development for Gloucester, Richard described the other projects that are being put in place to help the town's economy to thrive:
'The Forum is just one major effort, and we do have the heritage high street action zone (HAZ) and the development around the docks - it all adds up to more people coming into the city centre, outside of the nine to five day. On the other side of King's Square is the old Debenhams store which the University of Gloucestershire is turning into a city centre campus for four and a half thousand students, creating a lot more business interest and dynamism for the centre.
Historic England's Head of Region, South West, Ross Simmonds, joined the discussion to state that while the archaeology of Gloucester is intrinsic to the brand of the city, so are initiatives above ground that excite the minds of residential communities:
'I think its all exciting and important to have those early conversations that do allow for the historic environment but the USP above ground for Gloucester is also important. The goal here is about trying to create a place that is fit for today. Every settlement across the UK has its own unique history and it is very rich in Gloucester. You have got to get people into the centre with something unique.
'The digital offer and coffee shops - creating something that people want to come to - and it doesn't always have to be the big shiny office block, as start ups need something smaller that they can afford. We had our Historic Places Panel come along recently to Gloucester and they picked up on views from surrounding communities who don't see the value of the centre right now, but that will change.
' Our Heritage Action Zone work has been affected by delivery challenges and funding streams due to the pandemic and property owners have had to turn their money into keeping their businesses going. Our work in this area in Derby has been exceptional and the legacy of that will help and property owners will see what these buildings in the centre should look like.'
Reef Group has also been working closely with Gloucester Culture Trust.
Watch out for our report next week, featuring the contributions to our 'New Districts' panel discussion from Coventry City Council, architects Chapman Taylor, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and LDA Design.
Below: CGI of night view of remodelled King's Square, Gloucester (Reef Group)