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The evolution of urban districts: discussion report

Wolverton - Church Street regeneration, proposed (Mikhail Riches for TOWN, CGI from Darcstudio)

Future Cities Forum was delighted to welcome developers TOWN and Hadley Property Group along with Milton Keynes Council, Lewisham Council and architects SPPARC and Chapman Taylor, to our second discussion on the evolution of districts in cities.

One recurring issue has been what councils do with unappealing 1970's shopping centres such as the Agora Centre in Wolverton, the historic railway town which is now part of Milton Keynes.

Speaking at Future Cities Forum, the Leader of Milton Keynes Council, Cllr Pete Marland, was firm in his attitude that not all 1970's architecture should be preserved. He spoke of the 18th and 19th century origins of the centre of the town with its distinctive grid street pattern, and said that it was important to get back to this original design which the Agora shopping centre had spoiled:

'We are trying to put right some of the wrongs of 1970s and the Agora split the high street. It sits on a Georgian square, so we are restoring the best bits of what was already there but making it better for the community in a modern way. The streets will be walkable with some retail in there. We know the traditional model of retail is dead with the big retail store as anchor, so what we want is independent shops and active frontages. It is a difficult site but we have a really good scheme which will be sustainable with green space such as a pocket park. We are also linking up with an energy company for Net Zero purposes and planting the right trees in the right places. Carbon reduction should not be an add on but be central to the whole design.'

Neil Murphy of developer TOWN, explained that because of the difficult site - tight streets, issues around car parking in a conservation area - there has had to be a really open community engagement process:

'We invited the community to look at a built layout in blocks and encourage people to re-design the plans for themselves. It really helped them explore such things as density and form, and we ended up with a much better scheme. We also took it to schools and let the kids explore too. They came up with lots of fun ideas such as rooftop forests and slides down into flats - which we cannot do but what did come out of the discussions was that there was no place for them to hang out, and so we have incorporated a community space for young people. One thing is for certain, there is a one hundred per cent agreement that the Agora should go. Some parts will be retained and used in drainage but we are getting rid of this windowless building and the proposal will be more residential with small scale shops. The market place is special and we will put in a tap room and pizzeria, so that we can celebrate the existing public space.''

There is a magical moment, added Steve Kennard from Hadley Property Group, when what the community wants and the council and developer planners have proposed, aligns!

'From the outset our sustainability framework aims to protect the planet and stimulate the economy. We must work with our communities on collaboration and empowerment, and we don't want to push against what local people want. Our Blackwall Yard project is an enormous one with 900 homes and we received 160 letters of support. So it is a 'must' to engage with local people.

'In terms of place-making, it all seemed to happen naturally in the 18th century, now every project talks about it. If you get it right, it will be sustainable. As developers we spend an enormous amount of time planning the ground floor of developments and making it relevant to the local community. The homes above take care of themselves. You must get the public space right and importantly it has to be flexible for the future.'

Authenticity is vital says SPPARC founder Trevor Morriss, in order to make public realm work well. He described how with his Borough Yards project in London (for developer MARK), that the practice worked with the context of the environment to inform the scheme and allowed themselves to see how it would integrate into the wider neighbourhood:

'When you walk into a good street scheme, it should feel like a discovery of a place you haven't visited for a few years, not brand new. We created a three meter wide street to create that continued feeling of comfort level and familiarity. People have been walking through Borough Market for a thousand years and we should respond to the history, and the sense of place. Interestingly we had a workshop recently at our practice that sought ideas on how to create a feeling of authenticity in a new district where you have a blank sheet.

Borough Yards - creation of a new restaurant and retail destination on the medieval street pattern and Victorian railway infrastructure of Southwark (SPPARC)

'Over at our project at Olympia we are fortunate that the Victorians did approach civic gestures in a monumental way. So our masterplan enables people to be outside but under cover and has a lot of flexibility, giving people choice. I am optimistic about future public realm and how we can design it for optimum community benefit.

'What we must do is concentrate on making servicing places more efficient. We use cars less these days and jump on bikes and e-scooters, but there is still a lot of freight turning up. So there needs to be more consolidation around servicing exhibitions and theatres, for example.

Lewisham Council's Michael Forrester continued the discussion speaking about the issues around Lewisham's main station hub and the new Gateway district development:

'This area is one of the most car dominated of streetscapes and it has traditionally been easier to drive your car to the shopping centre multi-storey car park than cross ten roads to get to the high street. The Lewisham Gateway project was controversial because it ripped out the roundabout by the station and put in a new road system. But the Gateway scheme does actually repair the severance , so now you only have to cross one road to reach the high street. Covid-19 has changed our thinking a lot and now we are concentrating on safe walking and cycling and also opening up the ability to walk by the riverside.

When asked about the potential closure of the Bakerloo Line with the proposed extension to Lewisham, Michael said:

'We are still supportive of Southwark Council on the extension of the line and we work with them on regular basis. The extension doesn't improve transport and as I said we are focussing more now since Covid-19 on the push for more cycling and walking, with routes that are quite discreet along the river way that are hard to access from a bus or train.

Marcelina Zielinska, Director at architects Chapman Taylor concluded the debate by saying that her research still points up the importance of putting people first when designing new districts:

'We have been talking about it for years - now we know we need to change. In the 1970s it was too easy to build soulless shopping centres and make money out of it. They were full of tiny malls and were not ambitious. There was no sense of place and no questions asked on how people feel and spend time in shopping centres. Our next big spenders are Generation Z and we should think about what they want. At Coventry City Centre South we are taking out the old car park and restoring the market and not just thinking about putting retail in. There should be a mix of offices and accommodation too to make a community.'

Below - CGI of Shearer Property Regen proposal for Covengtry City Centre South (Chapman Taylor)


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