Changing places

Atkins | 06 Jun 2008 | Comments

To succeed in transforming the look, feel and fortunes of a town or city takes a truly multidisciplinary approach. Get it right and it can set in motion long-term change with massive social and economic benefits.

The UK’s second largest city, Birmingham, was the workshop of the world, but its success was also its downfall.

During the sixties and seventies, a flurry of construction in the city centre brought valuable commercial activity and easy access by road, but for pedestrians it became inaccessible and unfriendly. Construction of the inner ring road, in particular, divided the city. Stifled by what is known locally as the concrete collar, lacking cohesion and with a negative image, the city went into manufacturing decline. Birmingham became synonymous with concrete, shady underpasses and noisy traffic.

It’s a far cry from the city residents are so proud of today, with its world-class cultural and business venues, juxtaposition of glass-fronted offices and red brick heritage, and immaculate squares and canals.

“The changing point in Birmingham’s fortunes came in 1988, when local politicians, business leaders, architects and planners met to discuss possible solutions to the city’s problems,” says Atkins’ Noelle Wright, the architect leading the current development plans for Birmingham New Street railway station.

“The resulting action plan, known as the Highbury Initiative, was crucial in identifying a workable strategy for change. In particular, it set down plans to create a whole new public realm, removing the concrete collar and opening up the centre with a series of public routes.” Moving east to west, pedestrians can now amble from Brindley Place, along canals lined with vibrant restaurants and bars, past the International Convention Centre, across Centenary Square, and down to the bustling markets of St Martins.

Arrive into New Street station, however, and that passage gets a less than auspicious start; visitors must cut through the aging shopping centre above in order to exit the station. “New Street is a fundamental gateway to the city, but it remains pretty much impenetrable to the urban fabric,” says Wright. “Our challenge is to open up that last link to the city and make the station more permeable at city level.”

The proposed design will open up the space in a cross shape, the centre of which will be a public space with the look and feel of an airline terminal. The project kick-started in April, with construction due to take place between 2009 and 2011.

“The people of Birmingham have really warmed to high impact designs such as the Bull Ring, so we want New Street to have a real wow factor,” says Wright. With funding from a number of regional organisations, there’s a heavy regional commitment to the long-awaited project, not to mention high hopes among local people. “We’ll be working closely with the people of Birmingham,” says Wright. “And also with a visionary design to look carefully at how the building interfaces with the rest of the city.”

Everything in its right place

Context is crucial in any regeneration project, agrees Stephen Cox, head of Atkins’ regeneration and economic development team in north England, within the planning, landscape and heritage business. “You can’t just start to build something without first understanding how it will fit into the surrounding environment,” he says. “It’s those projects that fail to get local support and end up as white elephants.”

Respect for context is especially important when an area or its immediate surroundings already has strong character. “The cultural and architectural assets of an area can provide the strongest starting point for your plans,” says Richard Alvey, managing director of Atkins’ planning, landscape and heritage business. Alvey was part of the team tasked with regenerating the centre of Burslem, a town in the heart of England’s Potteries, which, despite economic decline, retains much of its original architectural charm. The project, therefore, had to respect that individual character, while breathing new life and potential into the town. “Consultation with local stakeholders formed a significant part of the project,” says Alvey. “We needed to identify and understand exactly what Burslem’s assets are and emphasise those.”

The same is true in terms of social assets, a core consideration in the ongoing redevelopment of Whitechapel, in the heart of London’s East End. Atkins has produced a masterplan for the project, which focuses on the area around the popular street markets. It involved close collaboration with local stakeholders to identify the unique character of the area, and how that can be used to enhance, and be incorporated into, future developments.

More than bricks and mortar

The idea that regeneration should be more than simply a land-use and planning exercise is one that has shifted considerably since the post-war era.

“It’s the interdisciplinary nature – the combination of economic, social and physical elements – that defines regeneration,” says Sir Peter Hall, Bartlett professor of planning and regeneration at University College London and a renowned expert and adviser on urban planning and social change.

Ensuring that regeneration results in wider social and cultural benefits, and collaboration with all stakeholders, is now not only high on the development agenda, but is realised to be critical to a project’s long-term success. The English Partnership’s (EP) National Brownfield Strategy is based entirely on a “bottom up” approach, with local people closely involved in the decision-making process.

“Communication and collaboration are very important to the success of a project,” says the strategy’s project director, Professor Paul Syms. “The potential effects of miscommunication, which can lead to rumour-mongering, are severe for a project, perhaps even resulting in it being abandoned,” he adds.

“Public sector led projects were traditionally seen as motivated by social benefits, while private sector schemes were for financial gain,” adds Paul Reynolds, senior landscape architect and urban designer at Atkins. “The balance has now been redressed.”

Today, developments focus more on the longer-term outcomes – the number of jobs or new homes created, or improved access to public facilities – than the intermediary goals of delivering a particular building.

Chain reaction

Sometimes, though, short-term, radical change can be not only successful, but essential, in achieving the desired effect. Where negative perceptions have erected a barrier to investment, an image overhaul can prove very effective. The challenge often falls to the public sector, which may invest in the public realm as a means of stimulating private sector regeneration.

Birmingham is a good example of how transforming the public realm, and the city’s image, can produce a snowball effect.

While New Street station is the last piece of the puzzle in terms of the centre’s development, Wright points out that the story doesn’t end there. “There is a lot depending on New Street, in particular the future development of areas of south Birmingham, such as the medieval parts around Digbeth. We hope that the New Street project will help to generate that change.”

The Belfast Streets Ahead project has similar ambitions. With an estimated value of £12 million, it is one of the most significant public realm investments seen in the city. Atkins is working to develop proposals for the project, which seeks to use regeneration of the public realm as a catalyst for ongoing change in the city centre and beyond.

“The long-term goal is to re-emphasise Belfast’s cultural and historical assets and place it firmly back on the map as a place to live, work and do business,” says Alvey.

However, while strategies such as this can work, says Sylvia Short, managing consultant, urban design, at English Partnerships, it requires the right economic and social drivers, a long-term management strategy, and a quality masterplan.

“It’s not enough to construct an iconic building and expect that it will regenerate an area,” she says. And, because you can never predict how things will turn out, flexibility is also important.

“The plan and the buildings should be able to change with the times. That means incorporating a mix of uses, and involving people from all social backgrounds and age groups. Areas with that mix are able to change and adapt to economic forces and hence be sustainable over the long term,” she says.

Money matters

Sir Peter agrees that the state of the local economy is a major factor in whether an investment in regeneration will bear fruit.

“In many northern towns, where the traditional economy is disappearing, simply building something new won’t be enough,” he says. “As Bill Clinton is famously quoted as saying, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. Unless there is the economic basis to support a project, you’ll be left with an empty shell.”

Sir Peter believes two indicators are especially important in assessing whether a scheme will be a success – the state of the area today, and its potential.

“Certain areas of London and some northern cities, such as Liverpool and Manchester, face serious economic and social challenges, but they also have tremendous economic potential,” he explains. “Towns such as Blackpool, Burnley or Accrington, however, have less deprivation, but aren’t making sufficient economic progress. Without that economic potential, it’s much harder for them to attract investment.”

Professor Syms points out that some of the brownfield sites in England are in the most deprived parts of the country. “Many of these are small ‘eyesore’ sites that can have a disproportionate impact on the wellbeing of communities,” he says. “Visual decay can result in economic decline in a downward spiral.”

Atkins’ Cox has worked with English Partnerships on a project to examine some of the barriers to regeneration. The project found a split between the north and south, with northern and peripheral regions such as Cornwall tending to suffer more from market demand issues and depressed economic conditions.

“In an area such as Tower Hamlets, land is snapped up as soon as it becomes available, but the cost of overcoming the barriers in more deprived regions can be more than the projected economic benefits of development,” says Cox.

Life and soul

Conventional methods of removing the barriers and improving investment potential can clearly result in radical change in our urban spaces. But there’s another vital ingredient that Sir Peter believes is essential if a town is to really turn itself around – vision. “You have to find a place’s unique selling point,” he says. “And you need a group of determined, passionate people, who can identify and bring out its best qualities.”

Passion was certainly at play when, in 1988, Birmingham’s sharpest minds met to brainstorm their landmark strategy for change. It is perhaps fitting that they chose Highbury, the home of Joseph Chamberlain, as their venue. Heralded with instigating sweeping social and physical improvements across the city back in the 1870s, the former mayor is certainly close to the city’s heart. No doubt he would approve of the place today.

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