Shared space, town centre regeneration, and creating great streets.

11
February 2014

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A short commentary on the concept of shared space in relation to the regeneration of town centres.

The UK Government ‘s Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) report of December 2011 on understanding high street performance identified five key interventions which can address high street decline. These interventions were classified under the following themes:

 

  • Improving the built form and configuration.
  • The drive for differentiation.
  • Policy prioritisation.
  • More developed place management.
  • Alternative business models and new approaches.

 

The first of these interventions represent a classic physical regeneration response, and encompasses projects such as building face-lifts, shop front renewal, the provision of new car parks, improving permeability and accessibility, pavements and street works, tree planting etc.

 

Public realm projects have long been seen as an antidote to town centre decline, but there is a difficulty in evidencing a causal and clearly attributable link between public realm improvements and town centre performance. Case study evidence does suggest that improving the quality of the environment has a demonstrable affect in encouraging people to ‘linger’, encouraging people to visit, and encouraging people to shop for longer periods of time. However, there are clearly other factors at work in respect of people’s behaviour, for example the quality of the retail offer.

 

Parking and accessibility are key aspects of town centre performance, but of course are often contentious issues. Here the concept of shared space can sometimes reconcile conflicts which exist between people’s aspirations to achieve a convenient access to town centres, park easily, and enjoy the opportunity to linger in locations which offer a quality ambience. The classic village or town car park in France with its trees, rolled scalping’s surface, benches, and boule court shows how shared space can work well.

 

Shared space is also a distinct approach to access based on extensive trials that have been undertaken in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Streets are shared between vehicles and pedestrians, prompting traffic to slow down and observe pedestrians and cyclists movements. There are only a few shared space schemes in the UK, but one which has received extensive publicity is Poynton in Cheshire.

 

Below is a short film on the scheme.

 

 

As can be seen, the result in Poynton is impressive. Ben Hamilton-Baillie was the urban designer and movement specialist responsible for the project, and he has recently offered some interesting observations to CREW, and we are indebted to him for allowing us to share them more widely:

 

‘Attractive streets attract people. People underpin the local economy. Economists have recently highlighted the critical role served by the quality of the public realm in towns and cities as a key foundation for trading activity and vitality. As the rise of the internet and growth of out-of-town superstores give alternative means of dealing with the functional distribution of goods and information, towns will only survive if they are places that people want to be, rather than where they have to be. But to achieve successful streets, three inter-related issues need to be addressed. These are:-

 

  1. We need to re-acquire the skills necessary to design and to construct great streets. Conventional traffic engineering training, and conventional landscape architecture and architecture training, leave a huge gap. In most mainland European countries, there exists a well-respected profession of “Strassenbauer” (German) or Straatemaaker (Dutch), with equivalents in Danish, Swedish and other languages. “Paver” is the nearest we get to “Streetbuilder” in the UK, but the ability to understand every complex aspect of streets, from drainage to lighting, planting, paving, geometry, maintenance, cleaning and service renewal, has been lost. In the design field, there is a need to understand and work successfully in 3 – dimensions, to be able to feel comfortable with place-making, visual narrowing, transition gateways, edge-friction, courtesy crossings, pedestrian desire-lines, and countless other aspects of integrated streetscapes. There is a huge training need, and few local authority engineers have the experience or capacity to take this on.

  2. Streets are very complex places. They cannot be created by separate, isolated teams of people, with different interests and priorities. In a typical authority, you will find at least 20 teams with some responsibility for streets, from those dealing with school transport, to safety, to planting, lighting, road safety, road markings, traffic signals, signs, economic activity etc.. many of these teams rarely speak with each other. Often they work in different authorities (County and Districts). The question “Who is responsible for your streets?” can rarely be answered by chief executives. If good, integrated streets are to be created and maintained, we need fully integrated teams with the relevant skills and consistent objectives. This presents a huge organisational challenge for managers, as well as a tricky issue for the long-established professional institutions.

  3. No amount of skills, or organisational structure, will create great streets if there is no political vision for what we want from our towns. We have to create the leadership and consensus to establish a clear objective for what we want our streets to do. This is where people such as Councillor Daniel Moylan (Exhibition Road) and Councillor Howard Murray (Poynton) have been so essential. You cannot design streets by committee, trying to meet the individual demands of the 50 (or more) special interest groups who typically fill your consultation sessions. Clarity of vision for the public realm requires confidence and long-term leadership, usually extending beyond the normal political cycles’ (NB Ben can be contacted at ben@hamilton-baillie.co.uk).

 

Andrew Dakin and Ben Hamilton-Baillie. January 2014.











 

 

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