This extraordinary year presented Salisbury Civic Society with the opportunity to forge new partnerships and trial a different format for its annual autumn Open Meeting in October. Producing a neighbourhood plan for Salisbury is challenging in itself but now Covid-19 is challenging the norms of how we live, work and plan for the future.
Working with Salisbury Neighbourhood Plan steering group team and Wiltshire Creative, the Society’s Development Committee felt it was important to find out more about innovative ideas and projects that are being explored elsewhere in the UK and further afield in response to Covid-19. There is no doubt that a number of trends have accelerated due to Covid which are having an impact on the way we live and work and are already influencing new thinking and approaches to city centre design and redevelopment projects. Could we learn something that could help inform the neighbourhood planning process which is underway here in Salisbury?
The speakers did not disappoint. The online forum and invited panel included Andrea Pellegram, planning consultant to the City Council’s Neighbourhood Plan, designer Freidrich Ludewig of ACME international architects; developers David Dolman and Carwyn Davies Hacer Developments and their design team Andrew Nixon and Marta Lopez of Powell Dobson architects in south Wales. Councillor Jeremy Nettle with his extensive knowledge and experience of Salisbury also kindly agreed to join the panel.
We are grateful to the Wiltshire Creative team for getting us all online. There were some glitches but it was quite a steep learning curve & hopefully we will do better next time! Particular thanks to executive director, Sebastian Warrack who chaired the event and facilitated a lively discussion with the panel.
So, what were the key learning points?
- Retail as an anchor for the high street & city centres is fast becoming outmoded
Friedrich Ludewig pointed out that city centres have been under threat for some time, and that Covid has not only significantly reduced commuting, the numbers of shoppers on the high street and city centre vitality but is continuing to accelerate the pace of online shopping. Traditional anchor stores such as John Lewis are now aiming for 60% online sales within the next two years and we know that both the House of Fraser and Debenhams are now unfortunately in administration
- A mix of uses provides greater city centre vitality and resilience
Encouraging a mixed-use approach to redevelopment brings many benefits. In Dublin city centre, several smaller schemes rather than one large one working within the existing fabric is proving successful; there is a mix of retail – as local and specialised units grouped around active public space; housing of different types – town house, affordable home, expensive apartments; proper streets have been reintroduced; there is rentable office spaces at different scales; cars have been removed and there has been a good deal of urban greening.
The team from Swansea introduced the exciting Biophilic Living Project, described as a small project to repurpose the former 1960’s Woolworths building at the Picton Yard site on the edge of Swansea’s central area. It is part of the Welsh government’s broader Innovative Housing Programme and sets out to encourage more ‘living, working & playing’ in the city centre, providing access to food via a vertical urban farm and use of aquaponics (in collaboration with Swansea University), as well as learning opportunities via an education space. There will be some retail space at ground level as well as commercial space, together with a range of housing (social, shared ownership and open market) to encourage a mixed demographic rather than a middle class enclave in the upper levels where there are views to Swansea Bay; a cafe and access to transport and high quality green spaces – on roofs, balconies and walls as well as at ground level, plus two new public realm spaces.
- City centre redevelopment can only truly be sustainable if it is designed for social interaction and development of community
David Dolman and Andrew Nixon described different aspects of the Biophilic Living Project in Swansea which is fundamentally about encouraging a sense of community as well as taking a holistic approach to sustainable design. The term, ‘biophilic’ comes from the Greek – Bio meaning ‘life’ & philia is often interpreted as ‘friendly feelings towards others’.
This project is also taking place within the enlightened framework provided by the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2016 requiring public bodies to plan and take action in pursuit of economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being in their area.
- Broader, longer-term thinking and effective project delivery mechanisms must be fully integrated into a project from the start
The Biophilic Living Project is underpinned by a commitment to sustainable design and construction principles and is taking place with reference to the relevant UN Sustainable Development Goals. For example, the carbon dioxide generated by residents will be recycled through the glasshouses on site to help promote growth of salad crops and other plants.
Clearly there are significant capital costs but Hacer believe that these are outweighed by the social and environmental benefits. Nevertheless, an income stream is needed. Green financing and mortgages were mentioned in discussion, as well as the potential need for higher local taxes as in Germany; also it was pointed out that interestingly in the UK, the cultural driver as a major agent of regeneration, is much less of a factor than elsewhere. Something, perhaps, that we need to ponder on. The setting up of a Community Interest Company to address the management of the Biophilic Living Project going forward, is being seen as key to the success of the project and the plan is for it to be taken on by residents after the first five years.
The speakers’ presentations were followed by a lively discussion with panellists who were responding to comments and questions submitted live by the audience and covered a range of related issues.
Our thanks to everyone who took part including our audience of 82 people, and special thanks to Wiltshire Creative who made it possible to bring speakers with such a fascinating range of experience & practice virtually to our doorsteps. We hope it will help to influence our neighbourhood plan going forward.
Civic Society Development Committee member and member of the Neighbourhood Plan steering group