What makes Cardiff the city it is? It’s a question many ask, and often generates talk of warm welcomes and friendships made, of culture and creativity and of a sense of belonging. While the city’s physical spaces seem to be a perfect blend of dynamic urbanism and revitalising green lungs they also reflect the role that geography has played in shaping the city – not just its past and present but also its ongoing quest to become one of Europe’s most liveable cities.
All cities are shaped in part by their geography, moulded by the interactions of human activity with the natural landscape. Cardiff is no different: an estuary, a bridging point, a lowland plain and, through its port, a gateway to market for the mineral riches of the valleys to the north. These features helped make Cardiff what it is; they provide clues as to how the city’s unique character and personality was formed and have the potential to influence how it might develop in the future.
The industrial revolution shaped much of the city as we know it – its physical appearance certainly, but also as a welcoming place for people too. The growth of the port brought new communities to Cardiff: Irish, English, Somali, Yemeni, Bengali, African-Caribbean to name only a few – and of course, people from across Wales too. Today the universities and colleges, the modern day vessels of ideas and innovation, swell the city’s population by 60,000. Many choose to stay on to work after completing their studies. And in the years ahead new business and investments are projected to bring another 40,000 jobs to the city. Everyone is welcome, as they always have been.
But Cardiff’s geography also contributes to some of the challenges we face. At a recent Creative Cardiff conference, one contributor referred to the importance of liminal exchanges – the sort of interactions and ideas that develop in those places that straddle borders; ‘where sparky things come together you find the most creative places’ he said. It struck me that this idea of liminal exchange had a particular resonance in Cardiff.
For Cardiff as a city, some of these areas of potential liminal exchange have been restricted by physical geography, particularly the marshland between Cardiff and Newport and the steep ridges of the Garth and Caerphilly Mountains to the north. These barriers certainly restricted the movement of people, but how much have they contributed to the strong and enduring cultural divides between two neighbouring cities and between the capital and the valleys? Perhaps we’ve missed out by not having a neutral space to properly thrash things out or explore shared ideas! The closer relationships that seem to exist between the city and the areas of Penarth and Barry suggest that a lack of similar barriers have resulted in places more familiar with one another and able to develop more sustainable symbiotic relationships.
Closer to the city centre similar issues exist, albeit on a different scale. Cardiff is often lauded for its ‘compact city centre’, but this is partly because the bold demarcations created by the River Taff, Bute Park, the Civic Centre, the Merthyr and Rhymney railway lines and the east-west mainline railway have restricted any meaningful expansion. The step from city centre to established residential areas is relatively short, with little in the way of cross over and mixed-use areas – those ‘interesting’ areas where liminal exchange can take place. The city centre itself is a pretty tightly enclosed box with little room for natural expansion. Ask any local, and the definition of the city centre is clear – it’s a small, highly commercialised, walkable area right at the centre. Many still call it ‘town’.
In fact, the urban challenges of the past century have largely been focused around squaring this circle, creating new spaces on top of old places. City centre development swallowed Temperance Town, Newtown, Crockherbtown, and the St Davids Centre expansion and the ongoing Central Square redevelopment are once again increasing density and re-shaping key parts of the central zone. True, there have been times when expansion has nudged and prodded east (along Newport Road), south (the ‘Cardiff Bay’ development) and west (the commercialisation of southern Cathedral Road), but few have succeeded in mimicking the inherent walkability and human scale of the city centre.
This compactness brings both benefits and challenges. Cardiff’s centre does sometimes have the feel of a large town, rather than a big city. It’s quite normal to bump into people you know when in the city centre. When the spaces we share are quite small it makes these random encounters more frequent. This definitely adds a certain charm to the place. For new arrivals it eases the settling process; you can get your bearings quite quickly and there’s a lot to discover in a small area – Victorian arcades, cultural spaces, quirky independents and big brands.
Are there lessons we can learn from this? Certainly, the compactness of the city centre has required that any new developments are planned and delivered in more coherent and considered fashion. This seems to be reflected in the approaches taken by St Davids and at Central Square. Whether that same discipline is being applied to developments south of main railway line which, arguably, could be a potential major extension to the centre, is open to question. It would certainly be a missed opportunity if we fail to ensure that these areas share that same walkable feel as the city centre as well as allowing space for cross-over activity to take place, whether it be leisure, learning or creative.
But this compactness also creates its own problems. While developments such as St David’s have undoubtedly improved parts of the urban realm, they have also contributed to the ever-growing issue of congestion – Cardiff’s modern day bête noire. Coupled with the projected growth in jobs in the city centre this is fast becoming Cardiff’s greatest challenge.
In both cases – at the outer edges of the city and in the central area – overcoming the flow of ideas and people across often sharply demarcated lines is a challenge. These challenges are at the heart of the South Wales Metro project. Breaking down the borders – both real and perceived – and making the flow of people and ideas easier is a key challenge in creating a more prosperous South Wales.
Which brings us to one of the great benefits of Cardiff being located on a lowland plain: it’s a pretty flat city, which offers huge potential for a transport revolution. The Metro is part of that and the recent publication of Cardiff Council’s draft cycling strategy is a welcome development too, but they will only succeed if the city encourages people to embrace these alternatives modes. We will all have to lighten our dependence on the motorcar if the city has any chance of accommodating the projected growth and improving our lives in the process. A perfect storm of congestion, urban growth and air pollution are finally forcing us to address these issues in a coherent manner. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.
So for me, when someone asks what makes Cardiff the city it is, it always comes back to geography: how the growth of a port brought new colour and culture to South Wales and taught us to extend a hand of welcome the world; about how our compact centre provides order and a human scale to our capital, and how our lowland status creates the perfect platform for a forthcoming transport revolution. Perhaps, in years to come, when we discus what makes Cardiff great, that the way we move in, out and around the city will become a positive – part of our identity as a truly liveable city. If so, our geography will no doubt have an important role to play.
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