Metro – a springboard for better place-making?

How can the south Wales metro deliver an economic and cultural dividend? Geraint Talfan Davies explores.

When the economic indicators for the UK create such a sense of foreboding it is both remarkable and hopeful that people can remain so determinedly positive about shaping their communities in new ways. That this is possible has been evidenced in two events in Cardiff in the last month, with a third due to take place in the next week. All three are about what planners and architects call ‘place-making’.

The first was a day long exploration of the potential that might be unlocked around six existing or putative stations for the proposed south east Wales Metro. This was organised by the Design Circle, the south Wales arm of the Royal Society of Architects of Wales. The second, the Design Commission for Wales’s autumn conference – Places for Life – took a broader look at the impact of design on the homes and communities in which we live. The third, to be held by Cardiff University on 31st October, again takes its inspiration from the Metro proposals to ask just what that scheme might do for our economy, the environment and the arts and culture of the city region.

What characterised the first two events – as well as the agenda for the third – was the conviction that things should be better and can be better, as long as government, at all levels, taps the imagination and creativity that abounds in our communities and does not use the necessary, or sometines trumped up demands of viability to crush all vision.

Both the Design Circle and the Design Commission events demonstrated how far we have come since the brutalist visions of the 1960s. The approach of the current generation of architects and designers to developing our towns and cities seems now, thank God, to be more granular, intimate and organic, assisting our living rather than forcing it into a concrete strait-jacket, emphasising well-being rather than efficient living. Gone are Le Corbusier’s notions of ‘”cleaning and purging the city”, replaced not only by a desire for more human architecture, but an acceptance, even a revelling in the inescapable messiness of cities.

The Design Circle event was, in the professional jargon, a design charette, sending six teams, each of ten people – architects, planners, artists, environmentalists, and others from civil society organisations in different fields – to six locations in Cardiff, Newport, Pontypridd and Nelson: sixty engaged people willing to devote a whole weekend day to explore the areas around likely Metro stations to see how those stations might act as a catalyst for wider development.

Back at base – the sadly empty old Cory building in Cardiff Bay – these teams worked on sketching plans to present to the others. This was not an attempt to draw up instantly realisable proposals, but rather to encourage people to think outside the box: a new station at Wedal Road reaching out from a high level rail line to link the northern and southern parts of Roath Park across the current confusing road junction; the centre of Pontypridd turned around to make full use of the Taff riverfront; the transport focus of Nelson shifted towards the railway to release the current sterile hard-edged centre in order to create something softer and greener, and for good measure, a new country park to make Nelson a destination rather than a mere city region suburb.

The Design Commission event, on the other hand, sought to explore the essential of place-making, and the barriers.

Marten Sims, of the Happy City consultancy – a company that rather obviously wears its heart on its sleeve – was keen to demonstrate the link between urban design and happiness, a concept that he believed was measurable. For instance, behavioural research had shown that those who lived near parks had a tendency to be more helpful, patients who could look out on nature recovered from illness more quickly.

He reminded his audience that much depended on the questions we asked: is our preoccupation with iconic buildings or with walkable cities, with grand design or with creating sociability, belonging and meaning – key elements of well-being? And in a telling juxtaposition he revealed that typing ‘Danish cyclist’ into Google brings up images of ordinary people cycling around their towns, whereas if you type in ‘Welsh cyclist’ all you bring up are Olympic competitors.

It speaks volumes about the respective planning priorities in each country, not to mention the British obsession with Olympic glory, and despite the fact that Wales allegedly leads the world in having a Well-being of Future Generations Act on the Welsh statute book.

At a more intimate level still Ashley Bateson, Head of Sustainability at Hoare Lea, spoke of the relationship between design and health and well-being at home, particularly the impact of design on relationships in the home. Is there a relationship between the fact that we build the smallest new homes in Europe, the decline of the family meal, or research findings that British children are among the least happy. Does the standard British suburb, with its emphasis on the single house and space for two cars, actively discourage social interaction?

Arguably, much of this is not knew. Echoes of the century old garden city movement are loud today, but if a different generation is coming to these matters anew, bolstered by a more comprehensive environmental agenda driven by climate change and notions of sustainability, it matters not.

One of the disappointments of events such as this is to see featured fine examples of developments in Scandinavia or even in the south east of England, without being able to point to developments of comparable quality here in Wales. It speaks volumes about the disconnect between our groaning shelves of fine policy documents and what manages to get through the planning net: few of our housing estates or the houses themselves even aspire to the very best practice.

Does no-one connect our shrinking space standards – the most common complaint amongst the occupants of new houses – and the fact that it is not a legal requirement on house-builders and estate agents to state clearly the precise internal area of the houses they are selling? This lacuna is crying out for a simple piece of remedial legislation by our National Assembly.

It will be interesting to see whether Loyn + Co – an architectural practice whose leader, Chris Loyn, deservedly found himself in the shortlist for this year’s Stirling Prize – will produce something we can all boast about at Porth Teigr in Cardiff Bay. If so it will be an indication that we have moved on from the disconnected tarmac acres of the International Sport Village that seem to spurn every sensible rubric on the other side of Cardiff’s lagoon.

There is a deep irony in the fact that just as the architects and urban designers are recognising the fundamentals of human interaction – that are both simple and complex at the same time – the most difficult connections to make are those between a widespread sensitive professional impulse on the one hand, and, on the other, cruder commercial operators and the practices of our governing authorities.

At the very moment when the design professionals – and the public – are crying out for a more imaginative and holistic approach, our local authority planning departments are being stripped of the people and skills that are needed to secure a better outcome for the public and for the future generations that Welsh legislation professes to care about.

The culture change in the professional community has not been matched by a similar culture change in Welsh local authorities. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the average age of the participants in both these events was, at my guess, around 35, rather younger than the average age of Wales’s councillors.

There are echoes here of the situation in Welsh education. Concern about standards in education has led to a recognition that our 22 local authorities would not be able to drive up standards unless they collaborated, hence the creation of regional education consortia. If local government is not going to be reorganised from the top down, is there now a case for the creation of regional planning consortia in which scarce skills and specialism can be shared? We have to find a way of making best practice travel faster and further.

That might also be a way of increasing the influence of the Design Commission for Wales that has done so much in the last decade and half to champion best practice and the lasting value of good design, albeit on pitifully small resources.

2 thoughts on “Metro – a springboard for better place-making?

  1. The rediscovery of “sense of place and space” in Wales, like everywhere else, will be a re-learning process for local authorities, planners, architects, transport engineers and civic society.

    Many – too many – years ago, planning schools offered the course “civic design,” with presentations from history to the present day of “places and spaces that work.” A slide tour around the Piazza San Marco in Venice was a personal favourite. We were encouraged to visit other places, and I went to Stockholm and to Rotterdam. Gordon Cullen’s “Townscape” was a course reference, although I had to develop a photographer’s eye to illustrate the features that he was able to capture with a pencil sketch. Architects with whom I worked on team projects were much better at it than a geographer could ever be.

    The meetings that you attended are a positive signal of what is needed in other parts of Wales, the smaller towns in particular. “Dolgellau: Understanding Urban Character,” published by Cadw. is an example of what can be done, given the availability of financial resources to produce a high quality publication. Although “Corwen Town Trail,” produced and published by the Denbighshire County Planning Department in the 1970’s is a modest, but equally useful document in the Gordon Cullen tradition. Danel Lleufer Thomas and his contribution to town planning in Wales is also worth noting as an interpreter of new ideas. Arthur Trystan Edwards, comes to mind, and Harold Carter on historic towns in Wales.

    I see the suite of new Welsh laws on sustainability, planning, environment and the historic environment , not only as a baseline for management, but also an opportunity to open civic dialogue on place, space and the environment in Wales. It is probably too early to expect that to happen in the twinkling of an eye, given that the laws only came into place in the past six months. But happen it must.

  2. Today’s architects may have moved on from the ‘brutalist’ designs of the past, but it seems at least some are not entirely deserving of the positive light the article paints them in. Whatever you may think about the design of the new structures in Powell Dobson’s impressions of a redeveloped Cardiff Central, there is no getting away from the fact that their design would involve brutal demolition of many parts of what is currently the most complete major GWR station of its time.

    One option would knock the clock off the top of the station and remove all the current platform structures, including the canopies. The tiled subway might also be in the firing line; these are part of the station’s listed building status and apparently the reason the station has a platform 0 (the platform numbers are written in the tiles) and the entire west wing of the northern frontage (currently home to M&S) has disappeared on Powell Dobson’s images.

    Particularly where listed buildings are concerned, architects should be working with what is already there in a sympathetic manner. In the case of Cardiff Central, extensions are necessary but these should avoid overpowering the existing structures and there should be zero demolition.

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