Climax City

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Sowerby Bridge Wharf

This piece was written as an assessment report for the Academy of Urbanism Awards in September 2012.

In 1996 a boat arrived in Sowerby Bridge that had travelled over from Manchester on the newly reopened Rochdale Canal. In the same year the Sowerby Bridge Wharf Partnership was formed bringing together local businesses and leaseholders, English Heritage, The Civic Trust and Yorkshire Forward coordinated by the Prince’s regeneration Trust. This was the culmination of a campaign dating back to the mid 1970s to highlight the importance and the potential of Sowerby Bridge Wharf. The restoration of the Rochdale Canal had been achieved by stealth, through a series of environmental improvements that had restored sections of the canal even when the reopening of the whole seemed impossible.  Meanwhile a campaign had been fought in Sowerby Bridge to prevent the canal basin being filled in for use as a car park. 1996 may have been the end of these long campaigns, but it was also the start of a process that would see the refurbishment of the wharf and its development as a place for leisure and business.

The first canal boat had arrived in Sowerby Bridge in 1759. The extraordinary thing about this date is that – as children across the UK are taught through the National Curriculum – the world’s first industrial canal, built by the Duke of Bridgewater, wouldn’t be opened for another three years. The ‘canal’ in Sowerby Bridge was not a canal at all, but the end of the Calder and Hebble Navigation, a system, of engineering works to make navigable the waterways running from the Pennines down to the ports of the east coast. Then in 1804 another canal arrived in Sowerby Bridge when the Rochdale Canal was cut through the Pennines creating a link to the textile towns of Lancashire and the ports of the Mersey.

The problem was that the boats on the Rochdale Canal were too long to fit through the locks on the Calder and Hebble Navigation and the smaller boats from the east were too inefficient to take through the bigger locks on the Rochdale particularly given the problems of water supply. So Sowerby Bridge became the transhipment point between the canal systems from the two sides of the country as well as an important port for the surrounding textile towns.  Just as Sowerby Bridge sits in a pivotal position of the UK’s canal network so it occupies a similarly important position in the history of the canals. It’s earliest warehouse – romantically called Warehouse 4 – dates from 1770 and is one of the earliest canal warehouses in the country. The adjacent Salt Warehouse was built in 1790s and on the slope above the basin is a complete set of buildings including the weighing house, the overseer’s house, stables and extraordinary mixed-use building with warehousing on the lower floors at the canal level, and a Methodist Sunday school above accessed from the high street.

Such is the evident important of the complex that it comes as no surprise to see the wharf cherished and refurbished. However as with so many regeneration stories, what seems obvious in hindsight was anything but at the beginning. Even in 1996 after the battle of the car park had been won, and the campaign to reopen the Rochdale canal succeeded, regeneration was far from inevitable and there were still battles to be fought. One of these was to prevent apartments being built on the wharf, something that had been proposed in a masterplan prepared for British Waterways. Another was to persuade British Waterways that it didn’t need to achieve best value on the site but could weigh this against heritage issues.

The wharf was already is a pretty poor state of repair when the waterways were nationalised in 1948 and it went down hill from there. In the 1970s British Waterways sold a lease on the site to a local person who gave undertakings to refurbish the complex, something that he was never able to do. At the time the people on the site were the Sea Scouts. The lessee let the buildings to three sub-lessees and when in the 1990s pressure from British Waterways caused the head lease be put on the market, it was the three tenants who were instrumental in bringing in the Prince’s Regeneration Trust and forming the Sowerby Bridge Wharf Partnership to spearhead the area’s regeneration.

The problem was that British Waterways were insistent that they were required to make a commercial return on the buildings, which made it impossible for the partnership to put together a viable scheme. Representations were made to the Commons Select Committee on Environment and Transport who made a site visit led by their formidable Chair Gwyneth Dunwoody MP. The committee made it clear in no uncertain terms that the British Waterways position was wrong not correct, opening up the way for the partnership to buy out the head lease so that regeneration could proceed. By that time Warehouses 1 and 2 had already been refurbished by British Waterways but the Salt Warehouse and No. 4 Warehouse were in a very poor state. A cocktail of funding was put together by the partnership amounting to £2.7 Million including funding from Yorkshire Forward, the Council, English Heritage, Lottery and investment from British Waterways. Since that time the two vacant workspaces have been refurbished for business use. The road access to the wharf has been improved and widened and the gatehouse converted to a café with a new sculpture by Roger Burnett on the high street. On the hillsider the overseers house has been refurbished for a dental surgery with the stables below providing creative workspace. The wharf itself is busy with moorings and the comings and goings of Shire Cruisers who operate the boat yard and a leisure fleet from the basin.

The wharf has become a lively part of Sowerby Bridge life. In addition to business space the warehouses include a number of pubs and restaurants, which have become part of the leisure circuit in the town. It is also provides the venue for the culmination of the Sowerby Bridge Rushbearing Festival which involves a maiden, a rush cart and a good deal of real ale.

There were those on the academy visit who questioned why the wharf was not livelier, and wondered whether the partnership was right to be so against any housing development. It is true that the wharf is a real place of work so that the major apartment scheme proposed in the past would have been inappropriate. However it is not clear what harm that a greater mix of uses would do to the attractions of the wharf or to its existing occupiers. This may be slightly symptomatic of the drawbacks of a heritage led approach to regeneration that, for example, bemoans the replacement of timber piling on one of the warehouses from a heritage perspective despite this not being visible and worried about a contemporary lift shaft added to another building. From the perspective of an urbanist there would be value in encouraging some modest development to create a more clearly defined public realm and a greater intensity and variety of uses.

Notwithstanding this, the achievement of Sowerby Bridge Wharf is impressive. It would be impressive in a large city, but to create a regeneration project of this size in a town of less than 10,000 people is remarkable. The Wharf is now home to 270 jobs and a range of start up and relocated businesses. It is testament to the determination of a group of people over many years who have created a special place and one that has transformed the town.

 


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Bradford City Park

This piece was written as an assessment report for the Academy of Urbanism Awards in September 2012 and in November 2012 City Park won the Academy’s Great Place award.

The city park in Bradford is an extraordinary place. The academy members who arrived for the assessment visit did so with no great expectations. Many places after all have installed water features in recent years and the technology is such that they are all very impressive. But Bradford City Park – or ‘Bradpool’ as local people have started to call it – is different. It is urban theatre on a grand scale and like the neighbouring Alhambra Theatre, the attraction is not so much the stage set, impressive as it is, but the actors.

So successful has been the pool that Primark regularly sells out of socks and towels at the weekend. On the overcast Monday morning of the Academy visit it gradually filled with people as the pool filled with water over a five hour cycle. And these were all the people of Bradford, youths on bikes, elderly people, women in burkas, students, families – a happy, relaxed mix of people rarely seen in British cities (other perhaps than on a beach) and certainly not in Bradford. It’s a place that makes you think that Bradford is going to be OK and makes you believe that the physical environment of a place really can be transformative.

Bradford is Britain’s great, lost provincial city. Bigger than Sheffield, Newcastle and Bristol and once richer than all of its peers, it has fallen on hard time in recent years. This is partly the result of bad luck, partly bad timing and, it must be admitted partly self-inflicted. Despite all of the money and effort expended on the city, most recently by the Urban Regeneration Company, precious little has been achieved even through the years of economic boom. With the worst possible timing, Westfield demolished part of the retail core, dug a big hole in the ground and were then forced to stop work on the new shopping centre as the credit crunch decimated the retail sector. Elsewhere flagship projects like the Chanel Urban Village were shelved while the redevelopment of the former Odeon became embroiled in a protracted campaign by heritage groups. This soured relationships so badly that there were even protesters at the opening of the City Park as the rest of the city celebrated.

Meanwhile the jewel in the crown, the Mirror Pool – as City Park was originally called – failed to secure funding from the Big Lottery. To have built City Park in the face of all of this adversity is an act of sheer bloody-minded will power. It became an all or nothing issue, if Bradford could do this one thing then anything would become possible!

The story starts in 2003 when the URC Commissioned Will Alsop to produce a masterplan for Bradford City Centre. The central idea of the masterplan was that Bradford no longer had sufficient demand to build on all of its vacant sites and so should turn them over to a linear park running through the city centre. At the heart of this new park stood City Hall in a natural bowl. The Alsop team suggested that this bowl be flooded to create a pool, which would wrap around the City Hall. The impact of the Alsop masterplan is still the subject of some debate. This was summed up by Daniel Cunningham wrote in Estates Gazette in 2005; ‘When Bradford’s urban regeneration company put Will Alsop’s masterplan on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in February, some back in Yorkshire thought a building full of whimsical works of imagination was the best place for it. Alsop’s vision for the former wool town, complete with a “business forest”, man-made lake and plenty of space to think and meet, left many local agents scratching their heads, even if it did grab the attention of Manhattan’s art lovers’.

However the ambition and imagination of the plan, unconstrained as it was by practicality and economic viability, gave birth to an idea that, even in a much reduced state has an originality and power that shines through today (even if Alsop himself worries that the concept has been too compromised). The pool in the original plan would have required the demolition of the city’s main Police Station and Magistrates Court. As luck would have it the police were planning to reduce their presence on the site but there was no way that the court could be moved. The eventual design for the park therefore covered less than half of the area envisaged in the original plan.

The process of transforming the original vision into today’s reality included a Neighbourhood Development Framework developed by ARUPs and eventually a design competition that was won by Gillespies. The plan was developed and became the subject to an application to the Big Lottery Fund. However conflict and debate continued to dog the proposals and when the planning application was submitted to committee it was very nearly refused (requiring the casting vote of the chair). Subsequent to this came the news that the Lottery funds had not been secured.

It was that evening, in one of the function rooms of the Victoria Hotel that had been booked to celebrate the announcement of Lottery funding, that the council and Yorkshire Forward committed themselves, come-what-may to delivering the pool/park. It was about this time that a new broom started sweeping through the city, instigated through the appointment of Tony Reeves as the new Chief Executive and a new set of senior officers, including Barra MacRuarie as Strategic Director of Culture and Regeneration. As Barra told us during the academy visit, at his job interview he said that his aim would be to allow Bradford people to become tourists in their own city. To this end he committed himself to delivering City Park, setting aside two hours every Thursday Evening to meet with the project manager Shelagh O’Neill. As he told us, when you get to the end of a project the problems disappear, but problems there were throughout the development and construction of the scheme.

The result might be expected to be a slightly compromised version of the original vision, as Will Alsop feared – but it isn’t, its brilliant! As Sheilagh told us, when the sun comes out, as it occasionally does in Bradford, something magic happens. And on que, just as the presentations to the Academy finished the sun came out and the atmosphere changed as the space filled with happy relaxed people. As we were told Bradford people are still learning how to use the space, exploring its possibilities and (there is no other word for it) playing. This is helped greatly by a hands-off style of management. Before it opened there was a great deal of debate about issues like alcohol, skateboards and bikes and anti-social behaviour. The brave decision was to say that the management would only intervene to prevent behaviour that risked damaging the space or harming its users. We watched kids circling in the water on BMX bikes and at lunch time people in the surrounding bars were drinking alcohol. The mix of people however means that no one group dominates the space and so far at least happy balance is being maintained.

The next step is to programme the space. This started in spectacular fashion with the opening event that was reminiscent of the best days of the Bradford Festival. This September has hosted the World Curry Festival and there are developing plans for it to be programmed throughout the year. At present the budget and management capacity to do this is limited and the council are aware that they need to build activity up slowly. However it is a resource for Bradford that the city will learn how to use.

The opening of City Park hopefully heralds a new confidence in the city. The successful completion of new offices for Provident Insurance on an adjacent site has secured 1,000 jobs in the city centre. Provident have made clear that they would have moved out of the centre had they not been convinced that the City Park would happen. The city has also won its bid to be UNESCO City of Film and is exploring the idea of a City Centre Growth Zone (as opposed to an enterprise zone) using rates relief to regenerate the city centre and… the next priority to kick start the Westfield scheme. City Park is therefore much more than another fancy city centre water feature it is potentially the point at which Bradford’s fortunes started to change.