Responding to a call by the energetic Graham Allen MP (now retired), around 50 people gathered in a community centre, in the heart of a residential estate in north Nottingham, to carry out a Placecheck and discuss how better urban design could aid the area’s fortunes.
While Bulwell town centre is lively and vibrant, the outlying estates tell a different story. The driver’s impression is of spacious developments with large amounts of greenspace adjoining highways: the epitome of the 1950s/60s vision of how a residential area should be. But get out of the car and the picture changes – the housing arrangement is Radburnesque, and much has changed for the worse. Everywhere one looks there are six-foot fences, security fences, gates, CCTV, anti-vandal devices and roller shutters. The school and community centre are particularly well protected: rather like a safari park or youth offenders institution, with high-security gates.
In 2011 the Bulwell ward had unemployment running at over 15 per cent, with around 30 per cent of the working population having no qualifications. The area has been hard hit by the decline in manufacturing industry and pharmaceuticals. By 2015 the ward had the highest rate of unemployment in the UK. People are living on average 10 years less than those in more affluent wards of Nottingham. Smoking is thought to account for about half of the difference
The Placecheck was carried out through a walkabout involving a combination of local activists and residents, and professionals brought in by the Urban Design Group. Some participants uased the Placecheck app on thier smartphones or tablets, while others focused on looking and discussing. In the discussion at the community centre before the walkabout, Matthias Wunderlich, an urban designer from Urban Initiatives Studio, gave an insight into what it would take to create a self-build/custom build revival, including the idea of attracting people who are urban pioneers. Urban designer Laura Alvarez spoke of the need for regeneration to come from within the community. Graham Marshall warned against treating places as mere projects, and stressed the impact a place has on mental health and wellbeing. Ian Jenkinson advised that it can take 20 years persuasion, negotiation and preparation to bring a major employer into an area, and stressed the persistence needed in bringing about improvements in the public realm.
Robert Huxford, director of the Urban Design Group, illustrated the potential increase in land value from natural river restoration and architecture that makes the most of natural water. There was considerable potential for this in Bulwell. Huxford pointed to the need to rethink the role of highways – with schemes such as Poynton in Cheshire showing that attractive streetscapes can handle large flows of traffic (in Poynton’s case 26,000 vehicles a day and peaks of 2,500 vehicles an hour). Urban streets must not be designed as trunk roads, he said.
Huxford commented on the Placecheck web app: ‘We found it possible to rapidly populate the map with comments. The plus point is that, unlike with taking paper notes that have to be deciphered later when the energy is often at a low ebb, with the smartphone the note-taking keeps pace with the enthusiasm. The next stage is to run through the comments, looking for common themes, easy wins and inspired ideas for the longer term.’
Urban designer Laura Alvarez said: ‘It is young and middle-aged adults who are least likely to get involved in the future of places, and this is the very group who have the highest ownership of smartphones.’