UK: Successful urban regeneration - The pursuit of experience

In this article, leading international urban design and masterplanning expert, Adrian Griffiths, discusses the key elements that need to be brought together to create successful UK urban regeneration projects.

Architects, surprisingly, may not be your first choice to design the urban environments of the future. After seven years of study, whilst many have learnt how to design a building or series of “spaces”, these can tend to be restricted to a style either inherited from the tutors or adopted as being “where things are at” currently. Egos, ready to explode onto the architectural world, may lead to stylised schemes which quickly lose their vibrancy as time progresses.

As an architect, I am not decrying the profession as I recognise the many gifted hands that have helped create our great cities over many generations; cities that possess vibrancy, variety and most importantly, longevity.

However, while our city centres have evolved over many years, today’s challenge is to regenerate major quarters in one go. Having also trained as an Urban Designer, I see the benefits of this skill-set, which in many respects is the opposite to that of an architect, focusing on the spaces contained by the buildings rather than the buildings themselves. This ability to create environments through an understanding of streets, spaces and connections, without getting distracted by the architectural imagery, is fundamental when delivering successful and sustainable regeneration.

Blending of architectural and urban design disciplines is a necessity

The reality is that we need to blend both professions, and complement these skill sets with a true understanding of the commercial aspects that create successful urban environments. Our cities are mixed-use, and the most appropriate regeneration projects are those which embrace this concept and plan the various uses to complement each other.

​Retail and leisure sit at the heart of our social communities and these uses play a key part as a catalyst for regeneration.

Successful urban environments don’t just happen, they are created

Successful urban environments must be tenant-mixed from the outset, further skills that the architect and urban designer need to possess. In particular, these are:

·  The ability to appreciate and understand how the various uses should be combined to deliver a vibrant and exciting experience, to ensure commercial success.

·  The ability to understand the urban environments ‘brand’ we are to create, as this needs to be evident within the schemes we design.

The importance of creating the experience and sense of place

There is much to learn from history by studying the world’s great cities to evaluate why these places offered such a wonderful experience. 200 years ago, the high street was a vibrant trading and social centre, but it has been undermined over time by the arrival of the department store, supermarket, out of town retail and the internet, to name but a few. Even the arrival of the “fridge” took away the need for farmers to sell their fresh goods from a market stall on a daily basis. When the fair and circus came to town, they filled the streets and squares with activity, contributing to the all-round experience.

I am critical of places from Dubai to Milton Keynes, where a knee-jerk reaction to rapid development has taken place, with little thought given to creating a sense of place.

While retail and leisure destinations around the world respond to their particular culture, context and climate, most require the same ingredients. The retail environment is changing, and, in many respects, we are moving back to where the high street historically used to be. We are seeing some department stores down-sizing or even shutting down, with the displaced brands relocating back to the high street and into their own building, designed to represent their brand. The same is true of the supermarket, with an increase in demand for the local basket shop allowing people to buy what they want on the day that they want it. There is also the return of market stalls popping up and selling fresh niche produce, complementing what is already available.

In terms of leisure, the concept of entertaining at home is in decline, with the preference of the millennials being to spend their disposable income on an experience and eating out. The food and beverage market now provides for a much wider cultural offer, and complements the day-out experience, which may also include for a trip to the cinema or an extreme sports adventure.

We must recognise this change in customer expectations and design our environments accordingly. These activities will not happen unless they are planned for from the outset. 

Creating a strong brand and identity matters if schemes are to be successful

Some world-leading companies, such as Google, Microsoft, Westfield, Apple, Nike, BMW and Disney, specialise in the field of delivering an experience. This “experiential” approach is the keystone in all their branding, advertising and building projects. Indeed, to be successful, the “message” from these companies weave through everything they present to the outside world. It is this ability to weave a story successfully from start to finish that one needs to understand to be able to create the experience within regeneration projects.

Taking one extreme, Disney is arguably the market leader in the design of theme parks, one of the most successful destinations and formats in the world. When mentioning the name Disney, we should not automatically think about architectural style, but the successful masterplanning of the activities that make these destinations work.

Designing the shopping experience starts with a clear understanding of the brand and the proposed mix of uses that work with, and support, the brand and its promotion of the retail offer. In addition, the ability to swiftly change and adapt to allow environments to keep pace with the modern world has never been so important as it is today.

A variety of uses creates an 'experience'

For many years, developers were single-use focused, but now most understand other complementary uses are required to ensure a more rounded offer. A town- or city-centre destination could include retail, restaurants, community uses, culture, workplace, residential, hotels, the arts, museums etc. It is the blending of the uses into a seamless experience that is the “Art of the Future”.

Chapman Taylor excels in this department for a number of key reasons. Firstly, we blend both the skills of architecture and urban design with the knowledge of how to deliver the experience, without the constraints of working to a fixed architectural style and principle. Secondly, our experience in helping to deliver the larger developments of today takes heed of the fact that these schemes are often delivered in one phase, unlike our city centres.

Being in control of the masterplanning, tenant mix and urban environment, having a keen awareness of brand identity and, lastly, being able to create a variety of architectural styles appropriate for their culture and context, has enabled Chapman Taylor to become world leaders in the design and delivery of major projects. These projects offer viable mixed-use solutions with a memorable experience - the mark of a successful development that will stand the test of time.

About the Author

Adrian Griffiths (BA (Hons) Dip Arch RIBA MA Urban Design FRSA)

Board Director, UK

Adrian joined Chapman Taylor in 1986 and was promoted to the Main Board in 1998. As an architect and urban design specialist, he is recognised internationally for his expertise in the masterplanning of major complex mixed-use developments which are key drivers in the regeneration of our town and city centres.

Adrian is conscious of the fact that the developments we build today create the societies of tomorrow, recognising the responsibility the profession has in influencing the quality of people’s lives. He regularly speaks at conferences and prepares papers which promote the benefits of mixed-use developments as a sustainable model for the long term. Adrian leads the Concept Design Team in the UK.

Areas of expertise:

Urban design /  Masterplanning /  Mixed use / Retail / Leisure

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