I make websites for a living, I run Chapeau in my spare time.
21st March, 2013
Recently I attended the CURE conference at firstsite and it really got me thinking. You can read my first thoughts on the cross roads Colchester is facing in its regeneration plans here.
This is part two: how does a town’s history and heritage fit into its plans moving forward?
Colchester proudly proclaims to be “Britain’s Oldest Recorded Town” at every opportunity it gets, and rightly so! Referenced in the first century AD by the Romans, and maintained as a key Norman stronghold, our history is something to be incredibly proud of. We’re a garrison town, a historic port, and Paxman’s is a Colchester institution responsible for much development in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
However, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of becoming obsessed with a town’s history at the cost of its future. Of course it is important not to forget a town’s history, but not moving forward under the pretence of “preservation” can do more harm than good - especially in times such as those we are currently facing where innovation and radical change may well play a large part in financially ‘saving’ the town in the long term.
I regularly read in the local paper about people’s disgust at yet another development which will destroy Colchester’s character and whitewash its history, yet they are perfectly happy to sit by and watch as icons such as Jumbo are left to rot. It is perfectly understandable to want to protect your town from soulless over-development, but the balance is struck by caring for what you’ve fought to protect in the long term. This hypocrisy makes me wonder if people really do care about the town’s history, or if they are just scared of change.
So, how do we strike this balance? I’d argue that more could be done to reuse old buildings and integrate them into modern developments. An almost hyperbolic example of this is the Louvre in Paris. Modern additions to the original 12th Century building were controversial at the time but left a clear defining line between old and new. One can still appreciate the history of the building, but it serves a modern purpose. We could learn a lot from this kind of preservation. Include historical, important or interesting build in modern developments, rather than erasing all traces of them. Naming streets in memory of what was once there simply doesn’t cut it.
At the CURE conference we heard about the work undertaken in Hagen, Germany, to repurpose a huge 19th Century factory complex that had been abandoned but still dominated an area of the city. Through sensitive restoration and development they have breathed new life into a previously derelict monument to the city’s past. It looks fantastic, serves a modern purpose and is a nice nod to the city’s manufacturing past.
So, in a rather round about way, I come to my point. How do we strike the balance between moving forward and remembering the past? In some cases it’s impossible or impractical to preserve the original structures, so other efforts should be made such as social history projects. But I believe that, where possible, we should try our absolute hardest to re-purpose existing buildings and develop around them to compliment or even emphasise them.
Of course change is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be destructive or insensitive to a town’s history and heritage. What do you think?
15th March, 2013
Yesterday I went along to the Creative Urban Renewal in North-West Europe (CURE) conference at firstsite. I’ve been involved in a few CURE-funded/supported projects in Colchester through working with the Creative Coop, so I was interested to find out what kind of things our counterparts are up to elsewhere in Europe.
The presentations I saw throughout the day explained what was happening in cities like Utrecht, Dublin, Edinburgh and Hagen under CURE funding. The only problem with bringing in local authorities, town planners and academics is that things can get a bit dry, i’d have loved to have heard from some of the people ‘on the ground’ as it were. However, when Maarten de Wolff spoke about the Beehive in Amsterdam that my ears pricked up! Beyond his charisma and enthusiasm, it was obvious that he has accumulated a huge amount of experience and knowledge from the projects he’s involved with - something he was not afraid to share with us.
The Beehive is a network of creative spaces set up in less well-off neighbourhoods in Amsterdam in an effort to regenerate them. Neighbourhoods like Niew-West suffer from enormous amounts of empty properties as well as prostitution and social deprivation. This isn’t anything new, and we’d heard plenty of stories from the other delegates about their efforts to achieve something similar and solve similar problems in their own cities.
Where Maarten’s approach differs is that he has accomplished this with little or no public money. Instead he explained how he approached local housing cooperatives and asked them to put up a small amount of capital and allow him to use some of their vacant properties to set up social hubs which can pay to run themselves without subsidy. This brings people into neighbourhoods which may have otherwise been regarded as off-limits, and creates an atmosphere of positivity and regeneration.
The Beehive includes a cinema, theatre, shops, a cafe/bar as well as creative desk space; the idea being that it’s all well and good bringing people into an area, the real challenge is keeping them there.
The result of his entrepreneurship has been a lasting regeneration effect, despite his own admission that projects like this have a finite lifespan.
So what can we learn for Colchester?
Positivity, hard work, smart business modelling and, most importantly, belief and a longer-term outlook can result in amazing things. There’s a tendency for local authorities and planners to think of a ‘master plan’ or ‘legacy’ in terms of creating a long-term solution immediately. The most crucial thing to take away from planning regeneration is NOT to plan too much, it has to be organic.
I’ve said it before, but we’re incredibly lucky in Colchester with projects like the Old Waiting Rooms and fifteen Queen Street. We are right on the cusp of change, it could be something amazing and long lasting or it could just be a flash in the pan and back to the same old problems.
What’ll it be?
You can view Maarten de Wolff’s presentation online here.
5th February, 2013
2nd February, 2013
19th December, 2012