Archive for the ‘Urban Design’ Category

Remarkable examples of beautiful and truly generous design are popping up all around the world. By generous, I mean places designed for people to use, enjoy and improve – at no cost and for no profit.  Here are five examples of which I am a big fan.

1. Copenhagen Harbour Baths, Denmark

I first visited the harbour baths when they opened in 2002. To this day I would still say that they are the single greatest example of generous and intelligent design anywhere in the world.  

The baths form part of Copenhagen harbour and are in water that only 15 years ago was so heavily polluted with sewage, algae, oil spills and industrial waste that it posed a tremendous health risk. Today, after extensive work on behalf of Copenhagen municipality, the water is clean for swimming and the harbour hosts five pools, two of which are for children, and three diving areas, catering for more than 600 people at any one time. On the bank, umbrellas and chairs have turned the area into a city centre beach. This is a remarkable area filled with leisure activities for all age groups.

 This is clearly not a PR stunt. This is magnificent generous design at work.  It has allowed people to colonise this once harbour area and make it one of the most popular spots in the city. I think it has been so successful and affective for four reasons:

1. It is different, edgy and it breaks the rules. Swimming in a harbour? With big ships? Open to hundreds of people at one time and unguarded diving boards! It is exciting and inviting and you know if you lived there you would have to have a go. 

2. The design is both beautiful and unique. Clearly, the function of a public bath would always be popular, but take a look it at. People cannot stop photographing it; social media pages and photo sites are filled with pictures taken from every angle. The look of it means people want to share their experience of being there and to talk about it.  Given nowadays many live by Twitter and Instagram, the baths do as good as any job in getting a place in front of people. Fantastic promotion.

3. It is not overly policed. The signs are ‘swim at your own risk’. You get to make your own decision. How liberating is that? Can you imagine this in a canal or somewhere in the UK? Health and safety alone would heavily alter it. Tight rules and restrictions are not part of the game here. Just enjoy yourselves.

4. It is free.  It’s genuinely for everyone. 

And, I should add, it cost just over £0.5m. It is staggering what can be achieved for what is, comparatively, an affordable amount for most cities. These baths have been so popular that another one just like them was opened at nearby Amager Strand Beach in January this year. This is place people want to copy. It is replicable because it works.  Just remarkable. 

2. Magdeburg Library, Germany 

Magdeburg, Germany, hosts an open air 24-hour free library. To do something so interesting in a city that is not a capital is really special. The rest of the story is even more interesting.

The industrial city was once part of East Germany and since reunification its city centre has had trouble recovering, with commercial vacancy rates approaching 80%. An extraordinary effort was made to create this open-air library after interest was expressed by residents, and it is remarkable that they pulled it off.

The library, designed by Karo architects, was initially assembled as a 1:1 scale made out of donated beer crates to demonstrate to potential supporters that the library could work. The community then raised enough money to build it. This is not just about an open-space library – it is also completely accessible to everyone. No registration is required. The 70,000 books available are borrowed on an honour system and it is staffed during the day by volunteers.

To do things like this, you have to give people the benefit of the doubt. And if you do, people will respond positively. In this case the benefit of being created by the community really works. The design and the place is so impressive and shows how simple it can be to offer something extraordinary to everyone.

3. Merida Youth Factory, Spain

The scale of this project in Spain is mind blowing. Described as ‘less a junky jungle gym and more a creative community centre’, the array of activities on offer is staggering, ranging from rock climbing to dancing. A skate park winds through the plazas connecting the buildings (almost all the ground is actually skateable), and there is a concert stage, lessons in street art lessons, circus training and, if you head indoors, music and dance.  And the whole place has Wi-Fi.  Have you ever seen anything like it?

This is such a draw for kids of all ages. The design is just brilliant – modern, vibrant and fresh. 
I am particularly enamoured with the approach towards skating. It really feels like it has been designed by people who know what skaters want. There are no assumptions and most importantly of all it is also not tucked away in a car park or somewhere the public cannot see. The message is that skating should be promoted, exposed and watched.  
Equally, it’s not just about skating. The activities are for all ages, interests and skills. The place itself is so colourful and open (designed inside out) it stops it turning into something shady or dangerous.  This is as good as it gets –  a purpose built modern version of a youth club.  

4. Stormwater pipes, India

This installation in India feels so right for the area it inhabits. Stormwater pipes are a common sight through cities in India. In Surat architect and designer urfun lab had an ingenious idea of covering one end of the pipes with coloured cellophane. When the evening sun filters through, beautiful and colourful patters are cast.  
It is an innovative and cheap way to create interesting design. The pipes are so visually exciting that people want to explore and create. It is as simple as it gets. 
Indians are often very good at upcycling and this is another example of that approach to improving something and giving it a whole new meaning.  It needs only the smallest budget – and some creative thinking. 

5. Blackpool Comedy Carpet, UK

Created by artist Gordon Young, and designed in collaboration with Why Not Associates, the Blackpool Comedy Carpet is a celebration of comedy on an extraordinary scale. Referring to the work of more than 1,000 comedians and comedy writers, the carpet gives visual form to jokes, songs and catchphrases dating from the early days of variety to the present. Sited in front of Blackpool Tower, the 2,200m2 work of art contains more than 160,000 granite letters embedded into concrete, pushing the boundaries of public art and typography to their limits.

A remarkable homage to those who have made the nation laugh, it is also a stage that celebrates entertainment itself.

More than anything else, I love how many mentions I have seen in the press. If there is one thing Blackpool needs, it is positive press. 
This is urban design and art in the landscape working together in a seamless and perfect fashion. It celebrates kitsch, history and modernity, and has something for all tastes.

Visitors love the Comedy Carpet and they cannot stop photographing it and talking about it. Just look it up on Twitter or flickr or Google images, it is staggering how many images you’ll see. Bingo – success. 


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Birkenhead Park 01l

*Boat House Birkenhead Park

As with much of our publically funded services these days our parks and open spaces are chronically underfunded. I don’t need to harp on again about the value to our lives in terms of health, social cohesion and happiness and not to say land values, as the past few years have seen a proliferation of research that finally proves this. And whilst it’s important to keep reminding councils and central government about the value of funding open space and parks and the money it can save in health and fitness related areas, nothing is going to change in a hurry in terms of significant increases in central funding.
There is still also an obsession with communities taking control and looking after these spaces but people are under pressure holding down jobs, paying mortgages, making ends meet and the level of community involvement in managing and looking after parks and recreational space has probably plateaued for the time being.

Taking The Lead From The Victorians

Wherever I travel I always take my running stuff and seek out town and city parks to run through. The national legacy of urban parks instigated by the Victorians is one of our greatest urban assets. It often wasn’t central or local government or communities who created or funded these parks but, rather, wealthy local landowners or industrialists often acting, primarily out of self-interest (with a coating of philanthropy) to give them a shiny gloss with the community, local authorities or their workers.


*Joseph Paxton Birkenhead Park

An example of this would be one of the earliest public parks, Joseph Paxton’s Birkenhead Park, which was part of a residential development scheme to create an attractive setting for new homes and to recoup the costs through the property sales. Flanked on all sides by handsome houses and wide tree-lined boulevards, Birkenhead Park was the inspiration for New York’s Central Park.

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*Central Park, New York

At lunchtime some of us go out from the HemingwayDesign offices for a run or to the outdoor gym in the almost always semi-deserted King Edward VII Park Wembley (it’s a hundred years old in July this year) whilst it’s generally tidy it does feel a tad under loved and lacking in decent seating, interesting planting and has none of the kind of creative touches seen in more central parks or in parks and open spaces in wealthier boroughs. Judging by the hi-visibility vests with ‘Community Payback’ printed on the back, some of the maintenance is clearly done by ‘offenders’ who are being ‘rehabilitated’. Whilst this may have some benefits to society, it doesn’t seem to be resulting in a particularly uplifting finished result in terms of thorough litter collection of creative landscaping!

Potential Modern Day Solutions

On my way back to the office though it isn’t hard to see potential modern day solutions to the ‘self-interest’ model. Over a hill within a few hundred metres, development specialists Quintain have developed The London Designer Outlet, and have created apartments for thousands of people (with more in construction). Surely it would be a selling point for Quintain to promote the park as an extension of the Wembley Park brand that they are investing in so heavily? It should help them attract viewings and buyers.

Wembley Stadium and Wembley Arena are two of the nation’s primary sports and leisure venues and hundreds of thousands of people flock to Wembley to attend events. The surrounding residential streets become littered with folk waiting for gates to open, people sit on garden walls or just wander or end up waiting in boring burger bars and kebab shops because there is nowhere to go. Yet, un-signposted and a very short diversion from the route from transport hubs and car parks is King Edward VII Park, somewhere where folk could take their take away and watch a squirrel or two away from the traffic fumes. Surely the Stadium and Arena would benefit in terms of goodwill from having the park as part of their marketing in terms of ‘things to do while you’re here in Wembley’?

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*The London Designer Outlet

The building of large scale student accommodation continues apace in Wembley and some very large hotel chains have and are opening. Surely there is scope for all of these to have a good quality urban green space as part of their ‘sales pitch’ to the public.

So why isn’t ‘self-interest’ corporate funding of parks more prevalent? I suspect part of it is a reticence and fear of linking sponsorship with public amenities. To some this is seen as crass and inappropriate. But there definitely will be ways of ensuring that sponsorship and corporate funding of our green spaces isn’t crass.

Let’s get on and make it happen.

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I have been reading this week about a report from Savills, The Rise of The Shoebox Unit which talks about celebrating bedsit style accommodation in our cities as the Japanese do. This is all very well is the centre of London with all its social and employment benefits. But the concept of shoebox living doesn’t work in some of the communities that my company is working in.

One of most sustainable things we can do with our housing is to build housing that allows the development of a mixed and balanced community and that represents the needs and aspirations of all aspects of the population.

We all know of examples of where concentrations of monocultural housing can lead to serious social issues. The town I was born in, Morecambe, like many seaside towns has suffered tremendously by HMO concentrations caused by well meaning but seriously flawed housing benefits policies whereby it became financially beneficial for private landlords to subdivide their properties into multi occupancy and particularly into bedsits.

At HemingwayDesign we have been working in Boscombe , the most deprived ward in the South West, a coastal ward of Bournemouth which is ranked as the 113th most deprived ward out of 32, 482 wards nationally.

Our project was to look at the issues of a conservation area of Boscombe, Churchill Gardens, which whilst containing some lovely old properties set around a nice green square, had developed a negative reputation within the wider Bournemouth community.

There are 86 properties in Churchill Gardens subdivided into 345 homes. These homes are broken down into 191 bedsits 131 self contained flats and 13 family homes. Of these 345 homes only 33 are owner occupied, the balance, 312 are in the private rental sector. 55 per cent of the properties are bedsits compared to a national average of around 2 per cent. Only 3.8 per cent of the homes are family homes compared to over 60 per cent nationally. In short Churchill Gardens is so far out of kilter with normality that it is almost inevitable that it will be perceived as being “a freak” by the wider community and with its lack of a balanced and mixed community, experience shows that the social issues that exist there could easily be predicted.

We were introduced to a local private landlord with over 3000 properties in the area and was keen to try and help address the issues within Churchill Gardens and  some produced by the landlord were real eye openers and clearly  showed how financially beneficial it is to convert large properties to bedsits.


One of our conclusions was that the tenure mix must be closer to the regional and national situation. It is clearly not possible for this to happen in giant steps but a “chain reaction” needs setting off to start the transformation.

To achieve even baby steps would require a significant shift from the current preponderance of bedsits to a mix of flats and houses that starts to get closer to representing the regional and national balance.

In the absence of any planning/legal powers to achieve this then it would rely on the goodwill of landlords who are economically successful with the current status quo.

And then comes the bombshell, the new Local Housing Allowance will certainly result in demand for smaller accommodation growing. From January benefit claimants aged 35 and under can only claim the single room allowance rather than the allowance for a one bed property. In Boscombe the estimate is that 550 claimants will be negatively impacted. This will have the negative knock on impact of increasing demand for bedsits. The result is that wards like Boscombe will suffer unless there is an understanding that one size doesn’t fit all.

Therefore it is imperative that some council’s can seek to agree one area lettings policy with all landlords in the area to assist developing mixed communities and reduce housing management issues related to single person households. Landlords need to be encouraged (through local tax benefits?) to convert bedsits to larger units to balance the offer.

However in the absence of any planning/legal powers to achieve this then it would rely on the goodwill of landlords who are economically successful with the current status quo.


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Leigh Park, near Havant, in Hampshire  has a terrible reputation. The website chavtowns.co.uk starts off

“Once the largest council estate in Europe, Leigh Park has a long tradition of chavness and could well be the origin of all Chavs upon this Earth. (were there any evidence that anyone’s moved out since 1959)”

I don’t like the term “Chav” and the website goes on and becomes much nastier.

Leigh Park is the result of re housing families from the WW11 bombing of Portsmouth. 27,500 people live there and the reputation would have you believe that all 27,000 are out setting fire to vagrants on benches as happened a few years ago.

My 14 year old was playing a match against a local Leigh Park team and during his pre match training / warm up I went on a run to explore Leigh Park. Yes the shopping parades are tad bleak in parts, and there is far too much litter, but there has clearly been significant investment in community facilities and there is no excuse for kids to be bored, with  great  facilities, play areas and wonderful wooded areas with streams to play in and den building opportunities a plenty. Yet the youth of Leigh Park have a terrible reputation amongst those that don’t live there.

Leigh Park

Anyhow I came back from my run, thinking that Leigh Park’s reputation as a “hell hole” was not deserved at all. Yes the 50s, 60s and 70s flats and  houses are mostly unattractive (with lots of grim pebbledash), but it certainly wasn’t threatening nor did it feel like it needed raising to the ground as so many people from outside the area often comment it should be!

However the football match clouded my view. In 19 years of watching my kids play football I have never seen anything like it. If some of the local kids’ foul language on the pitch wasn’t enough then the latent violence exuded from the parents and the blatant cheating from the local referee and linesman (who cheered and clenched their fists when their team scored!) was very sad indeed. At times it felt like watching another species. All human decency and morals seemed to have been replaced by aggression, nastiness and a reveling in getting one over “the opposition” at all costs. It seemed sub human behaviour and left me numb and sad and wondering if there was any hope. What had made these these people become so disenfranchised? Whether it’s the equality gap, or just a breakdown in human values, as a society we had better sort it out!

I am not going to elaborate other than to say that I left thinking it may not matter how much money is invested by a council and support agencies in a deprived area, if the parents lead by bad example, the kids are likely to grow into equally nasty people.

Sad sad Sunday indeed.

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I have great respect for Mary Portas, she has a good eye for retail, understands fashion and style. But maybe she doesn’t have a grasp on successful town planning, and liveability. To give up on the notion of successful, vibrant Town Centres and High Streets is to give up on the sociability of mankind. 2008 was the year that a significant tipping point was reached whereby more people lived in towns and cities than in rural locations. For the overwhelming majority this is a lifestyle choice. One of the reasons that mankind has moved out of caves and developed a sophisticated society is because, on the whole, we get on with each other. Towns and cities give us easy access to being able to “get on”, access to employment, culture, services, shopping and in well planned places, well maintained and useable green space. (more…)

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There are a number of historical social housing estates, built philanthropically that I have had the pleasure to visit, Lever’s (as in soap) Port Sunlight, Joseph Rowntree’s (as in sweets) New Earswick Estate in York and Bournville (as in chocolate) in Birmingham.

All are wonderfully liveable estates that have stood the test of time, been well maintained and are without doubt desirable.

They show how it is possible to do “social housing” and to avoid the pitfalls that result in vast sums being spent on regeneration. Housing providers and planners need to regularly visit these precedents to remind themselves to stop delivering the dross that has become commonplace over the past few decades.

It was heartening to hear that Kraft (the new American owners of Cadbury) have understood Cadbury’s heritage an decided to make its “global chocolate centre” at its historical home, Bournville.

Great decision and I am sure that the Cadbury employees are going to enjoy working in this environment that the founders of the brand left as a wonderful housing legacy…

For more information on Bournville click here
And here are some pics…

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As a kid and then when Gerardine and I were courting, I loved going to Southport for its beach that never seemed to end (its often a mile and half walk out to the sea), for its pier that never seems to end (it’s the second longest pier in the UK), for those views across  to Blackpool Tower and for its shopping street, Lord Street, that again just seems to go on forever.

Like many British seaside resorts, Southport’s fortunes waned during the 80s and 90s. However a few years ago when I started to see pictures of the modern pavilion that had been built on the pier I felt this was the sign of a forward thinking council that understood the role that great design could play in regeneration. So Gerra and I took a detour and went to visit Southport. The new pier pavilion does in fact look cool.

In our Land of Lost Content collection of 20th century British memorabilia we have some great images showing Southport in its heyday .

This picture below shows the old pier pavilion

And this one shows the prom in the 30s

So imagine our horror when at the other end of the pier this carbuncle had been built on the prom …the last buildings before the lovely beach

I have nothing against a cinema, restaurant chains and a bowling alley being on the prom, BUT  having them housed in god-awful industrial boxes, surrounded by crap landscaping and totally turning their back on the prom (the entrances face inland with blank walls facing the sea… it creates an ugly, uninteresting face to the sea)  is just downright stupid and goes against common sense never mind good planning practice.

What were the planners thinking ?

They have just consigned Southport’s sea front to needing substantial regen money needing to be spent on it in the not too distant future and for what it’s worth, this family won’t be going back in a hurry !

I am sick of writing moans about bad planning so I am going to end this on  a good note, enjoy this movie I took on our way back to the car…it cheered me up anyway!

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