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Bradford Alhambra Theatre

How revamped public spaces can transform communities

Mike Plaster
Wednesday 14th September, 2016

How revamped public spaces can transform communities  

At a time when our towns and cities are becoming increasingly homogenised, the role played by public spaces has never been more vital. With a coffee chain on each corner and a hangar-sized supermarket on the edge of every town, heritage is steadily being replaced by convenience. If towns are to retain their sense of identity, and their all-important sense of community, then the onus is on public spaces to come to the fore.

Recent projects across the country have shown that, given strong local community involvement and the provision of a space they can call their own, the process of placemaking can give a public space – and in turn, the people who use it – a fresh sense of identity and togetherness.

Scaling up

The Project for Public Spaces defined placemaking as a “process that capitalises on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential to improve the quality of people’s health, happiness, and well-being”. However, it’s a process that can only happen when the people of an area have an attractive and well-planned space where they can participate in activities and events that foster such sentiments.

It means a clear definition of public space is essential so that developers and decision makers can set out best how to satisfy demands. There’s no catch-all solution to a community’s needs – an effective public space must draw upon a number of factors to inform its design, taking into account aspects such as gaps in existing provision and how exactly the space might be used. Understanding and drawing upon the heritage of the location in question is also crucial if the space is to fully connect with potential users and encourage them to use it.

The importance of the features that are used in revamping a public space cannot be overstated. By focusing on the space’s function and its role in the placemaking process, the final product can significantly raise morale and nurture a true sense of community ownership.

Affecting a change

Pannett Park in Whitby is just one example of a public space revitalised by the addition of street furniture. In 2008 the park received a boost to the tune of £1.4 million worth of lottery money, following a campaign by a local community organisation, The Friends of Pannett Park, and assistance from the town council.

With Whitby desperately short of green space as it was, the rundown park didn’t help matters, with locals raising concerns over safety on the poorly-maintained paths and gardens. In spring 2010 the new and improved park re-opened to the public, touting among other improvements a £250,000 children’s play area. But still the problem of attracting the public persisted, given the park’s low-key location.

A solution was reached which saw the installation of signage in and around Pannett Park. Our supply of signs served not only as useful pointers to the public who passed by the main entrance, but would provide another invaluable function in service of local heritage.

With the park fast approaching a century since its creation, the signs include a printed panel rich with information on the area’s history. The signs were made up in a 1930s style to reflect the decade in which it first thrived, adding an authentic period feel to proceedings and giving the park the sense of identity which it deserves to have – bringing the community back to make the best possible use of their facilities.

Breathing life into cities

Where a larger town or city benefits from bringing in the business, it makes sense to pep up the surroundings of the places which have the biggest cultural and commercial impact. Work done in Bradford’s City Park has resulted in the UK’s biggest water feature. Work has continued on improving the city streets, including the area around the Alhambra Theatre – one of the country’s most celebrated old venues.

Described by its architects as "English renaissance of the Georgian period", the Alhambra opened its doors in 1914. Having staged some of the biggest shows off the West End for the better part of a century, the theatre’s front area was repaved in suitably stylish materials – Yorkstone and granite – to provide a paving scheme which beautifully complements this grand old building.

In addition, a selection of street furniture made from natural stone was added to the frontage to provide seating for members of the public either passing by or waiting for their show to begin. Concrete seating from the Igneo range was selected for its closeness in colour to the paving as well as its closeness in tone to the building itself.

The result is a revitalisation of colour and character, in a city that is itself seeing wide-scale investment to make Bradford an enticing prospect for business and residents alike.

Community spirit  

Having illustrated the sense of community and local pride that is exuded by its landmarks, it’s important to remember that the long-lasting effects of keeping buildings and public spaces in good health can have a positive effect on those who use them most. While the work in Bradford shows that investment in a city is key in safeguarding its future, any public place that shows innovation in design, an all-round approach to accessibility and perhaps above all, a sense of local character, can nurture and even transform the culture of the communities who call it home.

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