Of the many things that make the South West special, its most distinctive places set it apart.
Clifton Suspension Bridge, Pulteney Bridge, the Georgian Buildings of Bath and Bristol’s recently-restored Old Vic are amongst many historic and well-loved assets that identify the region as a fantastic place to live, work and visit.
They feature in media backdrops, memorable moments and excite strong feelings of pride because of their place in our history and local identity. One only needs to look at the concerns raised about the impact of recent proposals to rework Bristol’s Cumberland Basin to views of the Avon Gorge to see this in action.
But places and buildings can’t stand still and need to adapt to meet residents’ and businesses’ needs today whilst retaining the essential historic characteristic. Our region is embracing this change and becoming increasingly well known as a destination to invest, with parts of our towns and cities being transformed by this investment.
This success in areas like the West of England, Exeter and Plymouth presents challenges for places which must adapt in the right way, whilst maintaining the essence of what makes them distinctive.
Understanding the value of heritage
The public has long recognised the important role that heritage plays to benefit places. It helps give places their unique identities with the buildings being a record of past activity and aspirations. This helps make pleasant, distinctive places to live and work in.
On a human level, it brings people together. It has educational benefits by providing people ways to find out more about the history of buildings and how communities once lived.
Working with historic buildings to provide places that people use every day can breathe new life into areas that have been stagnant for years.
But its true value should be understood in a broader context – especially in these turbulent and uncertain times.
As concerns around climate change grow, adapting our existing buildings will play an important role in helping local authorities meet their ambitions to become carbon neutral.
Taken together, this can bring real economic, social and environmental benefits for those who embrace the opportunity – and the opportunity is there for taking.
Using the past to shape the future
After many years of strong focus on numbers, there is welcome recognition from government that quality places matter too. This is expressed in the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, which places quality development and public support as vital strands in delivering the homes that the country badly needs.
Understanding the history and character of historic development and responding positively to this is an important part of this work.
This is demonstrated, in a real and vivid way, on some of the town centre regeneration schemes we have been involved in the South West in recent years.
Recently, we have been involved in the regeneration of a former industrial site in Frome in Somerset on the edge of its historic and vibrant town centre. Plans developed for the site reference the historic building pattern, the former silk mill and Western Warehouse. Creation of open spaces, shared gardens and spaces for markets will help bring life to back into the heart of the town that genuinely compliments its surrounding areas.
At Kingston Mills in Bradford on Avon, restoring the historic site close to the centre has transformed the town. A blend of homes, business premises and workshops based around 10 historic buildings at Kingston Mills have brought 500 people into the town centre to live and had a significant impact on the economic health of the town.
In many ways Kingston Mills provides a strong example for town centres who face the daunting task of redefining their high street today. Too often towns seek to encourage new life by providing cleared sites for redevelopment. Developing schemes which value and respect historic buildings and street patterns can be more successful and ultimately just as viable.
This work is not without its challenges. It involves taking on board different viewpoints – around values, sustainability and timescales – and working with interest groups to find workable solutions. Early consideration of heritage and a willingness to listen and respond to these viewpoints will provide a greater chance of delivering better results.
When we look at the challenges facing people in the South West – environmental, economic, technological and social – the places we create can play a part in addressing all of these.
In this context, heritage must not be a side issue. It is all around us. The most progressive, forward-thinking developments reflect this.
The benefits for investors are obvious. The benefits for businesses here – access to good space, attracting talent and building collaborative, like-minded networks – can make also a huge difference.
If we embrace the opportunity this presents, we can use it to shape places that makes the South West such a brilliant region to live and work.
Kevin Balch is Project Design Director at Nash Partnership.