Swansea High Street
As in many a UK town centre, Swansea High Street had fallen on lean times. A triple alliance of a preference for shopping malls, out of town retail parks and the birth of on-line shopping had dealt an almost fatal blow to what had been the centre of commercial activity in a previous but not too distant era. Poor planning policy had prioritised car access to commercial centres over the traditional town centre experience. In Swansea, the High Street became the repository for social services including the job centre and designated in planning guidance as ‘secondary retail’. To cut a long story short the High Street was now stigmatised and was virtually a no-go area of the city. In 2014 the Arts Council of Wales initiated an arts led program that was designed to have a positive regeneration impact and Swansea High Street was selected as one of the key opportunities across Wales. An opportunity would be given to re-imagine the High Street and develop a new vision.
The stigma of the High Street within the City was so great that at the beginning it was almost impossible to get anyone to take it seriously, still less to think about its regeneration. Thankfully, the foresight of a Housing Association working in the area had allowed the development of a mixed use scheme to take place which had adopted principles of sustainable development. This development was known as the Urban Village and provided retail outlets for small business’s at ground level, offices above and housing behind this giving the chance for improved vitality on the street once economic conditions improved. But this was only the first step and more was clearly needed to improve its image.
The Arts Council of Wales awarded the grant for their program to the Volcano Theatre who were based on the High Street and had an established reputation in Wales for cutting edge productions. This was to be in collaboration with Coastal Housing of Urban Village fame and our practice NIA architects, brought in to assist with stakeholder engagement as part of the process to re-imagine the High Street. This was going to be one of the key challenges. Through conversations with the Volcano Theatre, the idea emerged to call the program ‘From the Station to the Sea’. The High Street provides that vital link from the main line station to what has become the centre of town which over the years had shifted south from the High Street. Historically the High Street had been the spine of the commercial heart of the city with all the great department stores of the day being located there. The historic photographs show how vibrant a place it was with trams, buses, bicycles and early cars intertwined with pedestrians between its canopied facades. Could this be the inspiration for the 21st Century reinterpretation of the High Street?
In 2014 our practice NIA architects led the first engagement workshop which brought together a wide range of stakeholders in a design led process that focussed on the revitalisation of Swansea High Street.
Our expertise and long experience of working with communities across the UK to create Neighbourhood Plans was used to facilitate this event and out of it came many ideas about the challenges and opportunities that faced the High Street. From full pedestrianisation and the re-introduction of trams to festival events and adopting measures to green the High Street and renewable energy installations the workshop tapped into many pertinent ideas to create a sustainable High Street. We had the benefit of the art students from the art college and many local business, and social enterprises as well as residents and local authority participants. The overriding sense was that the High Street had become very grey and was in need of colour! Out the this program directly came the idea to bring back the awnings or canopies once associated with the High Street in a re-imagined form. The Arts Council program made possible the appointment of a selected artist to design the awnings and a happy coincident of finding a local restauranteur who was willing to install an awning over his shop front brought about the program ‘Come Rain, Come Shine’. The Welsh Italian proprietor of Buon Appetito understood the commercial advantage to having the awning and his pioneering attitude has enabled us as the architects to submit a planning application which it is envisaged will result in the first of many awnings to spread along the whole of the High Street from Station to the Sea. The objective is that other business’s located on the High Street will catch the vision and as a result, the footfall, of the significant number of daily visitors and commuters to and from the city as they make their way from the Station to the Sea or at least to the city centre.