Developing Cardiff Bay: Hatch Review

The latest Hatch event involved a walk around Cardiff Bay, guided by urban designer Dr Mike Biddulph, from the Place Making team at Cardiff Council.  To reflect the range of built environment disciplines represented in the Hatch network we have collated the perspective of an urban designer, arts consultant, public engagement and experience design consultant and an energy and building physics engineer to see how their views on the event varied.

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Emma Price, Arts Consultant reflects on an illumination of Cardiff Bay and the common aspects of seemingly different disciplines.

I was not sure what to expect at the latest Hatch event as I am not an urban designer, landscape architect, planner, or architect. So when it was my time to introduce myself, I hesitated, before revealing that I am an arts consultant working predominantly in commissioning art in the built environment. It is my professional experience in this field which therefore framed my interaction with the workshop.

The walk and talk brought together a range of designers and innovators working in the city. Mike set out the challenges of urbanisation and the creative potential of speculative design. We collectively examined the constraints and areas for potential development; exploring the physical factors that can affect development prospects, and the potential for urban design solutions for an ever evolving Cardiff Bay

I learned that urban design is a particular form of enquiry into the nature of our city, its form and function.  We all seek to understand the city as a place of human coexistence and to contribute to the creation of strategies and projects that inform its future development.  This struck me as similar to the new and innovative ways that artists are approaching working in the public realm.

We were encouraged to look for and explore new ideas around the design decisions faced by Mike and his colleagues when developing an urban space that works for a wide section of the local population and visiting community.

During our walk we explored and reimagined the Bay through its physical landscape and its role in cultural regeneration. The discussions reminded me of the Situationists and their interpretation of psychogeography. This is something that I have long been interested in, but until now, only from the perspective of working with artists to investigate the experiential and physical elements of place making. But in fact we are all, in some way, psychogeographers.

Psychogeography and the dérive

…The Situationists’ desire to become psychogeographers, with an understanding of the ‘precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’, was intended to cultivate an awareness of the ways in which everyday life is presently conditioned and controlled, the ways in which this manipulation can be exposed and subverted, and the possibilities for chosen forms of constructed situations in the post-spectacular world. Only an awareness of the influences of the existing environment can encourage the critique of the present conditions of daily life, and yet it is precisely this concern with the environment, which we live, which is ignored.

(Source: Plant, S. (1992) The most radical gesture: The Situationist International in a postmodern age’ P58: Routledge.)

Mike enthused us as to the benefits of walking through a place with eyes wide open, and the need to truly address and represent contemporary urbanism in future plans.  Mike also brought home to us the challenge in resolving complex issues facing transport, public space (including streets and land use), and building typologies through creative design plans.

The group’s critical contribution throughout the walk paid homage to the importance of cross-sector consultation, mirroring Mike’s generous, site-specific explanation of the work of urban designers in creating our streets, buildings and transport routes that consider both people and place.

Although I had worked in the Bay for several years, I was now seeing the Bay’s streetscapes in a new light. Perhaps we are so tuned out and focused on travelling through places for practical reasons that we don’t pay sufficient attention to our journeys – on foot, via varying modes of transport, or via our creative imagination. The workshop highlighted that fully engaging our senses and emotional awareness on something as basic as a short walk can be used to positively influence place.

As the site-responsive workshop progressed I felt increasingly at ease with the contributions I could make when discussing potential opportunities in line with the cultural heritage and future aspirations for this part of the city. This comes from working with artists, many of whom, through the context of their practice, research place, people and the cultural offerings of a particular site and whose work directly or indirectly offers creative development opportunities. So, not too dissimilar to that of an urban designer.

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John Lloyd, Energy and Building Physics Engineer, enjoys the bigger picture offered by urban design.

Coming from an engineering background, I must admit to being a little in the dark as to exactly what Mike’s line of work as an Urban Designer entailed, so before arriving did a little internet search, turning up the following:

Urban design is about making connections between people and places, movement and urban form, nature and the built fabric. Urban design draws together the many strands of place-making, environmental stewardship, social equity and economic viability into the creation of places with distinct beauty and identity. Urban design is derived from but transcends planning and transportation policy, architectural design, development economics, engineering and landscape. It draws these and other strands together creating a vision for an area and then deploying the resources and skills needed to bring the vision to life.

(Source – http://www.urbandesign.org/)

As interesting as that sounded, I still was still a little vague on the specifics so went along with an open mind and no preconceptions. To all of our surprise, Mike Biddulph chose to focus on the area of the Bay where Lloyd George Avenue connects Bute Street and Roald Dahl Plas. Hatch members in attendance initially struggled to visualise the development of a site, which on face value, appeared to be an area of the city that was already “complete”, modern and a significant part of the local road network. After some encouragement or perhaps coercion, we all came to agree that while the area may not require redevelopment, it is underutilised space in a prime location and the focus of the evening’s conversation therefore centred on how it might be improved.

This is one of the parts of Cardiff that has seen substantial change over recent decades, but there is scope to think about it differently if infrastructure projects such as a South Wales Metro system extends down to the Bay. Routes can be found to better link Cardiff Bay to other areas of the city and one of a number of routes could bring a tramline through the road network around Craft in the Bay and the Red Dragon Centre. If this were to go ahead then the significant construction work required would in itself bring opportunities to redesign and make better use of the spaces around this area; most of which is currently uninviting to pedestrians and therefore arguably a poor use of such large open public space.

While the Hatch group is made up of a fairly diverse set of disciplines, all of which demand a degree of creativity, I think it’s fair to say that most of us rarely need to operate on the scale and with the lack of restriction that Mike’s job demands. As an Energy and Building Physics Engineer, I’m usually focussed on small details and technical calculations and personally found the lack of constraints on Mike’s current work as quite liberating, if perhaps a little overwhelming!

From our starting point at the Millennium Centre, we walked along an old footpath behind buildings facing onto Bute Street, leading to the old derelict train station building. Mike chatted though how he would think about such an area, including ideas for how this listed building could be brought back to life and how, on the back of this, the Council could try to influence further development of this area.

We walked along Bute Street to discuss the importance of the Loudon Square development, how Bute Street could potentially be opened up to allow access across to the Lloyd George Avenue area and the benefits this could bring to the Butetown community. Finally, heading back towards Bute Place for a closing conversation bringing together all that had been discussed, Mike worked through one possible vision for how this part of our city could look in the future.

One of Mike’s opening lines at the start of the evening was that he thought that his was the best job in world. By the end of the evening and now with a better understanding the full scale of the positive influence someone in his position could have on the future of our city and its communities, I think he might have a point!

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Peter Trevitt, Public Engagement and Experience Design Consultant, on the importance of someone looking at the bigger picture.

Gathering outside the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC), Mike set out to provide a flavour of what his work as an urban designer in the local authority is all about, by taking us on a journey around his mind, as well as the Bay.  He then surprised us when he asked us which part of the bay we thought he was thinking about at the moment. We all assumed it would be one of the obviously run down or under-used areas, but in fact his focus is on the relatively well-kept area between Lloyd George Avenue and Roald Dahl Plas.

Mike explained that his work involved thinking long term about the big picture, and that it was a fluid process of exploring how even quite radical changes and options might work and being prepared to reconsider them as often as necessary. It was as if in his mind he has a big pencil and eraser does endless sketches of road layouts, development blocks and landmark features, using his skills to find interesting configurations. He works with other specialists at the Council to provoke wider discussion and consultation, long before a scheme is formally defined.

This strategic approach felt very appealing, but also very necessary – if no one is considering our environment in this way, how can we be sure that the best solutions are being found at an early enough stage?

Continuing our walk there were more surprises in store. We quickly found ourselves on a long footpath following the line of the old dock boundary that most of us had never seen before, and provided a new angle on very familiar sights. We looked at the old Bay Station building and then explored more of Bute Street, as far as the potential cross-route to the south of Loudoun Square. Mike explained that if a tramline comes to Cardiff Bay, this could become a key point to provide a new east-west route in Butetown. We began to appreciate better how his mind worked now, always looking for the links and connections that were key to opening up the city and attracting investment.

This fascinating walk ended back near the WMC drawing tram stations on a large piece of paper on the floor, and debating the merits or otherwise of whether high rise development could even be accommodated in this area or not. Mike had said he loved his job, and it was not difficult to see why.

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Lindsey Brown, Urban Designer reminds us of the importance of ‘looking beyond’ ourselves and our everyday, and to future legacies.

As an urban designer it is almost impossible not to stand in a public space or on a street and refrain from analysing the urban fabric, watch what people do or wonder why all the seating has been positioned on the shaded side of the street. We’re never off duty!  So when the invitation arrived to join Hatch’s latest event exploring development and placemaking around the Bay, it went straight in my diary!

Meeting outside the Wales Millennium Centre Mike began the workshop by asking us what we thought of the space around us.  There was a suggestion it was the culmination of the Bay’s transformation; once a redundant and inaccessible dockland, now a popular destination for visitors and residents of Cardiff.  There was discussion too on the connection between the city and the Bay, focusing on Lloyd George Avenue, its poor level of use and disjointed links to the city centre.  Mike immediately turned this on its head and asked us whether this is really the burning issue for the future development of the Bay?  His assertion being that Lloyd George Avenue exists and people do use it to walk, cycle and drive between the city centre and the Bay.  Instead he posed a different question; what connections and opportunities in the Bay have not yet been realised?  And so the tone for the evening’s workshop was set – where is the potential in the Bay and how, as designers, can we shape its development?

We focused on ‘The Flourish’, the rather large traffic island home to a Grade II listed building housing Craft in the Bay.  Mike led us along a narrow path, edged by original dockland railings.  It forms one of the many north–south linear routes in this part of the Bay, but it was the opportunity to introduce east-west connections and bring together the dotted collection of galleries and art spaces that appealed to Mike.

Heading further north talk of unrealised opportunity went up a level.  We gathered on Bute Street and Mike asked ‘What about punching a hole through this wall?’  The wall in question being an 8ft stone wall bounding the railway track.  Whilst eyebrows were raised, eyes also lit up!

We walked through Cardiff Bay railway station and Mike mentioned the possibility of a tram and the opportunity to extend the line to the Flourish.  An opportunity to not only create a sense of arrival befitting of the Bay but improve connectivity for everyday passengers and visitors alike.

Stretching alongside the railway line we touched on Lloyd George Avenue and how introducing a tram line would create opportunity for new building lines and streets that would add layers to the Avenue rather than erode people’s patterns of movement.

Our final stop brought us to the traffic island in the centre of the Flourish and it was here that a blank plan was cast on the floor in typical urban designer style.  Thoughts and ideas from the discussion were quickly sketched, bringing to life the opportunities and potential we had spotted during our walk.  For me it was an inspiring and somehow reassuring experience.  We are all familiar with plans and drawings but so often we don’t get to see the journey of how we have arrived at the design on the plan.

The event came with the brief ‘to be prepared to look and talk’.  This reminded me of an urban design phrase I often use when exploring the built environment, ‘look up, around and along’.  For me Mike’s workshop has added a fourth dimension to this: ‘look beyond’.   To remember that as designers we are not just here to celebrate the good and undo the bad but to realise the potential.

 

Samuel Utting, Architect welcomes the opportunity to think more strategically.

From an architect’s perspective, the workshop was an opportunity to better understand the thinking processes and frames of reference of urban designers, who generally operate at a more strategic level and within longer timescales.

As we were gathering in Roald Dahl Plass to start our workshop, Mike asked what we thought of the space. Although it is a place quite familiar to us all, it wasn’t easy to pinpoint why we weren’t instinctively in love with the space. The solutions to transforming it into a successful public square became clearer as we walked through the area with our guide, reorganising it and solving its issues in a piecemeal way. Talking and walking around Butetown and Cardiff Bay was a welcome reminder of the principles behind successful urban spaces that the likes of Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl and William H Whyte introduced to us in architecture school. It was good to see these principles in the future vision of Butetown and Cardiff Bay… at last.

 

Thank you to all of our contributors.