Two years on from the start of the Covid 19 pandemic, town and city centres are emerging from the multiple lockdowns into a ‘new normal’ which has had to address not only the issues arising from the pandemic, but also those which pre-date it.
Battling what was already described as a ‘perfect storm’ – primarily the detrimental impact of out of town and online retail - centres are now required to reimagine spaces in the absence of key anchor tenants and commercial occupiers, along with changes in social behaviour and values.
Caroline Searle has been working with Swansea Council in the creation of an ambitious vision to transform its city centre and a delivery strategy to ensure implementation of this vision. Commenting on the challenge, Caroline says, ‘To remain viable not only in the face of the pandemic, but also in response to the challenges that were already affecting our towns and cities, traditional centres have had to adapt, by providing a variety of uses to increase footfall and dwell time throughout the day and night. This can be seen up and down the country: we are seeing change in focus towards innovative mixes of uses with an emphasis on distinctiveness and good quality public open spaces.’
Despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic, several of the elements that make up the regeneration of Swansea City Centre are now complete and are proving extremely popular. A £200 million investment has enabled two significant public sector led developments to come forward: Copr Bay, a 3,500-capacity arena, coastal park, restaurants and residential scheme, accessible by foot and by bicycle across the new landmark bridge over Oystermouth Road which was completed in March 2022; and 71-72 Kingsway, a 100,000 sq ft flexible workspace scheme aimed at tech and creative start-ups and SMEs, which is due to complete in 2023.
The rise in working from home which arose out of necessity during lockdowns has led to an increase in those preferring a hybrid-working lifestyle for a range of social, economic and environmental reasons. 71-72 Kingsway will deliver a building fit for its time: the design includes provision for flexible workspaces, with the potential for meetings to be held outside, alongside supporting amenities - all addressing the city’s green agenda and linking with the new public realm on Kingsway itself.
The design of Copr Bay was also influenced by changing values and behaviours and recognition of the value of good quality public spaces in creating successful and sustainable places, which has been further increased by the pandemic. In September 2020, a report for RIBA Journal identified, on the basis of an increase of exercise and social interaction taking place outside, that a community ethos could only be maintained in cities with a reformed approach to open spaces. Swansea has clearly succeeded in doing just this: Copr Bay includes a new 1.1 acre coastal park, the first park to be created in Swansea city centre since the Victoria era.
The new-look arena also includes outdoor spaces for drinking and dining which, to champion distinctiveness and encourage local businesses, have all been let to independent operators. The appeal of external dining has increased exponentially in the last two years and the Council is now considering other locations where food and drink providers can launch new businesses with a lower start-up cost and considerably increased flexibility.
Worth £17.1m per annum to Swansea’s economy, Copr Bay is already acting as a catalyst for growth. As well as the new businesses within the development, existing local pubs and restaurants have reported a surge in business following the opening of the new arena and there is no doubt that Swansea is bouncing back from the economic impact of the pandemic.
It is interesting to consider what it is that enabled this project be completed – and with such success – while others have been set back. Caroline explains, ‘The Council’s strategy is successful because rather than steadfastly adhering to a masterplan created in a single point in time, it has evolved its strategy in response to the changed circumstances. It has increased the emphasis on repurposing floorspace in light of retailer departures, as well as catering for those eager to return to pre-pandemic normality, and incorporated learnings from the pandemic as it leans towards a ‘new normal’. It also responds to the strong sense of community that emerged during the pandemic: the importance of supporting local businesses and a heightened awareness of environmental and wellbeing issues.
‘Prior to the pandemic, Swansea city centre had been impacted by poor post-war planning, industrial decline, a lack of quality office space and a trend for out-of-town shops, offices and leisure facilities. The Council’s objective has been to deliver a thriving and sustainable living, working and leisure destination which creates unique appeal by capitalising on the city’s historic connections and outstanding rural and coastal environments.
‘In addition to accommodating economic and market change, the strategy also seeks to mitigate the impact on climate change and creates an integrated approach towards economic, social and cultural well-being goals. Tourism is also an important focus: Swansea is well placed to attract those travelling to the Gower Peninsula and West Wales, and a key part of the strategy is to secure unique leisure attractions.’
The pandemic has both brought about change and amplified and expedited emerging trends. Perhaps most importantly from a development perspective, and as Swansea’s regeneration has demonstrated, it has uncovered an understanding of the desire for change and necessitated a means of responding to changed circumstances sensitively, through an appropriate balance between consistency in strategy and flexibility in delivery.