At first glance, bus stations might seem an unlikely saviour in the battle to save our town centres. Yet that’s precisely what forward-thinking councils are pinning their hopes on as they seek to stop the inexorable shift from the high street to out-of-town developments.
Bus stations are symbolic of the decline of our town and city centres. These transport hubs have all too often fallen into a state of neglect that mirrors the depressed, dilapidated areas in which they are located. Bus stations have rarely been architectural gems. They most often embody the sins of 1950s and 1960s town planning: the grim poverty of the architecture; the wide, windswept and litter-strewn concourses, long aisles of metal-clad, door-less shelters – all contribute to these hubs becoming a beacon for petty vandalism and vagrancy; even worse, this aura seems to ooze out into the surrounding area.
No one wants to let our once-vibrant urban centres fall into disuse and decrepitude; to arrest this decline, however, requires careful planning to create a reason (and the means) to bring people into the area. That’s simply not going to happen if bus stations remain hidden under car parks and retail structures with an apparent focus more on vehicles than the users – one thinks of Haymarket Newcastle, Broadmarsh Nottingham and Northampton bus stations. That’s why transport authorities and councils are coming together to reimagine these key regional transport hubs, so central to wider town centre visions, and bring them out of darkness and into the light.
If we’re serious about urban regeneration, we should look at bus stations as a hub around which we can build a wider renewal. It’s well-known that re-imagining transport hubs is one of the best catalysts for regeneration – and not just in terms of improving the local architecture. The transformation of London’s King’s Cross from a district with a shady reputation, frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes, is in large part the result of the rebuilding of large sections of Somers Town, and the fact that it is now the arrivals hall for train travellers from across the continent.
There is no reason why the same can’t be true, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, for bus stations. In fact, regenerating a neglected bus station doesn’t simply promise economic improvement and employment opportunities, but can provide a powerful fillip to social regeneration.
Depressed areas are a magnet for crime and anti-social behaviour – just ask Rudolph Giuliani, he of the “broken windows” policy. At Stephen George, we’ve been involved in a number of transport infrastructure improvements, and we’ve seen how such projects have the welcome effect of bringing social and economic benefits to neglected and depressed parts of town, while dramatically reducing the frequency of anti-social behaviour by lifting the quality of bus station environs.
Quality transport hubs can provide a positive contribution to the built environment, creating spaces that enrich people’s lives. By designing a place that people want to visit – rather than having to – we can create positive spaces for people to meet, and places that are hubs for businesses or cultural activity.
Rochdale provides a great example of how intelligent investment in bus stations can spark a much-needed renewal in our urban centres. The town’s old bus station was a pretty grim affair: an old, dark facility located beneath a crumbling multi-storey car park. Transport for Greater Manchester and Rochdale Borough Council had a vision that went beyond upgrading the existing premises, specifically focusing on wider urban regeneration. They cleared the site and relocated the bus station on a site adjacent the River Roch, harnessing the water to make the interchange the first hydro-powered bus interchange in Europe. The municipal offices were replaced, Metrolink extended to create interchange with the new bus station and now the remaining land has started to be developed with enhanced retail and leisure facilities, helping to pull the town centre towards the new interchange.
This flagship project was voted by the public as one of Greater Manchester’s ‘Buildings of the Decade’ – how many transport schemes (especially unfashionable bus stations) can claim that honour?
Rochdale is by no means an anomaly. There are many other bus-centred projects around the country, including the Cardiff regeneration plan (which will incorporate retail, commercial and residential spaces into the new transport interchange); Stockport Interchange, which looks to provide significant residential over-site development and a park above the facility; and Nottingham’s new Broadmarsh development. This last project connects with the adjacent shopping centre redevelopment and the new City Hub Campus, and includes leisure, shops and residential units as part of a strategic vision by Nottingham City Council and partners to revitalise the area’s day and night-time economy.
Bus and coach stations should be a priority for any council that wants to arrest the decline of urban centres, which are steadily losing the battle for relevance with huge out-of-town developments. They urgently require a fresh injection of retail, leisure, residential and office space, providing multiple reasons to visit during the day and at night.
Of course, this takes vision, commitment and investment. The alternative, however, is to allow our town centres to slip further into decline, becoming echoing and empty ghost towns centred around crumbling, under-used, and unloved bus stations from the 1960s.
Instead, local authorities should be bold and see the value of providing a high-quality transport environment. Investment in infrastructure hubs has a powerful “force multiplier” effect on the local community that has the potential to repay any investment many times over. What does every council or chamber of commerce want but for the local town to become a magnet for visitors and investment, and for it to become a worthwhile destination in its own right?
Or we could simply continue to push leisure and retail businesses to soulless ‘parks’ on the outskirts of town, and preserve our high streets and city centres as monuments to a vanished past.
Alistair Branch is director and head of transport at Stephen George + Partners LLP, and has delivered award-winning infrastructure including bus stations, rail stations and multi-modal interchanges throughout the UK for nearly 20 years.
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