As the tide begins to turn

Richard Clayton decides whether or not regeneration and investment in the design of Britain’s coastal towns will make visitors want to be beside the seaside

Dilapidated, old-fashioned and wind-swept, the popular image of British seaside resorts is one of terminal decline. In Morrissey’s words, these are the towns ‘they forgot to close down’, clinging limpet-like to their piers and waterfronts in the face of rock-bottom visitor numbers, tacky hotels and bad weather. Holidaymakers wish they weren’t there.

Increasingly, however, this perception is looking as dated as a Kiss Me Quick hat. With millions of pounds of regeneration money going into places as diverse as Bridlington and Torbay, the tide is beginning to turn for many resorts.

Design is on the crest of the wave, as councils and regional development agencies sponsor ‘big ticket’ projects that aim to grab both headlines and the visiting public’s attention.

Margate is building a £7m heritage centre devoted to the painter JMW Turner, by architect Snohetta and Spence Associates. Hastings is renovating its Stade Maritime site with a complex by architect Ushida Findlay. Meanwhile, Land Design Studio’s exhibition space at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall opens in November (DW 24 January), as the consultancy gets stuck into visualising the National Waterfront Museum Swansea (DW 15 August).

In their scope and grandeur, these schemes are of a different order to the standard seaside recovery package of ten to 15 years ago. The conference boom has run into the sand and many towns have realised that – the odd heatwave apart – holiday crowds won’t be flocking back to their beaches.

The emphasis now is on developing ‘destination brands’, whose appeal is not tied to a particular season. Blackpool, for example, may

invest in large-scale casinos in its regeneration strategy.

But Jim Chapman, who worked on the masterplan for Manchester ahead of the Commonwealth Games and is now part of the team shaping Blackpool’s future (DW 19 September), knows a struggling resort’s fortunes cannot be transformed overnight. ‘Masterplanning is a long process. You must be tenacious at the planning, strategy and political levels,’ he says.

Coastal towns are beset by many of the severest issues of unemployment and poor housing, says Landscape Design Associates director Bernie Foulkes. Given such an economic background, how does design fit into the bigger picture? At what stage, for instance, should corporate identity and experience designers be brought in?

LDA will present its final plan for redeveloping Torbay by the end of the month (DW 9 August). Foulkes says flagship cultural projects can have a positive effect, but cautions against towns becoming seduced by their appeal.

‘Tate St Ives [in Cornwall] brings £30m a year into the local economy, attracting a new, high-spending clientele. But not every town can expect to have that,’ he says.

‘It’s just as important to make an area work as a proper public space. Torbay, for example, has a beautiful setting, with surrounding hills and a rich built heritage of Victorian architecture, as well as one of the most sunny and benign climates in the UK – the town needs to capitalise on that.’

Both Chapman and Foulkes point to the example of Barcelona in the run-up to the 1992 Olympics to show how urban design can lead economic and civic regeneration. Closer to home, Land Design Studio creative director Peter Higgins says the Falmouth project – although it is ‘more of a stand-alone building’ – is already helping to raise property prices in the area.

‘The reason the tripartite appeal of the Eden Project, Tate St Ives and the National Maritime Museum Cornwall works so well is because they’re very different offers: ecology, art and boats. Coastal towns need to generate more visitors during the winter months with the kind of experience that can sustain itself in the long-term,’ he adds.

Higgins is adamant that experience and exhibition designers should be involved in masterplanning from the start. ‘So many Lottery projects fizzle out because they fail to understand the longevity of the offer. There’s nothing built-in to refresh its appeal. Places like Blackpool have to recognise the implications of that.’

With the Swansea project, the consultancy is providing the ‘intellectual linkage and artistic direction’ for the masterplan, he says, in collaboration with town officials and architect Wilkinson Eyre.

‘We’re thinking of locating satellite sites for the museum in different parts of the city. But the implementation of a visitor centre shouldn’t overwhelm the wider strategy,’ Higgins adds.

In terms of creating a ‘destination brand’, it’s crucial that a town has ‘a story worth telling’, Higgins maintains. The White Cliffs Experience in Dover failed, he says, because it was never well-conceived. ‘The story wasn’t big enough, the location [in the town] was wrong and the business plan wasn’t thought through,’ he says.

High-quality design briefs should be the essence of a good masterplan, says Chapman, because these will encourage designers to add a level of excitement and innovation to the public realm. But communicating the intangible benefits of a resort is also important.

‘The English Riviera campaign was successful in putting the title in people’s minds, but less successful in conveying the reality behind the gloss,’ says Foulkes.

And perhaps that is the role of effective design – helping to make the picture postcard image a reality, both physically and through ‘lifestyle’ branding.

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