Why context and consultation are the key to successful town centre regeneration

Rob Bentley

Contact Rob Bentley, Director
robert.bentley@benoy.com

While many UK town centres face very similar challenges, the responses to these challenges need to be individual and unique. As Benoy Director Rob Bentley explains, only through place-specific, context-sensitive design solutions can we successfully reinvigorate our urban environments.

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The regeneration of the UK’s town centres has become a major national priority in recent years. Retail sector contraction, business closures and high street collapse, all of which have been accelerated by COVID-19, have made the redevelopment of our towns – particular those in the regions – a matter of genuine urgency. 

Levelling up’, however, does not mean levelling everything in sight. The last thing town centre asset owners want to be told is to pull it all down and start again’. Successful redevelopment often involves more sensitive reapportioning and repurposing of existing assets, more sequential reconstruction. Similarly, we need to be wary of preconceived solutions and one-size-fits-all design schemes. Because each town is unique, and it is this uniqueness that makes a place interesting and generates value and pride for local communities. 

Indeed, when it comes to town centre regeneration, context is everything. Each town has its own individual needs; its own singular narrative, values and drivers – what Benoy CEO Tom Cartledge recently described as the why of place’. The key demographics and aspirations of a heritage town, for instance, will differ hugely from those of a busy metropolitan centre. And from the macro to the micro, successful design programmes need to be alive to the points of difference that distinguish one urban environment from another. 

A tale of two town centres: Woking and Wokingham

At Benoy, we have recently worked on major regeneration projects in Woking and Wokingham; two UK towns losing market share to nearby locations, both in urgent need of renewal.

Situated in neighbouring home counties, and separated by just 16.8 miles, two consonants and a vowel, at first glance Woking and Wokingham might look and sound quite similar. But in reality, they are uniquely different places requiring uniquely different design responses. 

Wokingham, on the one hand, with its elegant redbrick townscape and low-scale vernacular architecture, involved a gentle reimagining of urban living focused on family, public realm and community space. Across two mixed-use developments, we combined heritage residential developments, modern retail formats, F&B, hospitality and leisure, with a beautifully landscaped park at the heart of the scheme. 

Woking, meanwhile, called for a more contemporary design, with high-density living above two new public spaces. Our work here comprised retail and hospitality activating the ground plane, with a strong focus on timeless façades, blended typologies and tenure mixes. Through the integration of two build-to-rent residential towers above a podium, the aim was to provide a rich mix of uses. We also delivered a wealth of positive ground-scaping to create a vibrant destination that combines country, city, culture and community. 

Two superficially similar towns, two very different design solutions. But how did we arrive at such monumental contrasts of architectural style, scale and approach? 

'‘Levelling up’, however, does not mean levelling everything in sight. The last thing town centre asset owners want to be told is to ‘pull it all down and start again’. Successful redevelopment often involves more sensitive reapportioning and repurposing of existing assets, more sequential reconstruction. Similarly, we need to be wary of preconceived solutions and one-size-fits-all design schemes. Because each town is unique, and it is this uniqueness that makes a place interesting and generates value and pride for local communities.'

Urban regeneration, the Benoy way

At Benoy, our work begins with an attempt to understand that why of place’, which means abandoning all preconceptions. Starting from zero, we look, listen and learn, not foisting our own ambitions on a project, but adapting our mindset and methodology to context. We immerse ourselves in local culture and history, looking to discern a town’s character, assess its commercial constraints and opportunities, and understand the needs and aspirations of its residents. 

Next, we create a detailed masterplan. This process is all about activating the groundplane and creating positive connectivity through a town’s streets and spaces. Working closely with our clients and local stakeholders, we develop ideas and get into what we call the granularity of townscape’. We explore how potential geometries and materialism will come together, and above all how buildings and spaces will work from an end-user and public perspective. 

Taking our client on a journey through a buildings’ multiple uses and functions, we ask all manner of questions. How do we ensure a development delivers value for the town as a whole? 

If residential is built above retail, how will the building be serviced and accessed? How do we ensure noise from below doesn’t impact the experience above? How will residents collect their mail? 

By putting ourselves in the community’s and end-users’ shoes, we try to understand people’s interactions with the built environment. Crucially, we then test our design assumptions through rigorous consultation. We discuss our ideas with the local community, testing our understanding of the context they live and breathe as local residents and stakeholders. In this way, we ensure our work is a genuine meeting of place and imagination. 

A growing portfolio

In the UK, Benoy is currently involved in a number of town centre regeneration schemes, from Woking, Peterborough and Orpington to Gloucester, Nottingham, Glasgow and beyond. With our expertise in multicultural, mixed-used locations, we are committed to helping clients shift away from the monocultural town centre model to a more sustainable future. In the process, we will always try to work with pre-existing developments, as we pursue our uniquely relevant, responsive and consultative approach to town centre revitalisation. 

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