Urban overhaul

Clever design has helped to breathe new life into a previously struggling market town, Jez Abbott reports.

The occasional morning coffee goes down well with Mehron Kirk. In a break between client meetings or site visits, he especially enjoys a hot drink in this particular cafe on this particular high street.

Today, Kirk is taking more interest than most in what's happening outside the cafe. The neat grass verges, granite paving, smart lights and street furniture are perhaps more akin to a European piazza than the quintessentially English market town of Baldock.

The BDP lead designer helped create views that have won over not only the local cafe society but also the Horticulture Week Landscape & Amenity Awards judges - winning best commercial project.

In the old days, Baldock, near Letchworth, was the main staging post between Cambridge and London. But the buzz of a thriving market town took on the drone of traffic as horses and carts became cars and lorries.

This led to the soulless, highly engineered feel of recent years, with car parks and Tarmac defining a town centre slowly asphyxiating with traffic. A nearby bypass completed four years ago failed to stem the flow as drivers used the high street as a rat run.

"The high street is one of the UK's widest and the engineering needed to sustain the vehicular use led to degradation of the town centre, asphalt from wall to wall and row upon row of parked cars," says Kirk. "It had the feel of a place abandoned by people."

This was all the sadder because Baldock boasts beautiful listed buildings "camouflaged by traffic, signs and ugly street clutter", he adds. When the bypass went down, local authorities set out to tame the town centre with a design that was total in scope.

"We set about redesigning everything between the buildings and trying to understand who used the town, how they used it and how Baldock functioned," says Kirk. "By looking at every aspect we could shape perceptions, image and driver expectations."

Throughout the design process, locals were kept up to date by newsletters, online updates and information at events. Cars and car parking are highly emotive with street traders keen not to jeopardise margins.

"One of the biggest challenges was getting people to accept the need for change and a few locals thought even more cars would be better. We hoped they would agree through consultation to the dramatic changes needed if the town was to function and stay viable," Kirk recalls.

That change cost around £2.4m - not a vast amount for a town centre overhaul, says Kirk. Careful prioritising was a must to squeeze the most out of that money from North Hertfordshire District and Hertfordshire County Councils.

BDP redesigned everything between the historic buildings on each side of the high street and focused on changes to two nearby roads. Every kerb line and every material was changed. York stone was used to front buildings, giving them an historic "plinth" on which to stand.

Roads were narrowed and paths widened. Granite stone and buff-coloured gravel gave a rustic market town feel and grass verges up to 20m wide were threaded through the length of the 1km-long high street. These replaced much of the car parking, which was filtered away from the immediate centre.

"A new market place has been created," adds Kirk. "This multifunctional space links up with other new squares, shared spaces and improved pedestrian links. New trees have been planted to add continuity and introduce seasonal change."

North Hertfordshire planning project manager Louise Symes says a town centre strategy following the completion of the bypass highlighted the need for physical changes to make the spaces better for visitors, businesses and pedestrians.

"Key needs were to formalise parking and improve links between the north and south parts of the town," she says. "We wanted a better setting for the buildings and a softer, more environmental feel to encourage people to visit."

Hertfordshire project and strategy manager Roxanne Glaud adds: "A lot more people visit the town, but whereas before they would go to Tesco, stock up and leave, now they stick around."

The square now teems with continental markets, while business on the high street is picking up and vacant shops are being let. Pedestrians browse in bijou boutiques, enjoy tapas on the grass or, like Kirk, pop into the newly-opened cafe to order a frothy continental coffee and watch the world go by.

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