A personal view – looking forward to Cardiff 2020

This is a longer version of the article published by MyCardiff

Mermaid Quay

The Bay: Cardiff's attempt at a Barcelonaesque vibrant waterfront, with graceless, industrial estate architecture that is already dated, worn and well past its sell-by date.

He who rejects change is the architect of decay.  The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery. Harold Wilson, Prime Minister for a total of seven years and 279 days

The city is embarking – again, after an abortive start on Plan One – on the major exercise of deciding what it wants to be like in the future, stretching until 2026. And the “Local Development Plan” also has to explain how we are going to get there, no easy task. Mine’s easier: I have been asked for an opinion: “what would I like Cardiff to be like in 2020?”; I don’t have to be restricted by annoyances like projected population growth, a disintegrating environment, and the collapse of the market economy as we have known it. The future slate is clean, it can be what we want.

This kind of question usually predisposes that the future necessarily means change (bad) and that we don’t like – and should get rid of – what we’ve got.

On the first supposition, I am firmly of the Harold Wilson school of change: 40 years of working with organisations, managing change in its many disguises, has proven to me at least: change is inevitable, without it you die (institutionally, organisationally, physically – in the case of buildings and people).

What’s important is how you manage the change, whether you feel as an individual you have some control of the process. The most life-changing events can be managed, enjoyed, embraced, if one feels involved, a part of the event, not just a swept up bystander with others making the running. It follows then, that to welcome a new vision of our city, we must be an active part of that change, not let others – politicians, property developers, bankers – pursue their own agendas to their own benefit. For the reshaping of a city, we need its citizens to have the biggest, loudest, most effective voice.

When I ask people to name Cardiff’s great buildings the list is usually the same: the Stadium, the Millennium Centre, the ….. and the list runs out.

Well, for my money, I endorse every users’ perception of the Millennium Stadium as one of the finest in the world – as an experience. As a visual delight it fails: it’s in the wrong place, it can only be seen as the engineering feat that it undoubtably is from places few people go (try a boat on the river). It has absolutely no connection with its environment, its place. We can admire its existence, that doesn’t mean we have to pretend that it’s a great addition to the built landscape of the city. It is not.

And the Wales Millennium Centre fails to reach the highest goals of a landmark building for not dissimilar reasons. Compare and contrast it with a Stirling Prize short-listed building by Zahad Hadid the architect who was run out of town by vested interests, a rabid national newspaper (no names) and petty minded parochialism of the nastiest kind. The WMC is – like the Stadium – a huge success for what it does, not what it is. We are, like obedient pets, grateful for what we have. But as, presumably grown up sentient human beings, we have a right to be disappointed in what should have been.

As for the past: I have a developed aversion to bulldozers, perhaps it was living in Birmingham in the 60’s seeing a ring road carve the heart out of the city, or working in Plymouth and experiencing the – probably well-intentioned – razed city centre, flattened in a way Nazi bombers hadn’t completed and covered, with no doubt scarce resources but limited imagination, a post-war vision of concrete inhumanity and greyness. Cardiff has mostly escaped such wholesale slaughter of its heritage, though the city council continues to plunder the assets of its heritage parklands, school playing fields and public spaces.

Mostly it’s the industrial past that has gone. The dock lands have been barraged to make a  feeble, Barcelonesque imitation of a waterfront. Where there were industrial buildings we now have a sweeping motorway of urban road (with more traffic lights than any other road in the world I am certain) going from nowhere, to nowhere, and lined by some re-used buildings, but largely identikit housing of the worst kind.

The growth of Cardiff as a city is so recent that most of its heritage buildings are Victorian. Thankfully, organisations like the Victorian Society, have helped to ensure that this heritage has largely been kept intact. The Cathays Park civic buildings complex is something of which every person should be proud. Just remember that it, and the city’s other fine buildings and parks, were built from the profits generated by the labour of those in the coal field valleys. We need to consider how to best repay that debt: how much of the future of Cardiff 2020 should actually be in the city itself?

What of this past should we try to emulate in 2020 and beyond? I think this city is most successful when it is like a village: a core of public buildings and open spaces, shops, services, places to work and live. All within walking or cycling distance. I live in Pontcanna which has exactly that and more. Guess what, it’s desirable (for which read expensive). There are other places like it, and together they make Cardiff a set of connected villages around the core of the city. That’s what has happened, perhaps we should make more of it, more like it. The future means thinking about those areas of Cardiff that have been developed without thinking about some of these key essentials, or where we may be trying to remove them – taking away existing green spaces for schools for example. Everywhere, and everyone, has a right to the best built environment even if we failed to provide it in the first place.

Where necessary housing development takes place we should be ensuring that the developers meet the real social cost of their schemes. I don’t mean just a cheque for so-called “106” schemes. I mean properly designed developments to include public spaces, properly maintained, with viable transport in place, and public services. If that means building a school, health centre, bus stops, cycle paths and shops before the houses, so be it. For too long developers have reaped the benefit (profit) of the housing boom, largely at a direct cost to the wider community in providing (often badly as a result) the infrastructure for living that is needed.

We will certainly see fewer people in 2020 commuting to work: carbon reduction will necessitate this, the development of technology will facilitate it, profits will drive it. We all know cars will be used less, we just don’t like doing it. In Copenhagen 36% of traffic is bicycles, it’s a target figure that Cardiff could match, with a fitter population and a more pleasant place as bonuses.

And by 2020 much current building may well be at its replacement lifetime: the shocking housing developments we are now throwing up will have a short life span thankfully. We need better designed communities that are sensitive to the environment of a “One Planet, One Wales”, and meet the needs of real people. No more reduced size furniture to fit reduced size living spaces. Sixty years ago we built homes fit for heroes, now we should build homes fit for people.

Perhaps, and perhaps this is wishful thinking, we could be building a city that looks like the 21st century and not some pastiche of the past, or gerry-built identi-kit factory warehouse architecture that we seem to have excelled in recently. This would demand that we take as much concern about the aesthetics of the future of Cardiff as we try to take in conserving its past. Excellence is not necessarily more expensive. But it is the bedrock on which our forefathers built Cathays Park and if, in the future, we want our great great children to admire our efforts, this is one big lesson to learn from the past. Excellence is a word to be attached to few modern buildings in Cardiff today. We must do better.

So in the future much could be just the same: fine heritage buildings, magnificent heritage parks: a place where heritage lives. But only if w what e take robust steps now to ensure that happens. The pressures to destroy nearly always outweigh those to conserve.

To be more demanding we must be more involved, stop letting others decide. In an era where public disenchantment with ‘the powers that be’ is rife, where politicians think election is a ticket to power not responsibility, where consultation means being told will happen, it is difficult to be heard and feel that a voice has an impact.

I want Cardiff 2020 to be the best of what we have, and the very, very, very best of what we can have. We can have that, but only if we first have a voice extolling a vision of a future for its citizens and not vested interest.

Peter Cox moved his management consultancy business to Cardiff after emigrating here 15 years ago: it became a Wales Fast Growth 50 Company. He was a board member and trustee of Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre for seven years and its chair for two, putting in place its recent, £3.5M, RIBA award winning, refurbishment. He is now chair of Cardiff Civic Society which has recently prepared a response to the Cardiff Council plans for a new Local development Plan. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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