Perhaps the most important mark of the Pedestrian Heart scheme’s success is that despite the economic recession, the town centre economy is showing signs of resilience. Pedestrian footfall and parking duration of stay figures improved between 2008 and 2009, in contrast to other centres in the Tees Valley. Darlington’s town centre manager reports greater investor confidence in Darlington as an investment location - though objective data to support this is not available.
The design has delivered numerous benefits:
- The upper section exploits the east-facing orientation and elevated position relative to the rest of the town by incorporating new areas of seating, and a wide, flush, retail and civic promenade.
- The scheme maintains good access to the centre for public transport and for people with disabilities.
- Space has been created for the market traders to be located on the main retail street to provide vitality and greater choice to the town centre offer.
- Planters have been integrated into a retaining wall between the upper and lower sections, breaking up the hard urban condition and facilitating Darlington’s ongoing participation in ‘Britain in Bloom.’
- Cycling levels in the town centre have increased since the scheme opened, with the number of cyclists counted over a 12-hour period rising from around 1,000 in July 2007 to over 1,300 in July 2008.
- Support from people in the town centre for allowing cycling to continue has also increased over the same period, from 53.9% to 62.1%.
The scheme was ambitious, with a clear vision for transformation and a strong emphasis on creating a quality environment for pedestrians. It has successfully achieved an appropriate balance between various modes of travel. The greatly enhanced public realm has created both a safer and more attractive environment for all users, and a more flexible space for markets and events.
As might be expected with such a major scheme, a number of issues were encountered in the development and construction phases. Engagement with businesses was a major issue:
- the 18-month period of design development meant that several consultees moved on during the process
- some felt that more could have been done to get the people of Darlington excited about the project - what the ‘gain’ would be for the construction ‘pain’.
Project cost increases and overrun, largely due to the problems associated with the gas main under West Row, meant that compromises were made in relation to some of the design features. There have also been maintenance problems associated with some of the more complex elements.
Darlington Pedestrian Heart has nevertheless achieved its primary objective of bringing people back to the town centre - and encouraging them to stay there longer. The heart of the town now throngs with people – whatever the weather. It’s still easy to get to by bus, and businesses are doing well. High Row and West Row no longer look or work like the historic Great North Road did, but what this part of Darlington needed then and needs now is quite different. The Pedestrian Heart is a benchmark for the town – and other market towns – for the early 21st century.