Bernie Foulkes on coastal towns

Bernie Foulkes
8 December 2009

Bernie Foulkes shares his ideas about taking different approaches to regenerating Britain’s ailing coastal resorts.

Bernie Foulkes.

Bernie Foulkes.

Bernie Foulkes is Partner of LDA Design, one of the UK’s leading urban design and landscape design practices with offices in London, Oxford, Peterborough and Exeter.  He is an urban designer and landscape architect with over 19 years professional experience in the urban regeneration and master planning. He is a member of the CABE and English Heritage urban panel.

Bernie Foulkes gets a daily reminder of how water creates a sense of place. His office overlooks the curving River Exe where swans serenely glide and on the tow path office workers on their lunch breaks chat in the sunshine.

But for all the positives about waterside locations, our seaside towns have been in a critical condition for the past decade. Those once hallowed destinations of Blackpool, Skegness, Weston Super Mare and Bognor Regis are struggling to carve out a new purpose in the age of foreign property ownership, Ayia Napa and Easy Jet.

Redeveloping Blackpool for a new age

Foulkes brings the keen eye of a landscape architect with a head for reinventing places to the debate. He is a director of LDA Design, which won the bid to draw up a new identity for Blackpool. When he talks about the once mighty north western town, his passion and enthusiasm are plain to see. But so too is the need for change.

The vision is to keep hold of Blackpool’s kitsch, tacky charm but take it up a few gears for the modern age. In the past, he says that Blackpool has used its public realm as a money making machine for private operators. Today with the construction of new coastal defences there is the chance to redevelop huge areas of the seafront for public space, bringing a new sense of civic pride, not profit.

“It’s the right strategy for Blackpool but it wouldn’t work in most of our seaside resorts, which are not attached to city regions – Blackpool is only 50 miles from Manchester.”

Taking a different approach in Great Yarmouth

Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are two resorts a long way off the beaten track. Foulkes visited them both last year with the Urban Panel and found attractive coastal towns with a rich past but an uncertain future. “Some of the entertainment architecture in Great Yarmouth is fantastic but it can’t all be for entertainment anymore. Visitor patterns have changed and people go there for the weekend now not the week.” It means reusing that distinctive architecture for new purposes and creating a great place for people to live rather than just visit. Or as he puts it: “It’s more about a place by the seaside than a seaside place.”

While social trends, particularly those governing holiday patterns, are a challenge to these resorts, much more can be done to give them a future, he believes. Indeed the Urban Panel identified strategic problems with how development was being planned in Great Yarmouth.

“In Great Yarmouth you have the seafront, this line of beauty, and yet all the lowest income generators crowd along it while the economic development is plonked behind.” It doesn’t make sense and nor does the remit and development plans of the area’s Urban Regeneration Company, he says. “You could connect the historic town centre with the seafront instead of trying to spread development over 20 odd miles either side,” Foulkes says. “But the URC territory didn’t include the town centre so it couldn’t make a real difference.” What is needed, Foulkes believes, is to concentrate redevelopment in the town centre with its lovely heritage buildings, where boutiquey shops, restaurants and quality businesses can compliment each other and generate their own momentum for a new sense of place.

Considering new assets: wind, seclusion and intrigue

Foulkes has a visionary idea of what the east coast towns could do in the longer-term - wind. Or, to be more precise, exploit the “massive business opportunities for fabricating wind turbines for the burgeoning number of offshore wind farms”, he says. “The bigger offshore wind farms have hundreds of turbines. You need flat sites and access to deep water, which these towns have. The whole issue of energy could be the answer for seaside towns because one of the things they have plenty of are wind and waves.”

Rethinking the seaside then, is crucial. It needn’t be a whole industry like wind power. Sometimes all you need, Foulkes says, is a new café like Thomas Heatherwick’s intriguing, low slung East Beach Café in Littlehampton, a place in its designer’s words “of prospect and refuge”.

And radical thinking sometimes means going against the prevailing wisdom. In the case of Great Yarmouth it means selling its seclusion rather than trying to hide how long it takes to get there. “It’s a really great train journey as long as you’re not in a hurry. You take a train to Norwich and from there it’s an extraordinary 20 miles across a flat watery landscape to Great Yarmouth, which is on a ridge before the sea, so seems like an island.” For Foulkes this is something to be celebrated. “It introduces the idea of a different lifestyle.”

Times are tough but Foulkes is an optimist. “Seaside resorts needn’t hide the fact that they are about entertainment. But they can be beautiful too without losing the spirit of what the place is about.”