Dickon Robinson on town centres

Dickon Robinson
9 December 2009

Dickon Robinson compares different approaches to creating interesting and independent town centres.

Dickon Robinson is an architect and former CABE commissioner.  He was responsible for the Peabody Trust's major new build housing and regeneration programme (which pioneered exemplary architecture, off site manufacturing and sustainability) and the development of the BedZed zero carbon village in the London Borough of Sutton.  He is currently chair of RIBA Building Futures and the Stratford City Environmental Review Panel. 

We’ve only just begun to talk and already Dickon Robinson has found his theme: “I think it’s one of the big challenges – how do we create town centres in which independent, specialist shops can thrive?” We are sitting in Robinson’s compact flat in London’s Covent Garden, his home for the past 25 years. But although still booming, Robinson fears the area has become a retail monoculture.

Regeneration in Margate

Robinson believes that visiting a town centre is like taking a person’s pulse – it tells you about the health of a place. Take Margate, which he visited in March with the urban panel: “I went for a walk up High Street, it’s a complete disaster zone – M&S and all the other large shops had gone, more than fifty per cent of the shops are empty.”

It’s true that Turner Contemporary, an art gallery and cultural centre designed by David Chipperfield Architects and inspired by JMW Turner’s long association with Margate, is being built to boost the town’s appeal – and that its community outreach arm has re-opened the M&S building . But Robinson has his doubts that such flagship developments can save a place. The gallery will not primarily be home to Turner paintings and major cultural regeneration projects can often play out more like Sheffield’s National Centre for Popular Music than Bilbao’s much admired Guggenheim.

Folkestone: a model for gradual regeneration

Robinson prefers a small scale, gradualist approach. He points to a visit to Folkestone where the urban panel saw an innovative model for saving the high street. In this Kent port, wealthy local benefactors have endowed an arts trust to buy up vacant buildings on the High Street, refurbish them and let them to artists at subsidised rates.

“The great thing about Folkestone is that they have a charity conduit for taking property into community ownership and using it for the wider benefit. Increasingly we’re going to have to look at our high streets as a living commercial organism that sometimes can thrive without support but at other times will need help.”

The growing influence of the urban panel

In nearby Dover, after a critical report of plans for a development which would have forced pedestrians to take a footbridge to cross the road, the local authority asked the urban panel to come and debate the report. “I was delighted we were asked back by Dover, just as we were also asked back by Weymouth.” It’s a sign of the urban panel’s growing assertiveness that its recommendations are harder hitting than in the past.

“One of the great things about the urban panel is that we have amongst our numbers historians who are terrific at reminding us why this street is significant. One shouldn’t be overprotective – change is crucial – but neither should places casually junk their history.”

Challenging the way things are

Housing is where Robinson made his name. In his 18 years at Peabody he changed the way we think about social housing by demanding that social housing tenants get the best architecture and space standards - and that we rethink how elderly people live their lives.

His ideas are still thought-provoking today. Robinson is unconvinced by the government’s target of building three million new homes and frustrated that the focus on sustainability concentrates on new build rather than the statistically more significant existing housing stock: “We know the government and European Commission are not serious about dealing with these problems because they persist in charging VAT on existing stock while zero rating new build. So effectively if you want to insulate your home you have to pay VAT on it.”

Managing the decline of towns

On an urban panel trip to Stoke, he realised something else – the need, in some parts of Britain, to manage decline. The city of Stoke on Trent is in reality composed of six towns, and Robinson believes that “polycentric cities” like Teeside or the Black Country, encompassing smaller urban units, do not work. In Stoke it means the centres are leaching people and the local authority is left with huge areas of empty land on its hand.

“We haven’t worked out how to implement a shrinking city unlike the Germans who’ve done a lot of work on this.” It’s a widespread phenomenon that takes in the milltowns of the north and others like Margate who have lost their original selling point. “Margate seems to the exhibit the northern symptom of people moving out of town to villages around where builders are putting up new houses.”

The solution involves taking account of changing housing markets while not abandoning the integrity of existing centres: “There does need to be some quite big changes to the physical environment but somehow we’ve got to fit town centres into that,” he says.

Three simple lessons for local authorities

“Some local authorities responsible for struggling places are so keen to get development that they roll over and die for any developer. They say ‘if we don’t give consent they’ll go away and do it somewhere else’. Yet, surely it would be better if they did as it’ll just make a bad place worse.”

There are no easy answers. Robinson offers “three simple lessons” from his trips around the country for the urban panel:

  • sort out your railway station – more and more people are travelling by train and it is first impressions that count
  • protect your high street – without support it may wither and die
  • insist on high quality housing schemes – otherwise they may undermine existing areas of good quality architecture.

Robinson is clearly fascinated by how places work, and the urban panel gives him and his fellow members the chance to pool their talents for the greater good. “I know of no other group of people that has such a wide base of skills from archaeologists to geographers, historians to developers.” He pauses for a second before summing up with a characteristic blend of acumen and colour: “So we’re a bit like a honey bee really, thoughtfully pollinating groups of people by taking ideas from one place to another.”