28 Jun Vision for the Shoe Quarter
The regeneration of two abandoned shoe factories just north of the river Wensum will create a new quarter within Norwich city walls. Here, Dominic Richards, chief executive of The Shoe Quarter Ltd, who are regenerating St. Mary’s Works and St. George’s Works, lays out his unique vision for the sites, and explains why this marks the start of a new chapter for the city.
Can you sum up what is happening at the two former shoe-factory sites in Norwich, St. Mary’s Works and St. George’s Works?
The plan is to regenerate five acres of the medieval city, a brownfield plot that is currently occupied by abandoned factories and ugly 1960s buildings. Five acres constitutes a large plot of holy land, so to speak. This is an important part of Norwich, and my aim is to bring it new life.
You are a developer, among other things. How is your plan different from what any other developer might do?
I am deeply interested in how environment creates our future, and I know that what we manifest on that site will affect people’s lives for a long time to come. So my approach involves thinking about how we can help people realise their hopes and dreams. I know that sounds a little weird, and that is because it is a very different approach to what a standard developer would have, which is: I have so many thousands of square feet from which I generate a certain amount of income. I tend to think in terms of individuals and communities, in terms of different mixes of people, of divergent activities going on cheek by jowl. For me it is all about sitting and listening and being in a place, getting a sense of what is special about it today – which is informed by its past – and then perceiving its potential. It is a bit like curating something or cooking something: you don’t entirely know what remarkable thing is going to turn out. Instead you create the environment, the place, the energy, and then you hope that something remarkable comes out of it, something that results in people achieving more of what they want and value in life.
One of your key words, a term that you use often, is ‘place-making’. How does that concept fit in to the vision that you are describing.
Place-making is a trendy term at the moment, and not everyone means the same thing by it. Proper, authentic place-making, as I use the word, means thinking about the overall impact of what you construct on a site. So good place-making will respond to what is unique about where you are, and in Norwich we know that are many rich traditions to draw upon. But we would also be thinking about making buildings and spaces that people will love being in – living in, visiting in, working in.
How will that express in practical terms? Is it about the style of the architecture that you will be installing on the site? Or about the other buildings, apart from housing, that will be there?
I think the style of the architecture is the last consideration. The primary thing is use. If we hadn’t acquired St. Mary’s Works, I am pretty certain that, part of it would have ended up with a big generic hotel surrounded by a car park – which is about as denigrating to a place as can be. So we are thinking about young people starting out in life, new families, families with teenagers, single people, older people, people who are passing through and using the hotel, people who will just be working there… To my mind, a place works best when you have a crazy organic mix in which all those things are happening together. So the first step is to ask oneself: what can be generated in this space? The question of style comes much later, when you are thinking about how you respond in a sensitive and enriching way to the history and the locale, to what was there before.
Does that mean that you replace what was there before, or build in the style of what remains?
As for St. Mary’s Works. I would never want to replace the Edwardian factory building because that is something that has earned its position and its place in history, even thought it is not listed other than locally. I’d describe it as a monument to mercantile pride. It’s beautiful in that it is a fine example of that. Do I think that it is the best architecture ever? No, but it has real character. So I would never want to replace it.
I do, however, definitely want to replace the very boring panel-and-glass buildings on the roundabout. The question then is: with what? That’s where my gut feeling comes in. In the past I have developed rural properties, farms, lofts, warehouses – really, the aesthetic responds to the nature of where you are. My feeling about that part of Norwich is that it is a brilliant amalgam of industrial, commercial and domestic. But in terms of style you have a thatched building opposite, you have brick, flint, timber-frame. So the very thing that we don’t want is a large development in which everything is of the same ilk. We want to respect the higgledy-piggledy nature of Norwich, the Norwich that is all around. So the flats that we put in have to speak to the three churches and the smaller buildings opposite, while the industrial factory has to chime with the larger buildings that there will be elsewhere.
Much of what you are describing sounds experimental. You could call the whole undertaking an experiment in urban planning. You seem to relish the idea that we don’t quite know how it will turn out?
I think one of the problems of the twenty-first century is that everyone is seeking certainty. Everyone wants to tick boxes. There is unease about uncertainty, about a bit of irrationality. If we applied timid modern ideas to creating cities, they wouldn’t end up being the beautiful, mad, wonderful places that they often are. So when you are place-making you have to allow for the unpredictable, and you have to have the humility to see that perhaps you cannot provide all the answers. Obviously everything on our sites will be properly engineered, but that does prevent the creative process from being free and unfixed where necessary. We will be trying out ideas, adjusting them, throwing some out and starting again. And that is right – because if you are motivated by finding certainty, by pinning things down as soon as possible, then you are not going to get the best possible outcome.
The real uncertainty will kick in later, though, won’t it? It is not until people are living in the new Shoe Quarter that you will know if the experiment has worked. Is that a worry?
I’d be much more worried about the outcome if we said: we are going to fill the space with 450 living units of various specs because that’s what we do. There are so many developments that are completely devoid of interest because they are just blocks and blocks of flats. The long-term use of developments like that are much more worrisome than a project like ours, because we are building in enough variety that the quarter will still function if demographics change.
We are also allowing for the properties to be used in evolving ways. So some of them might be used as places that have offices or studios on the ground floor with bedrooms above; but it might turn out that people use them completely differently – and that will be fine. There will be properties intended for people in the prime of life, for people who no longer require a large house in the suburbs or the country but would like instead to be close to the amenities of a town. So they might want to have a large drawing room and a couple of bedrooms but not a garden to look after. People might think: well, that’s a retirement complex, but no – that is not what we are making. We might find that the 30-somethings of Norwich come, or the 50- or 70 somethings, or all of them. But what all of those people will be looking for is a certain quality of life. So perhaps the plan is a bit risky, but you are more likely to have success if you create the place and then see who comes rather than trying to specify in advance.
Another phrase that you have used more than once in connection with the site is ‘gracious living’. What do you mean by that expression? It sounds like it might be a function of wealth, something you can only really have if you have the money to back it up.
I find that the people who have the most money are the ones who live least graciously! It’s about enjoying what you have and celebrating what you have got, about living in a place that you are thankful for, because you are using the resources that are available to you, using them economically and well. So, a person who is six foot six will want a house of a certain size and certain proportions, but if you are five foot tall you might be intimidated by the same place.
That is part of gracious living, but it also means thinking through the things that you need in order to live well: it might be that you have longed to own a dog or a grand piano, in which case you need to have a home that is designed or configured to accommodate that.
I happen to think that a pantry is one of the keys, because gracious living means keeping things ordered, having a place for everything. So much modern housing doesn’t have that. We need a place to store away food and the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine and the empty Tupperware. It is not so much about neat storage as about liberating the kitchen to be the space you want it to be, because you have thought about the processes that will go on there. So we have designed a 440-square-foot unit with a pantry
Here’s another example. I recently looked at a very sad development on the edge of Norwich. It was in the afternoon, and there was a young mother, on her own, pushing a pram around a cul-de-sac. It was such a depressing sight, a picture of isolation like something out of a Banksy mural. I thought: surely what we need is a public space that is organised so that the young mothers and the older retired people naturally mix. They, after all, are the groups who might tend to be at home during the day and would benefit from getting to know each other. So facilitating gracious living involves creating spaces that encourage community, because that is a precious thing that we are danger of losing. Reviving community, as we plan to do in the Shoe Quarter, will make possible the magical moments that really boost the quality of life. You need to engineer things so that people bump into each other. In planning terms, this is something we call ‘compact density’. If you have to schedule a conversation with your neighbour it is never going to happen, but if you naturally come across them when you go out to the park or the shops, that amounts to an entirely different way of living.
Speaking of community, how will the Shoe Quarter maintain its connection with the rest of the city? Because there may be another danger here, namely that the quarter turns into a kind of enclave consisting largely of people who have migrated from London. Might it become, metaphorically, a gated community within the city?
The factory sites, before our developments starts, are gated in the sense that no-one can get through them. If you look at medieval maps of Norwich you can see that there were once streets passing the grounds of the factories, but now it is an enclosed industrial estate. We plan to rectify that by connecting the three churches – St. Mary Coslany, St. George’s Colegate and St. Martin-at-Oak – with pedestrian pathways. There will be openness in every direction: to the river, between the houses, to the north, to the wider city. The Shoe Quarter will all be so permeable that people will flood through it – not just, we hope, be an attractive place for people to visit. They will come in to spend an evening at The Shoe Factory Social Club, or to go to a restaurant.
And there will be such a mix of people that it will be impossible for the quarter to feel metaphorically gated. There will be people starting out in life; people who have downsized (or right-sized); people making things and selling things. The sheer hubbub means that there will be no possibility of an enclave; the quarter will serve all kinds of people – the ones who live there and the ones who come in for other reasons. As for the London question: surely bringing some people from London to live cheek by jowl with long-term residents of Norwich will be an enriching experience for all. There will be a blending of new and old communities.
Given the uniqueness of the sites and the city, how will the experience be of use to others who might want to attempt a similar kind of renewal elsewhere? What lessons will it teach?
I think there are lots of top quality regeneration projects already going on around the world. But the thing that is different about our project is that it is looking at Norwich afresh. For example, I would love to be supporting an environment where the old shoe factory becomes a hub for tech and creatives. I love the fact that one of our tenants in the St. George’s area is an artificial-intelligence company. It would be great if we could build a community of enterprise around that.
We think that we are bringing something to Norwich that will help the city in its journey. Norwich is a city with an incredible history and with rich traditions in architecture and manufacturing. We hope that we will be facilitating an already wonderful place to enter another phase of its life – and that is quite exciting. I am placing a bet on the city, because it has a phenomenal past and I think it has an equally bright future.