Successful cities adapt: can Newport be a successful city?

Great cities adapt. They always have. The ones that don't? They either slide slowly from relevance or find a new lower purpose, often via a series of unpleasant convulsions that can only really be observed in retrospect.

I was fortunate to have been a student of cities in Manchester at the very point in history when the Trafford Centre, an out of town palace of consumption, opened its gold leafed halls and at exactly the same time that the IRA detonated their largest ever and final bomb in an English city centre. This was a potentially catastrophic combination of events for city centre and Manchester City Council found themselves in a situation where they had to make not only repairs but undertake rapid and transformational surgery to enable the city to adapt to the new challenges that it faced.

With this in mind I turn my attention to my current hometown, Newport.

Tonight the City Council will vote on whether to make available a £90m loan to their development partner, Queensbury, to provide the funding necessary to complete the development of a new retail and leisure development.

Many local commentators are sharpening their knives for the Council, should they decide to make the finance available via a Public Works Loan. Typical negativity stems from the parochial view that Newport shouldn't have this kind of retail/leisure development because Cardiff has one and that Newport’s proximity to the Welsh capitol means that Newport must to do things differently.

If cities have an inbuilt need to adapt then Friars walk is about adapting to changed retail and leisure expectations. Shoppers and retailers both prefer large, regular shaped units that are easy to get to and easy to display goods in, but conversely, people also want real experiences that have memory, richness and meaning. The very things that one seldom extracts from a visit to an edge of centre retail park (or should I say car park!). So combining the best of both worlds has been a proven means of adaption for many British town centres.

In places like: Exeter, Bristol, Liverpool and even smaller Welsh settlements like Carmarthen and Wrexham have all integrated the expectation of retail and leisure predictability with more organic experiences with distinctly local provenance. In all of these cases, I guess that each had the right scheme at the right time. Sadly for Newport it has had an unfortunate a multi-generational track record of promoting the right scheme at the wrong time or just the wrong scheme. (Kingsway Centre - wrong scheme - right time) (Friars Walk 1 - Modus - right scheme - wrong time) 

Those that argue that Council backing of Friars Walk is just trying to make Newport into a poor version of Cardiff are out of touch with current trends in how people like to shop and how retailers like to sell. Friars Walk is a necessary adaption to the fabric and commercial offer of Newport just as the creation of Exchange Square was to the post-bomb Manchester.

I have to say that I am not a career supporter of the Council. For instance I feel that the broader economic strategy for the city lacks specialism and bravery and I also feel that the the Council have lauded Friars Walk as the end game when it is in fact only the beginning of the adaptive process. The fact that it remains so opaque as to the kind of place that the Council see Newport becoming simply sustains the argument that Friars Walk is not appropriate to Newport.

I think that local government often gets a raw deal for failing to make big and bold decisions. Tonight Newport Council will make a significant decision about whether the Newport will be enabled to adapt to changes in society or whether the City will be held in perpetual limbo because it doesn’t understand its place in the new world. 

I hope that the Council take the bold step that allows Friars Walk to begin so that we can use this as a platform for future interventions, which funnily enough, is exactly what happened to post bomb Manchester city centre.

by James Brown, Director of The Urbanists