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Worth waiting for: Gun Wharf, Plymouth

02th June 2012

By Rob Cowan

In my last blog I reported from Glasgow on my search for successful streets built in the past 15 years or so. They are certainly rarities, which is why Gun Wharf in Plymouth is well worth a visit.   

Convivial is one of the favourite words that urban designers use to describe their aspirations for places they design. Usually it is not the appropriate word for the outcome. Gun Wharf seems to be an exception: the design of its central space seems to encourage people to talk and children to play.

This was the first site in the area to be redeveloped, so it was always likely that its quality would set a precedent locally. There can be no doubt that the achievement at Gun Wharf has raised expectations of what can be accomplished. 

Gun Wharf replaces a 1950s council estate in a severely deprived neighbourhood which became one of the first projects under the New Deal for Communities programme. Overlooking the River Tamar, the site slopes steeply down to a rather scruffy beach on the River Tamar. It is sandwiched between high dockyard walls on two of its sides. A historic tunnel (which can not be built over) runs beneath it.

Cornwall Street is the development's main axis. It is a designated home zone, with its space shared between vehicles and pedestrians and a speed limit of 12mph. Moving from east to west, down the hill, the street opens out first to a circular open space (the circus), then to the river estuary. Gun Wharf makes the most of its sloping site. Wherever possible the houses are given views of the estuary, often with bay windows. The circus and the two halves of the street each have a satisfying sense of enclosure. The historic buildings at its west end create almost a seaside character, yet are well integrated into the street layout as a whole. Most of the parking is on-street, apart from a single parking court. 

Sixteen of about 32 residents who remained in the area before redevelopment were housed in the new Gun Wharf. Residents were decanted into temporary accommodation for what was planned to be 18 months but which extended to seven years. The delay was largely due to a major redesign which could have been avoided had the Prince’s Foundation’s quality audit happened at an earlier stage. 

The accommodation is provided mainly by houses with gardens, with some flats. Thirty-five of the units are private sale, 46 rented affordable housing and 18 shared ownership affordable housing. 

Rubbish bins are kept in the back gardens. 

Design process  A planning brief produced by the council set the framework for a collaborative process involving local people. A series of ‘planning for real’ events found that people had had enough of living in flats and wanted houses with gardens. In this high-crime area, security was a priority. Residents were on the selection panel for the masterplanning architects. The architects’ early designs for the layout were well received: what the residents were most concerned about was the design of the street and spaces. 

An initial scheme that had received planning permission was put on hold after the regional development agency’s design advisor, the Prince’s Foundation, carried out a design quality audit. The foundation was concerned that gaps in the proposed perimeter blocks meant that there would be inadequate surveillance and security; that the proposed circus – for which there was no precedent locally – was creating some of these gaps; and that the council’s insistence that there should be a roadway through the centre of the circus would compromise the quality of the central space. 

A series of large meetings with the residents and other stakeholders eventually led to a redesign of the scheme. The architects justified the circus as providing better enclosure on the sloping site than would a square (which the Prince’s Foundation preferred), and the residents agreed. The radius of the circus was reduced. A third of the scheme was redesigned as bespoke housing, whereas the previous version had consisted entirely of the housing association’s standard house types. This allowed the gaps in the perimeter blocks to be filled and bay windows to be provided on corners, improving surveillance. The Prince’s Foundation’s insistence led to the council accepting that a route through the centre of the circus was not required, to the undoubted benefit of the public space. 

Inclusive design  The sloping site poses a number of challenges for disabled people, but a positive approach to inclusive design has helped to mitigate some of them. There are no designated accessible parking bays on Cornwall Street, but opportunities to park on the roadside provide easy access to the dwellings. The design of the parking has helped to reduce the number of vehicles on pavements and walkways. The traditional granite setts, recycled from the former streets, were too uneven to be used as surfaces for the full range of people on foot, or bicycles or in wheelchairs, so they have been used to provide bases for the parking spaces. The way in which the clear colour or tonal contrast between the walkway and setts is delineated by much lighter paving will be helpful to people with visual impairments.

Access from the sloping street to the houses has been helped by providing landings with steps at one end and gentle ramps at the other, providing level access. The paving and steps are well constructed, and hand rails have been provided at both the stepped and ramped access points. However, there is a lack of clear colour or tonal contrast between the steps, paving and handrail. Also, the drainage gutter may present a hazard to users with visual impairments.

The public space on Cornwall Street is a good example of inclusive design. It provides a level area in the centre of the sloping site. There is access by steps with handrails, and well-designed slopes lead to level spaces. Popular as a children’s play area, it is much more versatile than traditional grassed spaces. The clear colour contrast between the white seating and the grass borders is helpful to people with visual impairments. There is plenty of space for seating, and wheelchairs and children’s buggies can be placed on the level areas at the perimeter of the seating.

Some other parts of Gun Wharf are less successful as inclusive design. In one case, for example, two bollards – one a granite sphere and the other in stainless steel – are not easily distinguishable against the grey wall and similarly coloured handrails, and so present trip hazards. The handrails have little practical value as inclusive design, being too high to reach easily from a wheelchair.

Residents with disabilities were involved in the design of their own homes (situated at the top of Cornwall Street), so that they would meet their individual needs.

How good is it?  Cornwall Street has – a rare thing for a new residential development – the feel of a real street. It is part of a network of other streets; it is fronted by houses along its length; it provides parking space; and it leads into and out of a communal open space. As a home zone, its surface materials and the twisting course of the roadway calm the traffic without excluding it.

 The development has been designed on what its architects describe as orthodox urban design principles: fronts of buildings face streets, while the backs are inaccessible from publicly accessible space. That is the theory. In execution it has turned out somewhat differently. The one parking court that is meant to be gated has its gate left permanently open, as its banging disturbed an adjoining resident; and an opening in the wall dividing the court from the street is large enough for an intruder to climb through. That court also opens up to a long back alley on the south side of the site, which in turn allows access to the fences of many of Cornwall Street’s back gardens. Even the gate supposedly protecting one end of the alley is flanked by a wall which would enable an intruder to hop over it without difficulty.

This means that, in effect, the principle that is meant to provide security to the development has been significantly compromised. This may not be a problem. The residents claim that the development does not suffer particularly from crime. If it did, it would not be difficult to protect the houses, retrospectively, as originally intended. The gate to the parking court could be prevented from banging; the other opening to that court could be blocked by a grille; and the inadequate gate to the alley could be replaced by a higher one. Elsewhere, some walls and fences that are not particularly intruder-proof could be made more so. But there is no point in doing this if it is not necessary. Indeed, the lack of obtrusive security features adds to the impression that Gun Wharf gives of being a pleasant place to live, and such impressions tend to reinforce themselves.

The scheme was built under a design-and-build contract, meaning that the developer, rather than the original architects, did the detailed design themselves. A few of the details are disappointing. For example, the railings immediately in front of the houses (preventing passers-by coming too close) are unnecessarily obtrusive. But generally both the design and its execution are to a high standard.     

The excessive length of the process of designing Gun Wharf was mainly due to changing views of urban design at the time. There was much less awareness of urban design at the start of the process than later. It was this that led to the design review that caused a lengthy delay, but which seems to have been worthwhile. 

 Gun Wharf in brief

 Address  Cannon and Cornwall Street Housing, Devonport, Plymouth PL1 4NY

Setting  Urban; redevelopment of post-war housing estate

Housing  87 houses, 10 flats, 2 maisonettes. Of these 99 units, 35 are for private sale, 46 rented affordable housing and 18 shared ownership affordable housing

 Site area  2.3 hectares

 Density  43 units per hectare overall

 Parking ratio  93 spaces total, not assigned to houses. Two of them are marked as disabled and 10 grouped in a gated courtyard

 Architect and masterplanner  Lacey Hickie Caley

 Local planning authority  Plymouth City Council

 Client/registered social landlord  Devon and Cornwall Housing Association (Plymouth)

 Builder/developer  Midas Homes

 Landscape architect  Claire Foxford

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