Square deal for Coventry, City of Culture, 2021

on Mar 04 in News by

Coventry is bidding to be UK City of Culture in 2021. It is a city of great historical significance and world class potential, but it took many knocks in the Twentieth Century that dented its image. Could public realm investment be the key to Coventry being a City of Culture winner?  

Coventry is a city that has already undergone several transformations.

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In the fifteenth century it was a city of spires and it was the greatest fortified citadel in the Midlands, with city walls that stretched for two miles.

Vestiges of the ancient walls and city gates can still be seen.

During the Renaissance period Coventry provided Europe with fine fabrics, including the famous Coventry blue cloth, which gives us the phrase true blue.

Within the walls of Coventry, the city was tightly packed with streets and squares that provided common ground and places for trade.

Pilgrimage to holy sites has been a global phenomenon for millennia and pilgrimage has been a key part of life in Coventry across the centuries.

Within close proximity to the pilgrim’s destination, the Cathedral, common ground was established for trading. People would come together to buy and sell provisions, catch up on the news, learn about new discoveries, arrange marriages; and artifacts of cultural and religious significance would be displayed in these spaces.

In an often hostile world these communal places, essentially market squares, would be open, affable and beckoning; and these are still key ingredients for good squares.

Pilgrimage is about taking a significant journey on foot that will assist a person’s development. If Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is anything to go by, it’s also about interacting with other people.

We are all on a journey of transformation, and the scenery around us can enrich our journey or it can spoil it.

CS Lewis said, “A modern boy can travel a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from walking ten.”

He is suggesting that our built environment is not as responsive to a pilgrim’s progress as it used to be.

Dual carriageways and ring roads don’t provide the sense of liberation, pilgrimage and adventure that CS Lewis alludes to. We all know how unsettling it is when as a pedestrian you are forced to walk under a ring road or through a subway.

But lively streets and squares can provide a sense of wonder. They are also effective at connecting different parts of a city together; and this connectivity is of vital importance. Just as our bodies need a healthy circulation of blood, so our cities need a healthy circulation of pedestrians. Pedestrian flows are like the life-blood of cities, and barriers to pedestrian freedom can be as harmful to cities as cholesterol is to our bodies.

Urban quality is determined by how well a place is interconnected with its surroundings and by how well pedestrians can move around without hitting barriers like subways or dead end routes. Coventry is rediscovering this.

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Market squares mark the most connected points in a city; they are places of arrival, where you are made to feel welcome – and you might even be made to feel that you belong.

This sense of belonging speaks to one of our strongest human desires.

By simply sitting in a lively public square, where people live and work, and where people from different walks of life are gathered together, there is a shared experience.

As such, squares are of communal value and they help to teach us about civility, public life, and community cohesion.

The identity of many cities is drawn from squares because they provide the stage upon which the lives of their inhabitants unfold; Coventry was a city of spires and it was also a city of squares.

In places where there are no public squares, or no sense of a shared journey, people disengage and retreat into private space. The public realm becomes the place of the “have-nots” and fear of crime increases.

Public squares are about culture and participative democracy. For the dictator, they are a threat. Dictators don’t want the people talking to each other and exchanging information. It’s too empowering. That is why dictators have always sought to control public squares. In Franco’s Spain, strict controls were placed over the use of public squares for decades.

In ancient Babylon, the main processional route led from the main city gates to the central square and it accommodated the annual festival, which brought people together and reinforced a sense of belonging. Participating in rituals and communal eating strengthened bonds of loyalty.

Enduring town planning features are the processional route connecting with a main square, all of which accommodate an annual festival.

In ancient Greece and Rome, triumphant arches marked the processional route as it approached the main city square.

In these ancient cities the main square was large enough to give physical definition to the whole settlement, and it would also be big enough to contain the whole population of the city.

The Greek grid layout was used in New York, and it’s interesting to see how the relationship between a processional route and a main square continues to shape life in Manhattan.

Fifth Avenue is the most accessible street within the grid layout and this connects to the lively Washington Square, there’s even a Triumphant Archway.

Fifth Avenue performs as a processional way. The annual Saint Patrick’s Day Parade marches along it, uniting New Yorker’s in timeless fashion.

Back in the sixteenth century, when Coventry was staging the popular Mystery Plays in its bustling medieval squares, a new urban design movement was stirring in the squares of Italy.

Brunelleshi and Michaelangelo were beginning to design formal arrangements with new avenues connecting with squares; initially these were relatively modest interventions within medieval Italian cities.

But Renaissance planning developed quickly. It rejected lively, mixed-use public squares in favour of geometric town planning arrangements that segregated land uses and accommodated fast moving carriages.

These new geometric plans look attractive on a piece of paper, but they related poorly to the practical, physical, three-dimensional needs of ordinary citizens.

In urban design there was now an emphasis upon absolute power, and this is reflected in the imposition of straight lines and long vistas that give an impression of limitless space.

Powerful members of society wanted to get to places quickly, and the built environment was increasingly designed around the needs of their carriages.

Within a couple of centuries, the industrial revolution and growth of European empires strengthened many capitalist economies.

No longer the small-scale interventions of Brunelleshi and Michaelangelo; instead new masterplans often swept away the ancient and the medieval.

The very term masterplanning suggests absolutism, that there are masters and those that need to be planned for.

In the 1930’s Mussolini demolished the medieval neighbourhood that had grown over the ancient Roman Forum and he built a new processional route over it linking the ancient Coliseum to his personal palace.

What’s this got to do with Coventry? Well, just before the Second World War, the Gibson plan for Coventry was produced, and it did impose straight lines and it did segregate land uses. After the Second World War, cities like Caen in Normandy that had been devastated by bombing were rebuilt following their historic street patterns, Coventry was not.

In Coventry city centre the rich tapestry of different human activities that had existed cheek by jowl for centuries, with people living, working, and shopping on the same streets and squares, was not reinstated.

Added to this, as with many other cities, Coventry city centre was segregated from its surroundings by a ring road, but change is now afoot. An expansive new pedestrian bridge over a lowered ring road has reconnected Coventry’s railway station with the core of the city centre; added to this, there has been major investment in pedestrian friendly, high quality public realm across swathes of the city centre.

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Coventry is rediscovering the pedestrian connectivity that would have existed in its historic city, and which survives in the Italian city states that traded with it.

The squares of Venice are designed in a way that assists way finding for a pilgrim headed to Saint Marks Basilica.

Each public square in Venice has a landmark church tower, much like Coventry did, and in Venice these towers get taller the closer you get to saint Mark’s. There is a hierarchy of squares and towers across the whole city, which culminates with the Piazza San Marco and its great campanile.

The Piazza San Marco is the only square in Venice to be called a piazza, all of the other squares are called campi, so even the names of the squares reinforces this sense of hierarchy.

Venice’s squares give structure to the city and they make it legible; they assist visitors in orientating themselves. Piazza San Marco links with a main processional route, the Grand Canal, but what will be Coventry’s processional route? These town planning issues are crucial for any City of Culture to address.

Nick Corbett is the author of Revival in the Square, published by RIBA

Coventry City of Culture Trust is an independent charity that has been set up to manage the bid process; discover more at Coventry City of Culture 2021

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