Why don’t we do squares very well around here? As new year was counted down in the cities of the world, one thing struck SevenStreets: our city’s squares were all rather under-utilised. They were setting fireworks off in village, town and city squares from Tobermory to Tromso. Ours? Well, we don’t know, we weren’t there. Were you?

Kettled in by the stuccoed facades of Brussles’ Grand Place, Barcelona’s Plaza Mayor or Havana’s Revolution Square, rather than the police barriers of Concert Square, citizens of the city, tourists and traders experience the shared sensation of celebration and camaraderie that punctuate any world class city’s calendar.

But forget the fireworks (waste-of-money cat-botherers anyway), and, year round, city squares still have a major role to play as decompression zones: places where the city can pause, relax and socialise. A place where all roads meet, where office workers, lunching ladies and map-wielding tourists collide at coffee shops, pavement cafes or cultural centres.

At least, that’s the theory. So why have ours become silted up and sidelined?

Most city squares started life as market places, surrounded by grand civic buildings. An at-a-glance status report of a city’s wealth and ambition. It’s a job our cities usually leave to John Lewis these days. But, the squares remain – even if the markets and public proclamations, the balcony waving and the public flogging have long gone. Shame.

These days, we tend to gather at the foot of the steps in Liverpool ONE (at least, when Gok Wan’s prancing about, forcing dinner ladies into lycra), or down by the river.

But we have some fine squares, in Hamilton, Exchange Flags, Abercrombie and Williamson (have we missed any?) – squares that are easily the match of Manchester’s, Glasgow’s, Newcastle’s or Bradford’s.

But, whereas Manchester’s Albert Square remains the city’s natural muster station, Glasgow’s George Square is host to year-round concerts and events, and Bradford’s Centenary Square has seen a multi-million face-lift turn it into a social hub, with the city’s gorgeous Town Hall as backdrop, Birkenhead’s Grade One listed Hamilton Square is as hushed and deserted as the Echo’s printing floor, and Liverpool’s Exchange Flags, currently undergoing some sort of rebirth, isn’t what you’d call essential viewing. Kudos to Coffee Republic and Sakura for trying, though. We’ll wait and see what UK Land and Property, the square’s current developers, have up their sleeves.

Bradford’s Centenary Square (pic r)  is a good example of what, with a little joined up thinking, a good public-private bed-in can bring. Developers want to built apartments. The Council lets them, with the proviso they create street-level retail, leisure and landscaping for the rest of us to enjoy, and to ensure the space doesn’t become, like so many of our ‘new’ squares (such as the chilly St Paul’s, off Old Hall Street), a dead-zone of me-too apartments, and light sleeping residents complaining about noise in the, er, city centre.

The result – a once grand civic quarter is reborn. With mirror pond, colonnades and pasta. And the city has a new place to stop and smell the coffee. And, potentially, give Gok Wan a good dunking, should he start up with his needy, boob-clutching histrionics.

Hamilton Square – second only to Trafalgar Square in London for having the most Grade I listed buildings in one place in England, fact fans – was actually modelled in the graceful geometry of Edinburgh’s New Town: a place with more squares than a Moleskine geometric jotter. Lively ones, too. But the architect’s vision of a place where ladies and gentlemen would take the air, amid rose gardens, slender poplars and elegant town houses is some way off the mark these days.

The only ‘trade’ going on after dark here is one that you most definitely can’t claim back against expenses.

Shame. Cajobah gave it a good stab: a wholefood cafe, textiles gallery and art shop. It was fab. But, buffeted by increased parking prices, the grand maisonette flats let to… let’s just say a demographic not overly familiar with felt tapestries, and the closure of Birkenhead Town Hall, and Cajobah is no more.

The Hamilton Partnership has tried to save the Town Hall, with ambitious plans for a John Peel Centre: an art and culture meeting point, with galleries, venue space and permanent home to Peel’s extensive musical archives.

The Council? A year after the proposal, and they’re still dithering, while another winter’s rain pours through the building’s ruptured ceilings.

Their  minutes suggest that, rather than support the Hamilton Partnership’s scheme to commemorate one of the borough’s own, and give a much needed jolt of life to Birkenhead’s only potential tourism quarter (MerseyTravel’s excellent U Boat Story is just down the road at Woodside), they need to weigh up whether it might be better all round if the building was ‘mothballed’. It would, they say, be cheaper, at just £10,000 a year. It’s true, it would. But at what ultimate cost?

The Hamilton Partnership wants the Council to spend around £1million to repair the building’s roof, and grant them a three year lease to test whether their proposal can be viable. Fair enough, we’d say: the proposal looks thoroughly sensible, and their projections too. Bring more tourists into town and everyone – Council too – gets to share the spoils. Maybe some of the town’s workforce will be able to work there, too. There’s a thought.

Yet, despite all this, hands up who suspects the dust sheets are already being unfurled?

As we said, there’s something of the square basher in our nature.

  • J Gorman

    The former Birkenhead Town Hall was described as the ‘Jewel on the Crown’ of Hamilton Square; the second most Grade 1 listed buildings outside of London. It has been closed for nearly 2 years.
    In 2001, The Hamilton Quarter was created at a cost of £85m, and handed over the the Council to manage. The former Town Hall became the Wirral Museum. The Egerton Bridge, Transport Museum, Pumping House, Pacific Road Arts Centre and the Priory were all part of this ‘grand scheme’.
    Street lamps and 11 ‘totem pole’ markers were Commissioned. Market Street and the Antiques Triangle were refurbished.
    The plan to exploit the Hamilton Quarter was exciting and impressive.
    But within two years the cracks appeared, the Hamilton Quarter management was run down, and since then only the Priory remains. Market Street struggles. The Antiques Triangle is all but empty.
    The whole area is a cultural desert … and nobody has ever asked the question … why.
    Why was the £85m dream, which was meant to put a cultural life into a much needed community, never realised
    There are several more questions which need to be asked

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David

    You’re quite right. Seems all the more perplexing that, after the groundwork, they’ve not prepared to go the extra mile to deliver something more than logos, branding and signage. Something substantial and positive. Tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with the Hamilton Partnership, by the way. They’ve never returned our messages, sadly.

  • john

    Your very specific inclusion of St Paul’s square in your article was totally uncalled for.

    St Paul’s full of ‘light sleeping’ and complaining residents? Care to substantiate that slight on the residents of this block? Would you publish the complaints from these residents that you are aware of, that you based this on?

    1) St Pauls is in the commercial district, and night time noise is highly unusual in this area.

    2) With this in mind, in this instance of night time noise I would propose that these residents who have carefully selected the location of their home perhaps have more right to complain than someone in a livelier area. But, since night time noise is unusual in this area, again I ask – what complaints have these ‘light sleeping’ residents made?

    3) I would point out though, people in any area have a right to complain about people having 3am parties, or anti-social behaviour on the street – if that is what you are referring to. Noise intrusion can cause distress and mental illness and people have a legal right of protection against it. I am not aware of any noise problems in the St Pauls area, and I would challenge you to demonstrate that you are.

    4) Dead zone? St Paul’s in under very heavy development at present, which is the real reason why its activity levels are lower than they should be. This is already starting to change with two coffee houses, and a shop opening up, and this is before one of the main buildings is even finished, with the square being a construction zone.

    5) Despite that it’s in the commercial district, despite that it’s not even finished, St Pauls has already had a few public social events held in it for the benefit of both commercial and individual residents – hardly the ‘dead zone’ you claim.

    6) Being the commercial district, when the development is fully finished it still won’t be a hive of night-time activity. Surprisingly, it will be a place of commerce, a place that generates real jobs instead of just sick on pavements.

    7) ‘Me too’ apartments? There is only one residential block in St Pauls – all others are commercial developments. These are people’s homes and by all accounts people living there seem to like them. They may not be to your tastes but why slate them and try to denigrate them? What was St Pauls before this development?

    I suggest you issue a retraction of your allegations against St Pauls, and give its residents an apology. Certainly – unless the substantiation is forthcoming – I feel they deserve it.

  • Jacky

    *Someone* got out the wrong side of their St Pauls Square-facing bed this morning, then.

  • john

    It’s not funny Jacky. These are people’s homes that are being slagged off. I don’t live in St Pauls Square – but I know people that do. St Pauls is a decent area, and I would like to see it stay that way – not degenerate INTO what the author describes simply because decent people are given what I believe is a wrong impression, and don’t want to live there simply because of that.

    If comments are going to be made that could make someone think twice about buying somewhere, or renting somewhere, then that affects whoever does own that flat in the first place. How would you feel if that was you? I didn’t get out of the wrong side of the bed, what has been said in this article deserves to be challenged. It’s simple – substantiate or retract.

  • Jacky

    These are ‘aspirational’ city centre living/leisure squares though – they are constructs from planners and developers and aren’t that different to each other up and down the country. They’re all fairly identickit, common in every city and people are aware of what they’re getting when they rent or buy a space there (and yes, I too know people in and around St Pauls Square). Nobody – unless they are incredibly impressionable – is going to read a throwaway line in an article and decide not to live in a specific place off the back of it.

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David

    John, I’m sorry if you took offence. My point is – and remains – that new mixed-use squares, or even developments of older squares, are sorely lacking in atmosphere. I know Brew is on St Paul’s, and it’s a SevenStreets favourite, but even the most charitable observer could never describe the development as fizzing with energy, or atmosphere. You may say that’s not the point. My argument is that they’re a missed opportunity. I know that organizers of the successful Gay Pride event had a real challenge on their hands to hold anything on Exchange Flags – the landlords/residents were less than keen to have any public celebrations in their midst. By your own admission, you’ve already said that St Paul’s residents have carefully selected the location of their home to be in a quiet area. That, to me, doesn’t sound like they want to encourage the square to become part of the thriving, animated fabric of a welcoming city, but a sealed-off quiet zone. My point: the city centre shouldn’t develop along those lines at all. Imagine that happening in Seville? No, me neither.

  • John

    It feels according to your views the city centre should be nothing more than a hubbub of cafes, pubs and clubs and people ‘enjoying themselves’ until the early hours.

    That’s a very narrow view of a ‘thriving city centre’. If you visit any major city (including Seville), you will find that it takes up lots of different types of areas to create a whole. Do you think national/international businesses will want to have their prime offices somewhere where it’s not safe at night, with drunkards splattering their buildings with sick, or smashing windows? With nightclubs still blaring out music as their workers are just starting to arrive in the morning? Is there any major city which is a success without having a proper commercial district?

    The point of a ‘commercial district’ is a place primarily of commerce. It’s an important area on which many jobs depend, and on which the future of the whole city hinges. So what if residents choose to ride the benefits of that, and get themselves somewhere quiet to live? What have you got against people wanting to live quietly? Are you a city centre resident? And if not, what right do you have to tell people how they should live, and what they should put up with? These people are putting more into the ‘fabric’ of the city centre than anyone – they are invested residents, keeping the area clean, looking after their buildings, keeping crime away, giving local shops regular custom, being welcoming to tourists, talking to them, providing directions – all of things I myself as a city centre resident have done, and things I regularly witness others doing.

    I note that you haven’t offered any substantiation for that you have declared that St Pauls Square is “a dead-zone of me-too apartments, and light sleeping residents complaining about noise in the, er, city centre.” You also haven’t even taken my point that the Square is not even finished, which has a dramatic (short term) effect on its appearance and use.

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David

    John, here’s a suggestion. Lighten up. On the continent, commerce, retail and leisure is far more integrated. That is a fact. They don’t do ‘Commercial Quarters’ in most forward thinking cities. Why should ‘commerce’ be ringfenced into a ghetto. An absolutely ridiculous conceit. St Paul’s Square is not sufficiently different from any new glass and steel city development, the likes of which you can see in Manc, Leeds, Sheffield, Belfast, Glasgow etc. Oh, and why are you so hung up on the link between late night cafes and bars and pools of sick? Dunno about you, but we can manage to stay out late and remain relatively in control of ourselves. A lot of people in this city can. If you offer the right mix of late night options, you’ll attract the right mix of punters. It’s grown up thinking, which works, again, in other cities. I very much doubt St Paul’s would ever turn into a Concert Square. And my point about light sleeping residents was a general point about the recent phenomena, in this city, of residents complaining about noise.

  • Raisha

    I hope St Paul’s Sq has a pharmacy so John can get himself a chill pill..

    I work right by this square and there’s absolutely nothing different to it than, say, East Village up off Duke Street (which I happen to live right by). And which the author quite easily could have replaced SPS with – it was quite clearly just a throw away example of a generic city centre square rather than ‘naming and shaming’ SPS. Overreaction much.

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David

    I like you, Raisha.

  • KT

    A good friend of mine lives in Bradford, Centenary Square and the money spent on it is almost universally hated by local people apparently.

  • Rachel Fox

    The plaza here in Soller is the heart of the town, and they try to stop the children playing on occasions when balls fly into coffee cups in the surrounding cafes and boys on bikes whizz about. Today we decided to revive some games. I suggest you get the children out there… Buy some elastic and they will come. http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/1776944

  • Gerry

    Just want to say thank you for raising this issue and to say that I think both John and David are making important points. I work with residents in apartments across the city centre and waterfront through an organisation called Engage Liverpool and we have arranged a follow-up meeting to our first resident’s Meet the Neighbours in the Commercial District gathering when locals identified public open spaces as an issue they wished to take further. This meeting organised in conjunction with the Commercial District BID and with the support of those in the city who also want to see our public squares and open spaces become places that everyone can draw life from and contribute to. Our meeting will be held above our local pub, the Cross Keys, on Wednesday 14th March from 5.30pm. Places are limited and can be booked through http://www.engageliverpool.com
    We are also doing the same in the Ropewalks in April and with regard to the comments about residents and noise our annual conference for city centre apartment residents on May 26th at ACCL has as its theme this year Living in a 24-hour City. We are not opposed to the night-time economy at all, we just want it controlled.