Cruelly, for organisers of Africa Oye, this weekend turned out to offer a brief respite to all the weather we’ve been having. SevenStreets – relieved of dancing in the park duties – took a stroll down to our waterfront to see what was happening.
It was, of course, dead. And when is a public space not a public space? When the public stays away.
This £30 million scheme of public realm and canal extension – surely one of the most dramatic entrances to the heart of a city – was opened just four years ago, championed by the Mersey Waterfront.
The development, by AECOM, won bucketloads of awards. The 16,000sqm public realm, in their words, “became an exciting space incorporating vibrant sunken water basins as part of a new canal link and revitalized open-air performance area.”
Has anyone ever seen a performance at the ‘revitalized open-air performance area?’ (pic r). We haven’t. Did you even know there was one?
“We aim to transform many of our historic promenades, which have suffered from years of neglect,” said Trinity Mirror’s Sara Wilde, then Chair of Mersey Waterfront, a scant four years ago, adding that, while Capital of Culture was a catalyst, “the importance of the waterfront must go on beyond 2008.”
“The waterfront needs an on-going care and development programme to make sure that our children look back and can see the waterfront is not only a fantastic asset for people living here, but it is of national and international repute and it is part of the economic revival of the whole area.”
So where is that ongoing programme today? We’re not sure. All we know is that there’s no-one who cares enough to clear away the weeds on the war memorials, and the Mersey Waterfront site now links to ‘the phone co-op’ website.
So much for legacy.
The Pier Head is the largest public space in Liverpool. But, because it sits alongside the river, we’ve all but turned our backs on it. Yes, it’s used for Olympic torch relays, summer RLPO concerts and occasional events but imagine if this space was, say, just off Church Street – or adjacent to Liverpool ONE. Could you envisage a Saturday afternoon in June where all of six people wandered aimlessly over the paving, served only by an ice-cream van and a coffee kiosk?
Ten acres of emptiness – the dead centre of town?
No, of course you couldn’t. The space would be animated, alive and a destination in its own right.
People will talk about the awkward geography of the city centre. Of how the four lane artery of the Strand slices the waterfront adrift from the rest of town. Nonsense. As Museum of Liverpool has shown, offer something down here, and people (1,300,000 and counting) will come.
So what can we do to save it? Well, we’re not saying we have the golden bullet. But we are saying, let’s start by having a conversation.
Seven Ways to Save the Waterfront.
Wait…before you fire-bomb SevenStreets HQ, hear us out…
Lazy analysts often talk of how much more ‘can do’ Manchester is than Liverpool. We just don’t buy that. We transformed 42 acres of edgelands into a £1 billion shopping and leisure destination with 1.4 million sq. feet of retail space…with 20 different architects.
And we did it in less than five years.
It’s eye-popping how ‘can-do’ Liverpool can be, when we set our mind to it. The difference, of course, is that Grosvenor had a singular vision. There was no dithering at the top, no political in-fighting, no clashing of agencies. In other words, ‘Liverpool’ took a step back, and let private enterprise take control. And the results speak for themselves.
Similarly, Merepark is transforming the no-mans’ land of Central Village (a seven acre plot with a similar sized footprint to the Pier Head) into a open air plaza, ringed by leisure facilities. SevenStreets had a site visit last week, and we’re impressed. It too will be privately managed public realm. And, we fully expect, it too will be a huge success.
People feared privatising chunks of our city centre would close areas off. We’d argue they’ve actually helped open things out…
Make a song and dance of it
We know that the Pier Head can’t be built upon, but if a company skilled in event management and entertainments was granted exclusive licensing to animate this space all year round with events, markets, shows and spectacles imagine what kind of creative solutions it could come up with.
Imagine if Cream’s new owners, Live Nation, operated zone of waterside entertainments and a calendar of seasonal events – rather than a confusion of land owners, council departments and agencies squabbling over access rights. Go on, imagine! Or, say, a nexus of city-based events organisers (we have plenty of great ones). Similar schemes are a success in foggy San Francisco and, especially Baltimore . Atelier BowWow’s Rockscape was great, but the city was too noisy for it (we remember trying to enjoy Barbie Shop when police cars were blaring outside, on Hardman Street). Down here, all is quiet. Perfect for year round performances.
Talking of ‘can-do’, Cruise Liverpool’s Director, Angie Redhead, has turned around our Cruise fortunes: literally. In under four years, we’ve returned the city to the river, thanks to the new cruise terminal, and its recent ‘turnaround’ status: allowing the world’s mighty liners to disembark from our shores, rather than just pop in for a few hours en route to somewhere else.
“Liverpool’s waterfront was always the gateway to the city. It’s great to think that it could be again,” Angie says.
The solution? Well, it’s not the prettiest: the white super-sized gazebo acts as Liverpool’s passenger handling terminal. But it’s serviceable, and – crucially – it works.
And for every ship that starts or ends its journey here, the city stands to benefit to the tune of £2 million.
So why not give our visitors something, on hand, to enjoy as soon as they step off the gangplank. Currently, we’ve got a chaos of taxis, and the severe facades of the new office blocks on Princes Parade.
“A cruise ship coming to town isn’t just about the tourists,” Angie says, “People come down to the waterfront to see the ships. Three and a half thousand passengers get off the ship. It’s a large scale city event.”
And at the Pier Head? Ice cream and coffee (and the Beatles Story). Successful cruise ports offer a welcome that is, intrinsicly, linked to the city: seafood stalls, flea markets, street performers, steel bands. Whatever it is, Princes Parade doesn’t offer it. A good turnaround ports needs to shout ‘You’re Here’.
“Liverpool’s waterfront was always the gateway to the city. It’s great to think that it could be again,” she says.
Which brings us on to…
Make It Pop Up
If our Cruise terminal is pop-up, it shows what you can do: and proves that UNESCO doesn’t have to be a bar to new developments down along the riverfront (and that’s the last UNESCO mention you’re going to get. Promise).
With the proposed loss of Key’s Court’s tiny bazaar, Liverpool is in dire need of a semi-permanent home for its burgeoning arts and crafts makers, its home-made produce and its unique, independent traders.
Yes, there are events in Bluecoat’s gardens, upstairs in Leaf, and in St George’s Hall – but they’re sporadic, easy to miss, and fleeting in nature. Manchester’s Art and Craft Centre, Brighton’s Lanes, Camden Lock Market – most of the UK’s cities have semi-permanent zones where small start-ups and arts traders call home. What better welcome to cruise passengers, and what better spiritual home for us, than a village of jaunty sheds and stalls offering, all summer long, a place to enjoy some soul-stirring alternatives to Liverpool ONE’s big name chains?
If the city’s makers and artists could come together to run the space – and our Council offered a not-for-profit scheme making this development affordable and viable (similar to their excellent Shops Upfront initiative) we think this space would really come to life. It’s criminal that rents and rates are squeezing ‘Liverpoolness‘ out of the city centre. Here we have an ideal ringfenced space, with no retail competition. Give it to us.
People are not in the habit of coming here. To create a habit, you need consistency. A summer residency of stalls and events is a sure way to start.
Invest in the Margins
The Chrysalis Fund has successfully kickstarted a number of developments across the city – most recently the Merepark Central Village scheme. Similarly, the Jessica Fund is concerned with long term regeneration: (permanent) offices, urban development and economic infrastructure.
What’s missing is a parallel fund that supports the provision of temporary spaces for the creative community to meet its public (let’s face it, hundreds of thousands has just been granted, rightly, to the Phil to improve its building. Our smaller arts organisations would kill for a pop-up summer venue they could share, no?). Let FVMA build a huddled village of funky sheds, like it’s doing at the Baltic, and let the city’s creative sector and its audience meet and mingle, and offer a space to do business in the heart of the city. Bodies from Made Here to Mercy could helm it – similar to the freewheeling fun we enjoyed at the Co-operative, when it took over Rapid’s old paint shop. Think Copenhagen’s Christiania area – a quirky commune in the margins of the city, and massively important addition to the city’s tourist offering.
The stunning Leeds Liverpool canal extension was, said British Waterways’ Project Manager Richard Longton at the time “part of a wider development programme designed to create a visitor destination of international quality.”
It’s a vision that’s largely been realised – with the completion of the museum and the Mann Island complex (whatever your thoughts on that are). But there’s one thing missing.
When the £20m extension was completed, Robin Evans, Chief Executive of British Waterways commented: “When the Canal Link opens for the first time in over a century canal boats will sail once again across the world renowned Pier Head and into the heart of this famous city. The link will bring animation to the waterfront and rejuvenate the communities the canal passes through bringing economic benefits to the region.”
But, bizarrely, the arrangement is that boats are only allowed into the lower canal stretches – the waterfront – once a day, at dawn. As if they have to creep in under cover of twilight, lest anyone spot them. So, during the afternoons, when people are milling about, the waterway remains curiously devoid of life.
Bring in the boats = instant animation. Yes, further upstream there are active docks – but other waterways in the UK manage to incorporate working and leisure craft in a more integrated way. It shouldn’t be a zero sum game.
Elect a Waterfront Mayor
Well, maybe not a mayor, maybe a Czar. Or, better, a captain. We need one person, in charge, with enough power to make things happen. Not a myriad of agencies. Not Peel, the Council, Downing, NML, certainly not Neptune, Merseytravel… – we need a ‘buck stops here’ person who can take a holistic view, otherwise, like the weeds on the memorial, things will simply fall through the cracks. There’s support for this already – at the Tate.
“We seem to have been talking about the development of the waterfront for ages,” says Tate Liverpool’s Executive Director, Andrea Nixon, “and nothing much happens,”
Fortunately, the Tate will ensure the Albert Dock stays busy all summer long, thanks to its brilliant Turner Monet Twombly show. But, Nixon agrees, one swallow and all that…
“We need more decisive action” Nixon says. “And we need more access – with all bridges opened up again, into and out of Albert and Canning docks.”
“We need someone with real vision to spearhead its Renaissance, too,” Nixon says, when SevenStreets talks about Mersey Waterfront’s lapsed ‘Big Ideas’ “It’s a criminally underused space,” she says, looking out onto the dazzling white expanse of paving, of handrails holding no-one.
“The Museum has been a massive help, but there’s still a confusion as to how best to utilise the space all year long, and connect the city with the river again.”
Does it matter, when we’ve got Open Eye, and the Museum of Liverpool, and the new canal, that there are weeds in the war memorials?
We’d say it does. We’d say they are indicative of a flaw in our character. Of a failure of carrying through on our promises. We’re good at the ‘big ticket’ – and Joe Anderson’s announcement of the new Exhibition Centre is welcome. But, when the Giants have gone, and Monet and Co have left the Tate, we need something more: something to keep us connected, year round, to our past and to our future. To keep returning to the river.