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.

Privatize It

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.

Connect to the Cruise Liners

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.

Bring in the Boats

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.

Boats.

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.

  • Andrew

    Your Picture shows part of a private development that forms part of the mann island complex. not the performance area which is over by the Liver Building and used regularly!

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David Lloyd

    Not quite – this corner of the complex was specifically designed as a performance space (including performances from canal boats) hence the tiered seating. The other area isn’t incorporated into the public realm architecture, but is more for concerts etc. Both could be better used.

  • http://www.made-here.co.uk made-here shop

    Spot on as ever Dave. I know that Made-Here is not the only locally owned arts based business that has approached the developers in the last 6 months with proposals to animate this space – ours was pitched in February and targeted the April Giant Spectactular event as being the launch of a series of projects. Initial responses were good then silence and un-returned phonecalls and emails – leading us to fear that very common occurance….that our ideas would be taken and delivered in-house…..however, there was clearly not enough energy or commitment to the space and the city for that and so nothing happened. Another wasted opportunity for us all

  • Andrew

    But that section of tiered seating behind the Mann Island building is only recently opened to the public. hardly surprising that it’s scarcely been used as it hasn’t been gone through any summer activity yet. personally i think it would be a great drop off place for canal tours, but it takes time I guess.

    As for the rest of the Pier Head, it has gone from having just an ageing Chinese restaurant to now having Hamilton’s, Starbucks, Matou, and the Museum Cafe, the Open Eye Gallery and Liverpool Museum and the Prezzo & Brassier Blanc restaurants set to open.

    I go through Pier Head every couple of weeks, and personally i think it’s far busier than it used to be, particularly since it has been reconnected with the Albert Dock (which in turn has become busier since L1 was built). the Canal has really added to the space, whilst the slopes have provided places to sit out of the wind that is ever present in this city.

    I’ve frequently seen the Pier Head busy, even in the depths of Winter (which never happened pre-renovation).

  • Julie

    Pride was held here last year to mixed success, but that was more to do with infighting between the camps (pardon the pun!) which meant that the festival was split between the Pier Head and Stanley Street. I think the space is criminally underused – you don’t have to close off streets, it’s safe for kids and the rain can’t turn it into a muddy mess. Restaurants are fine and good Andrew, but we don’t eat all the time. It would be great to see something happening here every week in Summer, like you get in other cities – and even a bit of rain wouldn’t stop it, because it doesn’t stop us shopping!!

  • Gerry Proctor

    Thanks for another important and vital tolic that Seven Streets is bringing to our attention. I welcome the debate and feel that you are probably pushing at an open door. The Liverpool Waterfront Business Partnership is attempting to get some joined-up thinking and is bringing together everyone who has an interest in the waterfront. There is a lot going on behind the scenes but it is slow and it should be happening more in public. I think your idea of a Waterfont Czar is excellent. Maybe the new Mayor would be up for that but would all the various landowners and agencies?!

  • smont

    Getting the bloomin coffee shop to stay open for a bit longer would be a start- every time we’ve been down there in the evening it’s just a locked room full of stacked tables… there’s no vision; as you say, it’s the vision that’s missing. x

  • Roy McCarthy

    Amazed no-one’s yet picked up on how shoddy that memorial looks, and it’s not just a memorial for the Dutch, there are plaques all around it, for fleets from Liverpool and other nations too. That’s a real disgrace.

  • Boater

    Narrowboats are my specialised subject… your article not exactly correct – boats have to be escorted in and out of Liverpool to/from Aintree, supposedly due to the swing bridges in between (though there are hundreds of swing bridges elsewhere on the system and most of them are boater-operated). Three days a week boats leave Salthouse dock at dawn, three days they arrive, at around 2pm having left Aintree at 9am. Maximum 6 boats a day I think. Liverpool’s a canal dead-end with no moorings along the way so you’ll always see less traffic, but the moorings in the Salthouse have been much busier this year than previous years.

  • Boater

    Andrew is correct that the Mann Island site is an ideal place for canal tours, you may wonder why Vauxhall Neighbourhood Council received £156,000 from the Council to set up such a venture a few years ago but so far the boat has only been out a couple of times and is too big anyway to get under the bridge at Stanley Dock and so bring any business to the Vauxhall area.

  • http://www.mixedpickle.co.uk Andy Minnis

    Some very good points made, the new canal-side amphitheatre definitely needs animating. The ideas of performance in that space and a collection of stalls from local businesses and enterprises made me think of the Mauerpark in Berlin. It’s a scruffy piece of parkland in an area where the Berlin Wall once stood. In one area, there’s a busking point with tiered seating. Anyone can play, and it often draws good crowds. Across the park is a massive flea market, full of life, curiosity and some very surreal objects for sale. The two things really bring the area to life and it seems like the same could happen in Liverpool… it’ll be interesting to see what develops!

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David Lloyd

    Thanks Boater. Sorry about that – I was taking info from British Waterways PDFs which make the point that they’ve only negotiated a ‘right of passage’ through Liverpool Central Docks with the dock owners – I’m guessing it’s a compromise of sorts. Moorings are indeed a problem, a houseboate friend of mine has mentioned this.

  • James

    Instead of fighting for scraps of grants individually, if our indie arts providers worked together, and submitted a grant for a permanent performance and trading space, maybe the Council would look at finding a home for them. I think the Pier Head is a perfect space – great for tourists, and not too far away from town like the Baltic – it’s strength in numbers. And in winter, why not a winter gardens? Some kind of perspex shelter, where you could have pop up bars (like the one they had at Liverpool one) and acoustic sea shanty performances to warm the cockles of your heart.

  • Doug.

    There’s a new post being developed by Liverpool Vision – Head of Marketing Liverpool. This role needs to work with all the key players, look at best practice from around the world, engage the community in creating something unique and special for Liverpool. It’s early days, we’ve got lots of time to get it right and we’ll make some mistakes along the way but as long as we’re coordinated, have a good vision and develop something for Liverpool with the community, it. will. work.

  • Diamond Joe Quimby.

    James, i’m not sure the indie arts providers would want to provide the council with such a service considering how little support it’s given them historically. The council should be begging its arts organisations to help them, not the other way around, the council simply have no idea of deferred gratification.

  • Chris

    One of the difficulties with doing anything at the Pier Head is the wind. It is one of the windiest places in the city. Any temporary structures would have to be very solid. Does anyone know why the council stopped doing the bonfire night fireworks at the river front? Was that wind related or money related? The fireworks were a great use of the river front. It allowed us to have a display that was really spectacular in front of thousands of people in the city centre.

  • James

    I think there’s a lot of good ideas here, hopefully the council will have a read.

    When the Mann Island lower floors are finished and occupied (and yes I know no one likes chain restaurants!) that should bring more people down from Liverpool One into the dockside.

    I would say that I do go down this way a lot, and it often is pretty busy already since the museum opened, so the ideas that attract people down the Strand and through the Albert Dock are definitely goers.

    One thing I think is a great shame is that trees were not planted alongside the Strand at the kerb edge running alongside the Albert Dock – this could be an amazing boulevard for people to wander, and the perfect location for some craft stalls and Christmas Market.

  • Doc Daneeka

    The analysis done for the grants to fund the canal link and fourth grace looked at the wind and (forgive me if I’m out but I’m going from memory) they concluded that there was on average maybe 60 days a year when the space was not made unusuable beacause of wind.

    Now thats not to say there shouldn’t be more effort here and the preformance space and seating down at canal level should address some of that.

    One problem is that regeneration focuses on things like musesums to pull people in and whilst they’re great and people do go, it doesn’t bring people back with an regularity. I’ve been to museum I’m not going back for several months am I .
    You need to have a space people want to be in when they’re just whileing away the time. Decent pubs and cafes that were open would help but whose going to open one even if there is space with no footfall. And doing this through tools available to those in regeneration in the provinces is very difficult.

    Oh and they should have dug up the huge wide central reserervation on the strand and planted some grass and proper trees it would look nicer and might address that opressive wall of heat you get from all that concrete on our few sunny days. And I’d only settle for that because my prefered option of sinking the mile of the strand from the Liver building to the Albert Dock entrance and putting a park over the top would be too expensive now.

  • Paul

    There has been a number of large scale public performances held at the Peir Head since it was redeveloped, I was involved in the Capital of Culture closing ceremony performing along the side of the new canal link in 2009. ‘On the waterfront’ saw dance acts, bands and performers bring the area to life, Liverpool Pride was held here last year. The 100th year anniversary of the Liver Building featured the spectacular projections across the three graces and the new museum whilst live music and performances where held on stage; and the amazing Sea Odyssey held several stages of the journey’s of the giants at the pier head. All of these events including the departure of the QM2 saw thousands of people congregate at the Peir Head. Yes this area may be dead most weeks of the year but when it does come alive it is a unique space in a unique city that stares boldly out across the sea.

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David Lloyd

    Yeah, you’re right – it IS a great space. And it really does come alive for the big ticket events. Just a shame it’s feast or famine, I think.

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  • Jon Gard

    Great piece David.