A Place for Everything
Liverpool’s future: How can homes, leisure and workspace thrive alongside each other?
Words by Christine Toner
Liverpool city centre is unrecognisable from what it was a decade ago. Student housing is a dominant feature, the food and drink offering has increased considerably, nightlife has changed and evolved, and whole areas have been redesigned.
Long disused districts and spaces that served one purpose for decades have become multi-use, with the likes of the business district now housing a residential element and the Georgian quarter becoming a mecca for new bars and eateries.
In an ideal world all elements would co-exist – who wouldn’t want our city centre to have it all? But numerous UK cities have shown that’s often easier said than done.
News stories of petitions and protests as cultural venues are closed to make way for new developments or of much loved bars having their licenses revoked as a result of noise complaints from new residential tenants show all too clearly the problems that can occur.
As development continues apace in Liverpool, how can the city avoid the pitfalls – and reap the benefits – of having a multipurpose offering?
“Amsterdam has been quite successful in managing to have it all. Much of this is related to very intensive planning (both national and local).”
One city that planners and developers here would do well to look to is Amsterdam. The Dutch capital has long been praised as the city that got planning right and as models go it would be a smart one to replicate.
“Amsterdam has indeed been quite successful in managing to have it all,” says Dr Willem Boterman, a professor of urban geography and urban studies at the University of Amsterdam. “Much of this is related to very intensive planning (both national and local) while at the same time a relatively modest central state that has not come up with any mega development plans.
“The city also owns most of the land, which makes it hard for private developers to ignore other interests. The city is very fine grained and has therefore been accommodating to a plethora of functions.”
This plethora of functions is easy to see. The centre of the city, Dam Square, which features a range of tourist attractions sits aside Nieuwmarkt, a historic and quirky area featuring flea markets, food stalls and numerous bars and restaurants. To the east lies the city’s Botanic Gardens and Zoo – not too far from the cultural Museum Quarter where galleries and museums rub shoulders with high end boutiques.
The business district, Zuidas, is rapidly developing and bills itself as a great place to “work and live”.
In keeping with the city’s ability to have it all, Zuidas is also home to residential developments, leisure facilities and hotels, and plans are in place to build a further 9,000 homes in the area by 2040.
In Liverpool the ‘functions’ of the city centre were, for many years, very much defined and separated.
The business district was the most obvious example of this. Taking a stroll down Old Hall Street on a Saturday a few years ago you could hear a pin drop, but this is starting to change.
Apartment conversions in former office buildings are bringing a residential element to the commercial district while an ever-growing offering of bars and restaurants on Castle Street ensures the area caters for everyone.
The key, it seems, is finding the right balance. In Amsterdam a policy is in place to do just that.
“The municipality has a ‘balance in the city’ policy, meaning trying to find a middle ground between tourism, business and residential functions,” says Dr Boterman. “Tourism is now becoming very dominant in some parts of the city.”
Dr Robert MacDonald, professor and reader in architecture at Liverpool John Moores University, says a body analysing developers’ plans would be of benefit in Liverpool as it aims to broaden its offering, so as to avoid disputes. Indeed, such a body did once exist.
“There used to be an Urban Design Forum in place which would look at developers’ proposals and pass comment on them that doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “Many cities in Europe – including Amsterdam – still have these.”
“Liverpool seems to be losing some of that grain tissue. In Amsterdam they are insistent on keeping as much of the fabric of the city centre.”
Dr MacDonald says one thing Amsterdam does well, which isn’t always executed as well here, is maintain the aesthetics and the history of the city centre with new developments.
“Liverpool seems to be losing some of that grain tissue,” he says. “Some of the smaller buildings are being replaced with monolithic blocks. In Amsterdam they are insistent on keeping as much of the fabric of the city centre.”
For a city to be multi-purpose and offer all things to all people it has to be accessible and this, says Dr MacDonald, is an area in which Liverpool falls down.
“Getting from John Lennon Airport to Liverpool city centre isn’t easy,” he says. “You either have to wait for the bus or pay for a taxi. Cities like Amsterdam have a much better system.”
Amsterdam’s public transport system includes an extensive network connecting the city’s neighbourhoods by train, tram, metro, bus and ferry.
Of course, there is a danger with so much activity focused on the city centre that areas outside of that central zone could get left behind. Do we want to have a city centre that has it all but a wider city that is neglected?
“The areas which surround the city centre – Anfield, Kensington, Walton, Dingle – they’re being forgotten,” says Dr MacDonald. “These are the areas where most people live and they’re neglected.
“If you look at Amsterdam the areas surrounding the centre feature parks and lakes – which all make for a healthy area.”
With plans underway for a new creative quarter to be developed to the north of the city centre as part of the Ten Streets initiative there are signs, at least, that, while central Liverpool flourishes, those areas outside of it have not fallen off the radar.