News: 28 January 2020Could connectivity be the key to unlocking Southampton’s identity?

In our first piece, we looked at how Southampton City Centre needs to adapt to the changing retail trends, and how accessibility is key to making the waterfront city a destination that people want to spend time in. Now we turn our heads to how a joined-up approach to development across the city, underpinned by a strategy to improve connectivity, could help unlock Southampton’s cultural identity; enhancing the city’s reputation and experience for residents, workers and visitors alike.

For Southampton - an already sprawling, diverse city whose expansion is constrained by the sea - it’s important that any future development makes the most of the limited space available, works to enhance the identity of its surroundings and provides improved connections between key destinations. For that to happen, planning decisions must be made and actioned in a cohesive way that plays to the city’s strengths and the enormous potential of its commercial and passenger port, university, retail centres and waterfront.

It’s with this potential in mind that Southampton’s City Centre Action Plan was developed. Designed primarily to provide a framework for decision-makers, the document should, in theory, work in tandem with the City Centre Master Plan which illustrates favoured concepts for how developments should look.

Several key areas including Station Quarter and the Western Gateway, Royal Pier Waterfront, the “Heart of the City”, the Cultural Quarter and Southampton Solent University are identified as key areas for change.

The plan has a good understanding of the areas needing change but the challenge is then to ensure that these areas of regeneration, with multiple developers, landowners, stakeholders and communities involved, knit together to form something that has a common identity– something that feels like Southampton.

To answer that question, we need to be able to understand what Southampton’s identity is – and that’s harder than it sounds.

Let’s leave Southampton for a moment and think of Portsmouth, just down the road. It’s not difficult to conjure up a sense of that city – its dockyard and naval history, Gunwharf Quays and Spinnaker Tower, and a fierce sense of community pride. Further east, there’s Brighton – even more identifiably a unique city with a liberal, diverse culture, a thriving centre complementing a busy seaside and a strong leisure offering.

Now think of Southampton again. What springs to mind? For many, West Quay. For others, the docks. St Mary’s, maybe. The Mayflower. Titanic, even. However; unlike other places with a clear sense of identity, it’s more difficult to pin down what Southampton feels like, what it stands for, what it represents. It’s hard to pinpoint that elusive “sense of place”.

This may be for many reasons – not least the historically transient nature of the people who have lived there, drawn to the docks from far and wide over decades and centuries. It could because of its geography – the way the city was re-built following World War II and has grown in a disjointed, piecemeal way. Even its most enthusiastic supporters would have to admit that Southampton is a confusing city to get around, particularly for the first-time visitor.

So, how do we create that sense of place and a destination? For us, it’s all about connections – how each part of the city can have its own character and purpose , and yet feel part of a whole. If we were designing Southampton from scratch, we’d have the luxury of being able to masterplan a community with careful integration of business, leisure, retail and residential spaces whilst reflecting and enhancing the city’s history. As it stands, the most obvious answer is to work with the city’s existing assets and link the city’s disparate parts in a way that feels cohesive, so the visitor who comes to shop at West Quay feels more likely stay to visit the waterfront, eat out and see a show at The Mayflower, making a visit to Southampton more of an experience rather than a functional trip.

There are clear aspirations in the City Area Action Plan to improve accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists including strategic and green links, but these will take time to implement. Not all the potential solutions must be prohibitively complex or expensive. More comprehensive wayfinding – through signage, dedicated walking routes, and digital wayfinding apps – encourage “walkability” and can be hugely beneficial without requiring  huge investment. Transport options such as an airport shuttle service, trams, dedicated monorail or tram networks around the city, are more ambitious but can be achieved if the political will is there. In December, the city submitted a bid for a share of the Government’s Transforming Cities Fund which, if successful, will help to create easier interchanges within the city centre – something we believe will be instrumental in enhancing the character of Southampton.

These ideas are not new, and there are encouraging signs that this kind of thinking is gathering momentum – for example, during the Southampton Boat Show, a temporary pedestrian bridge has been positioned each year to help the movement of guests into the show and open up the marina. This, and similar strategically positioned routes, could become more permanent fixtures.

Or how about a viewing platform so visitors can see the docks in action, enabling the functional parts of the city to become attractive places to visit and help highlight the importance of the commercial port not just to Southampton, but also to the nation’s economy?

There are encouraging signs that the need for a joined-up approach is being taken seriously. The City Council’s recent commitment to redeveloping the strategically-important former Toys R Us site, to include offices, flats, restaurants and shops, includes the promise of a new promenade connecting Southampton Central train station to West Quay – linking the gateway to the city with some of its most important amenities.

The proposed Royal Pier Waterfront development, which would transform a derelict pier, make use of reclaimed land and involve the relocation of the Red Funnel ferry terminal, has stumbled but remains a potentially transformative project for the waterfront.

If Southampton became more of a destination would more of the visitors arriving or leaving by sea or air feel encouraged to spend more time in a welcoming, easily navigable city with areas to live, work, shop, dine and drink but also a unified feel, with breathing space and green areas to contribute to a sense of wellbeing?

It is clear to us that there is an opportunity to create a clear sense of identity for Southampton, with connectivity at the forefront, while still achieving the aims of the masterplan. This is an exciting opportunity for Southampton to build on its many assets to enhance its own identity through the creation of a unique sense of place. The development of the city’s identity  will be a challenge with many obstacles, foreseen and unforeseen along the way, but it must be achieved to put Southampton on the map as a city to visit.

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Leisure, Retail, Southampton, Connectivity, Placemaking