EnjoyMaidenhead.com (19 May 2011): “Proposals for the redevelopment of a key part of Maidenhead town centre have been unveiled …will see the area… transformed into a new …high-quality shopping destination.”
The new vision for Maidenhead correctly recognises the urgent need for change, but fundamentally misunderstands what makes a town successful and is also, undoubtedly, on the wrong side of history.
The redevelopment vision’s core focus is on creating a mainstream, mass market retail experience for the town. There are some words about cafés, restaurants and ’boutiques’ in ‘public spaces’, but these are clearly subordinate to the main event: shops.
I’ve a better idea.
What makes a town succesful?
To attract visitors, successful towns do not rely on retail alone. A town centre is not just a market, it’s a catchment area’s heart: it’s the cultural centre and the best place to socialise. It should serve to enrich lives not just empty wallets. And if one does want to just shop, then Reading, Windsor and High Wycombe offer as good a retail experience as this development will offer (let’s set aside London, 25 minutes East by train).
To serve the people of Maidenhead and surrounding areas into the future, the town centre needs to be more than about retail. At the moment, Carter’s Steam Fair happens in a field somewhere beyond a comfortable walk, ditto the fun fair that appears on a field near Ray Mead, and the town’s fireworks display is on the river, a twenty minute walk from the centre. I’m not convinced that a majority of people in the town know where Norden’s Farm arts centre even is (near the A404M, in case you were wondering).
Where are Maidenhead’s versions of The Bounty’s raft race (Bourne End)? Cookham Dean’s go-cart race? Cookham’s ‘Rock the Moor?’ Nowhere, that’s where. There’s nowhere for them to go other than some far flung field that no one wants to go to. Fragmented: that’s the word for it.
Maidenhead town centre needs to invent a reason to visit other than a branch of Debenhams, and that reason needs to serve the people who live locally.
It needs a soul.
Mainstream retail, on a high street, are you sure?
You won’t get a Mothercare in our new town, will you? The nation’s leading baby-ware specialist has made it plain that town centre shopping is not where it wants to be. Arcadia group (Top Shop and Dorothy Perkins) has said the same thing: when its town centre leases expire, it is out of there. History has moved on. It’s simply easier to buy most stuff out of town or on the Internet.
And what’s the difference between your Boots and my Boots? Nothing, so I’ll go to mine, thanks. Towns that, against the odds, preserve some genuine localised retail diversity, what the word ’boutiques’ may have meant before it meant ‘expensive mass market’, preserve another reason for people to visit – think Marlow, before the mobile phone shops.
Where does that leave Maidenhead’s vision of mainstream retail as the panacea for the town centre’s undoubted ills? With yet more empty shops and an even greater aspect of emptyness than it currently has.
So here it is.
Easier on the eye
First, Maidenhead town planners, stop letting people build anything they want. I’ve never seen such a collection of different architectural style and materials. Some of the new buildings are actually quite pleasant, but they don’t match any of the old ones or, indeed, any of the new ones. What a dispiriting eye-sore. Pick a style and material and stick to it. If potential investors in the town kick up a fuss, have the conviction to say no.
Personally, given the fairly even split between modern and Victorian architectures in the town, I think there are two options: 1. Henley-world, 2. Odeon-world.
Take the Thames riverside vernacular style (Henley, Marlow, Goring and Wallingford) and shamelessly ape it. It sort of worked for Prince Charles at Poundbury in Dorset. It could work better here with a bit more long term thought. Or, use the architecture and materials of the Odeon as a style guide for anything that gets built.
The cultural and social centre of the town needs to be in the physical centre, which, incidentally, is 100 yards from the Crossrail terminus. All the events listed above need to have a space created for them in the centre.
San Jose in Silicon Valley is an entirely new town, but it has soul. This is largely thanks to the large (football pitch size) open space right in the centre of town. It has been designed to allow for cultural events. Rock the Moor would be perfect there, if Rick Astley were available. Carter’s Steam Fair would fit like a glove into it. All the public transport leads to it. It’s in the centre so no one is so far that they can’t walk to it (drive two minutes down the road in their case, but anyway). There are shops, cafes and cinemas surrounding it, but they complement it, rather than attempt to lead it.
San Jose, could have built a massive shopping mall on the park instead, but that probably would have been a bit short sighted, don’t you think, Maidenhead town planners?
For a glimpse of an almost Henley-world version, visit Fitzroy square in London – beautiful, uplifiting and surrounded by shops.
Diversity in retail
Is it really that difficult (or illegal) to give retailers with less than five outlets a tax break? We don’t need another Starbucks. No one makes a special trip for a Tesco Express (I hope). In addition to hosting festivals and concerts, our town’s central open space could also host markets. In fact it could do whatever we wanted it to do.
I would welcome all comments below, unless they disagree with my vision.