Dewsbury Market Place – Focus or Failure?
The Market Place is an obvious focal point for outdoor activities, events and performances in Dewsbury. Unfortunately, such events are depressingly rare and, these days, there is little attractive about the place to draw people in.
It is directly in front of the Town Hall, providing a good opportunity to market the town, it's a good sized open space and is paved and pedestrianised so visitors and their families are not going to get muddy feet during events and there are no traffic safety issues.
In other words, the Market Place is a good location to hold events to draw people in to Dewsbury and even without events, for visitors to loiter and enjoy the ambience.
As such it would be hoped that there would be a good selection of restaurants, coffee shops and bars where patrons could spill out onto the pavement whenever an event took place - and provide a dry, warm space for people to shelter should the heavens open - not unusual in Yorkshire.
And if people are going to loiter there then it becomes a prime location for retail shops.
The Reality of the Bricks and Mortar
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But when we look at the reality we find a selection of closed shop frontages, a completely empty Arcade, low value shopping, betting shops, amusement arcades and historic buildings clearly neglected by their landlords.
The message for visitors is clear. We don't care.
'Low rent' would be a good description. And unfortunately this impression runs throughout the town. It is not a pretty sight and does absolutely nothing to communicate the heritage of the town.
Worse still, with the level of deprivation that exists in some areas of Dewsbury we have a substantial number of organisations in the town dealing with the more vulnerable members of society. And the Market Place has become a convenient place for them to congregate - which does nothing for the 'ambience' of the decorative pagodas and seating areas.
What's To Be Done?
This situation of run down property and an unattractive social environment is not unique to Dewsbury and we need to stop thinking of this as a problem that is special to us.
It doesn't take much to find examples of high streets in the UK that are recovering after facing similar problems.
The common threads running through all these assessments are not hard to pick out.
The Times Square example
It might seem presumptuous for an industrial Yorkshire town like Dewsbury to draw comparison with New York's Times Square. However, the retrospective view by the New York Times of the 30 year rebirth of Times Square from a den of the sex industry and organised crime in the 1970s to one of the most successful locations on the planet may just hold some useful clues.
The story of a massive regeneration project - that never happened. Instead, change came about due to incremental changes on the ground including:
What Did It take?
- Removing the bad things that kept people away
- while at the same time adding the good things that attract people
- is the essence of the successful 30 year effort in New York.
This phrase is increasingly used by urban planners to describe a situation where it is possible for visitors to hang around. Where the street becomes 'sticky' because it is delivering the experience that they are looking for - which may be nothing more than sitting and chatting with friends while watching the world go by.
The simplest way to achieve 'stickiness' and the reason that cafes and restaurants are important is for business to be able to spill out onto the pavement. To provide outdoor seating for their customers.
And being already pedestrianised, and a haven away from passing traffic, the Market Place is just made for this approach. In fact, you can already see this happening at the Novo and Costa coffee shops on Longcauseway. And if the council was to work constructively with the new owners of The Black Bull to enable this development around the pub that would be a good start.
No Silver Bullet
We need to realise that there is no single solution to the problem of regenerating Dewsbury. It will not come about due to one particular project or initiative, we need to use all of the features so easily identified from experiences in other towns.
We need local businesses to take an innovative, proactive approach. They can't just sit and wait for customers to appear.
Drawing on the Times Square example, we need the council to take an innovative approach to attracting the businesses we want to see into Dewsbury town centre using whatever methods are at their disposal.
We need the police to work with the understanding that everyone else's efforts can be completely wasted if the town centre is socially unattractive.
We need the community and outside agencies to get involved with a busy programme of events and activities.
But We Need A Vision
Most of all we need a vision. That means a vision communicated to the whole community, not just the planners and council officers. We need a vision of where we are going, of what we are trying to achieve.
Who is going to do what, how long might it take, what are the risks and the possibilities that things might go wrong?
What does each of us need to do, whichever strand of the effort we belong to, to make it successful?
People are not stupid. If they know that a plan is in place and they understand where it is going, why and how - then they are more likely to support it.
But keep people in ignorance and they are likely to become irritated and angry about the failure of those anonymous beings, the anonymous 'they', who seem to be responsible for everything but achieve nothing and are blamed for everything.
Most importantly, every part of the community, every cog in the machine, every partner in the effort, needs to believe that everyone else is working towards the same end. That we all have the same vision and are working to support each other.
Are you concerned about the future of Dewsbury, particularly how we use the historic buildings we have inherited? If so, make sure you join the Dewsbury Heritage Facebook Group and sign up at The Dewsbury Partnership
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