Chester is Changing – Reimaging Chester City Centre

Chester is Changing – Reimaging Chester City Centre

The time is NOW for Chester to shake-off old models and focus on a radical new future, because we no longer want bigger, we want better.

Sure, Chester was once the epicentre of retail in the Northwest or a great place to locate your regional offices, but times have changed and COVID has brought with it an accelerated and unprecedented review of how we live, work and play in our cities.

We must therefore collectively call on Chester City’s Fathers to embrace reform, and think boldly, to ensure this amazing little City can rightfully capitalise on this once-in-a-generation wave of change – after all isn’t this why Chester has continued to thrive through its rich 2000-year History? Because it’s perfectly suited to adaptation and change.

This may be considered a strange proclamation for a city so steeped in heritage and so rigorously protected and preserved, but it’s this very character and scale, that was once a limitation, that could be Chester’s key to becoming an exemplar future City.

Why? Because we no longer want bigger, we want better. We want all the city has to offer (convenience, activity and prosperity) but we want open space and nature too. We want to walk, ride and scooter, not spend time on crammed and stuffy trains, trains and buses twice a day. We want time to play, not drive, and time to browse, not stockpile.

We want community, not anonymity.

Of all the places I’ve lived, worked and studied in over the years Chester couldn’t be better placed to make the most of this brave new world. It’s compact, accessible, walkable, bikeable and beautiful. It’s surrounded by nature and parks, and full of independent, individual and colourful retailers, bars, cafes and alfresco streets. It is also safe, has great schools and furthermore the potential to be an awesome University City. But most important of all it has the opportunity.

Due to radical shifts in retail and commerce over recent years, no doubt accelerated by Covid, Chester finds itself with an abundance of empty shops, offices and arcades – and the bulk of this vacant stock sits within a diverse array of small scale, well-proportioned and richly-detailed historic buildings that have proved their ability to adapt many times over the last 200 hundred years.

As an architect, strategist and entrepreneur, I believe Chester’s future lies in this unparalleled cultural and heritage offer, allowing it to create a truly bespoke, but comprehensive user experience. One that re-appropriates the City’s heritage to create an offer, within which residential, retail, leisure and learning are seamlessly integrated.

The good news is that there is significant private enthusiasm, energy and entrepreneurship being invested in this New Chester right now – and as a testament to our belief in this potential, we are investing significant time, resources and finance right now through Monika Studio and Openhome. These are businesses that are Chester-focused, all about localism and grassroots thinking, that support this pioneering thinking and celebrate the City’s unique position, assets, heritage and OPPORTUNITY.

The bad news is there is a real danger that, just like before, the ‘powers that be’ won’t adopt the wonderful work the private sector is leading and more importantly that they won’t embed it deeply in the future policies that will shape the City.  Or worse still, they will continue to focus on historic models and trends.

We need to re-Imagine the City as a place for a rich and diverse population to LIVE as well as work, create, learn and play.

We absolutely must increase the core residential population. Housing and growth are mutually dependent. Tourism is great but it’s fickle and sporadic. It doesn’t create sustainable 24-7 activity and commerce 365 days a year – this can only be created by a permanent population, not a transient one. A population that wants, needs and is willing to pay for a more sophisticated sharing economy that will extend well beyond current trends in transport, accommodation and workplace.

Furthermore, the City must better engage and exploit the potential of its powerful private partners like the racecourse, the museums, the Story-House and the University. The latter is a mighty device in the tool-bag of change in heritage cities. Think Oxford, Cambridge, York and Bath. It brings activity, diversity, commerce and culture but it needs space – and right now this is something our city has plenty of. In addition to people and spending, it also brings jobs and, in the best cases, much-coveted global recognition. It’s a key generator of small, technologically-creative and freelance independent businesses, they are perfectly suited to the scale and infrastructure of Chester’s built environment, which in turn ensures retention and vibrancy, further boosting the residential population as well as driving the local economy forward both in terms of workers and spenders.

In addition to augmenting the City’s commercial assets, a future residential and visiting population will be focused upon healthy lifestyle choices and the green environment.  Again, Chester can fulfil this need in abundance – it really is an outdoor playground. With resources like the Racecourse, the River, the Meadows and Grosvenor Park all within a 10 minute walk, it genuinely can provide a sustainable environment for a healthier and lifestyle conscious community

Finally, the City must build upon its forward-thinking work of the past when it created a car-free centre and pushed motorised transport to the outskirts. But it must do this through embracing innovative digital-sharing technologies, pay-as-you-go systems and a cultural shift towards walking, biking and scooting, and a massive advancement in electric vehicle provision. Imagine a City of small scale, pay-as-you-go electric vehicle ‘hubs’ and meeting places, for solo use or sharing, connected by a web of dedicated movement ‘spokes’ like those described in the work of the Chester Growth Partnership, Chester BID and Andy Farrell and his team. Here Chester’s Transport Infrastructure is re-imagined as a ‘Smart-Mobility’ network providing a choice-driven, on-demand, collection of small but frequent sustainable modes of travel. It’s an amazing piece of work – but this absolutely must become a policy document and not just a theoretical piece to be shelved for review by future academics.

Fortunately, I am not a lone voice in all this pontification on Chester’s future. There is a groundswell of doers, makers and thinkers rising up in the City to bring about change and ensure it becomes the Jewel in the Cheshire Crown once more. The co-creators are getting restless and it’s time the City Council joined the party because Chester really could be the go-to city to live, work, create and play.

We must now come together in collective action so that the much-anticipated and revised One City Plan not only embodies all this passion and thinking but, more importantly, that the City Fathers place this document at the top of the decision-making tree – and firmly embed it in Policy.Written by Tony Swindells from Openhome and Monika Studio