By NEON writers | Photos by Charlie Prangle and Charlotte Smyth
The seeds for a new Broadmarsh have been planted, but will they actually take root? In a special two part investigation, we ask whether the city will be able to pull off its ambitious vision – and whether it should?
Broadmarsh: for so many years, Nottingham’s ugly blot on the urban landscape and a source of controversy for thousands. The southern end of Nottingham’s city centre has undergone massive change in the last few years; alongside a brand new college campus and library, we now have a state-of-the-art shopping centre. Well, that was the plan – but after the collapse of Intu Properties, the project stagnated to a complete halt, leaving a dilapidated wasteland that sprawls out into Nottingham’s centre.
It’s an area that has seen many historical changes over the years, and one that continues to be hotly disputed. A historic medieval area became to a trendy shopping centre in the 1970s, which in turn became a worn, tired piece of ‘70s architecture- and finally a rubbled terrain with thorn-like beams seemingly growing from the ground.
Broadmarsh (Or what was left of it) was shunted back into the arms of Nottingham City Council. For 18 months, the shell of a once-bustling retail centre stood idle, while the rest of Nottingham awoke after the Coronavirus brought many businesses to a standstill. In November 2021, a brand new car park was unveiled, with a library and bus station to open its doors in just a few months, as well as a new £58 million campus for Nottingham College.
Since 2002, the fate of Notts’ biggest eyesore has been transferred over to numerous corporations like a game of pass the parcel. After much adjustment and tweaking, demolition plans for the “ugliest building in Nottingham” were well underway until the pandemic saw Intu Properties fall into administration on 26th June 2020.
Despite all this growth happening around the Broadmarsh site, the prognosis of the derelict remains of the shopping centre itself remained uncertain. That was until December, when a statement was released informing the public that none other than the famous British architect Thomas Heatherwick would be taking the wheel on this long-awaited project. Set to include a green space nestled amongst 3.5 hectares of ground on the twenty-acre site, the vision is to give the frame of the old Broadmarsh site “new life and meaning” by choosing to keep parts of the original structure in the new design. However, these blueprints, despite seeming concrete and finalised, are not expected to be completed for several years.
The plans mark an immense change to the city’s landscape. With Nottingham City Council planning to be carbon neutral by 2028, after declaring the need for a greener Nottingham in response to the climate emergency, such proposals to revamp the derelict Broadmarsh site might be more viable than once thought. Head designer Thomas Heatherwick has a strong CV, designing famous landmarks and spectacles, such as the UK pavilion in Shanghai and the Olympic cauldron at the 2012 London games; he is known for his charismatic, outlandish designs that incorporate a more naturalistic aura producing a modern feel.
Leader of the Council David Mellen is a huge advocate for the plans. He highlights the “green heart” at the centre of the vision. Mellen talks up the project’s green credentials: “By proposing to make some use of the existing frame, reducing the waste and carbon emissions from new construction, it is sustainable, something which is very important for the city’s ambition to be the UK’s first carbon neutral city by 2028.
According to Mellen, the project “will lead to over 750 homes and 6,000 jobs for local people.” He feels that “it respects and promotes the city’s rich heritage by opening up views to the Castle, enhancing the caves, one of the city’s hidden gems, and re-establishing old street patterns”, all overseen by one of the world’s leading architects in Heatherwick.
However, the London based designer, creator and CEO of Heatherwick Studios has had one major false start in his time, in the much vaunted but never realised ‘Garden Bridge’ in London, and some have raised concerns that this project could go the same way.
So what needs to happen to get this latest ambitious project off the ground? The first thing is to source the £500 million in funding required.
Where Will The Money Come From?
Whilst many are excited over the upcoming Broadmarsh redevelopment proposals, there are urgent questions over where the funding will come from. There is broad consensus that the council can neither afford to pay for the development, nor would it be desirable for them to take such a huge project on. Dr Luceila Rodrigues, the Chair of Sustainable and Resilient Cities at the University of Nottingham, states that“it is not possible for a local authority to fund such a large programme of work”. This view is echoed by Cllr Roger Steele, who tells us: “Nottingham City Council have neither the expertise nor financial resources to carry out a redevelopment of this magnitude.”
So what contribution will central government make? In March 2021, D2N2, an economic development agency in Nottingham, revealed that they awarded the Nottingham City Council £7.99 million to facilitate the Brodmarsh redevelopment. Along with this, £4 million will be provided by the government’s Transforming Cities fund. This total of £11.99 million amounts to only 2.4% of the projected cost of redevelopment. Instead, the council will rely almost entirely on attracting investors. To date, none have been publicly confirmed.
Former leader of the Council Jon Collins feels that it simply won’t be possible to attract the necessary level of investment. “In Nottingham, the development is far more marginal [than developing in London],” he explains. “The rentals you get are much lower, and you won’t have that kind of residual profit that you’ll be able to then put into developing the lavishments of it. The equation doesn’t add up.”
Collins predicts that the Council will end up covering more costs than they are prepared for. Referring to the plans to use the existing shell of the former shopping centre, he asserts: “whoever is going to spend money on developing it needs to have warranties to be able to borrow the money from investors, to make that investment and design work. Nobody I know thinks that those warranties are going to be forthcoming or that that’s at all realistic.” Collins ‘can’t see the council accepting the public liability costs associated with all of those open structures. The general liability is likely to be expensive.”
Is The Plan Feasible?
Money is far from the only problem the Council faces – not everyone is a fan of the proposals. Local conservation architect Peter Rogan is particularly blunt in his assessment: “I think the idea of retaining the concrete frame remains is bonkers”, he opines. “It’s a whimsical idea which in practice is completely impractical.”
Rogan was instrumental in developing an alternative plan for the area to use the original medieval street plan, reconstruction of the shopping centre in 1970. He stresses that he doesn’t want lots of “Disney-like old buildings, like a mediaeval pastiche” – instead, he was inspired by how the old layout of the city was based on its actual topography. “It would be in a more interesting street layout where you can turn a corner and be surprised by what you find,” he asserts.
The fact that Heatherwick was chosen to design the development is much to the disappointment of Rogan, a local to the Nottingham area. “The Heatherwick vision is not a city I would be wanting to walk around in. It should be developed by somebody that has to live with the results!”
Mellen rejects this criticism. “Heatherwicks have clearly listened to the feedback from the Big Conversation and captured the wide range of views and ideas put forward in what was the council’s biggest engagement exercise to date”, he says. “They have used the extensive footprint of Broadmarsh to ensure the vision provides something for everyone.”
Alongside local displeasure, the Council also has to try and gain land from potentially stubborn independent organisations such as NCP. Collins can see this as a stumbling block for the current board. “Pretty much nothing the council is suggesting should happen in Broadmarsh West is likely to happen. That land is owned by a developer who wants to develop there majorly. That leaves you with the Broadmarsh skeleton.”
A final problem that has come forward is the maintenance of the site. Rogan and Collins both express concerns about how the concept will compare with the reality. Rogan feels that the frame will become a hazard with “bits of concrete pinging off and falling on people.” Collins supports this viewpoint; as he looks into the future he sees “a lot of grey structures with fading planting, probably dirty and a bit dark and a little bit insecure.”
Collins claims that the maintenance for this shopping centre-green space hybrid would be “massively expensive and massively intensive”. Maintaining this kind of space would seem a difficult task; the Broadmarsh would need “cleansing and maintenance of all the vegetation that the vision suggests.” The ‘green’ design for Broadmarsh would create ‘the world’s biggest pigeon roostery,’ says Collins. “They shit everywhere!”
This isn’t how the designers see it. “The design introduces natural, wilder kinds of planting that will bring more wildlife back into the city and increase biodiversity,” responded Lisa Finlay, a Group Leader and Partner at Heatherwick Studio. “This approach actually requires less maintenance and is much more self-sustaining than a grass lawn, for example, which in reality needs a lot more maintenance and offers far less to nature and far less to the public.”
Will It Be Green Enough?
Someone who also foresees these difficulties is Sarah Manton, a well-known Nottingham-based greening activist. While broadly keen on the plans, she has similar reservations: “I think it’s got the risk of looking like the Planet of the Apes,” she explains ‘the council does not have enough funding to be able to supply gardeners. Within a week and a half it will look post-apocalyptic.”
During the consultation phase, one popular proposal amongst developers and the public – and certainly one which would be more suited to the Council’s aim to make the city carbon neutral by 2028 – was to transform the whole areas into a green space. This idea first came about when a local teacher, Ewan Cameron, created a petition on Change.org to cancel the original plans for a shopping centre and create a green space for Nottingham.
Manton, who supported Cameron’s initiative, criticises current plans for Broadmarsh, on the basis of maintenance and funding. “The council doesn’t have enough funding to be able to supply gardeners to look after something like that and make it look like it does on the pictures.” Rather than incorporate the old structure and develop new buildings, she asks: “why not make it a big, impactful green entrance to the city?”
The fierce debates around the future of Broadmarsh reflect a wider question over the future of our city centres. How can they adapt to the new challenges of online shopping, home working and the spectre of future pandemics? In Part 2 of this article, we explore whether these proposals reflect the future needs of our changing urban landscape – read it here.