By Scott, Placemaking Collective UK member
At our latest field trip members of the Placemaking Collective UK toured Medway, starting at the Chatham Historic Dockyard where we followed the path of the River Medway, through the evolving town centre, to end the visit at the Council’s flagship regeneration scheme at Rochester Riverside. Along this route, we were able to take in a huge range of historic sites, we learned about the strong cultural identity and how the Council, with partners such as Creative Estuary, is leading revitalisation efforts that aim to reflect the historic urban structure and celebrate the area’s unique attributes. We were thankful for Medway Council for hosting the event along with a range of organisations to share their time and expertise in working in the area, including the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, Creative Estuary, BPTW, HTA and Halpern.
For those unfamiliar with the area, Medway Council is a unitary authority in South East England with a population around 275,000, centred on the River Medway and its estuary. North of the estuary is the Hoo Peninsula, a predominantly rural area hosting huge utility/logistics giants. Like the south of Medway, the area is set to see seismic housing growth in the coming year. Our visit however, focussed on the more urban area in the central portion of Medway. Here a number of towns grew up along the historic Roman Road that linked Dover to London, now the A2, locally connecting Rainham, Gillingham, Chatham and Rochester as well as Strood on the other side of the River Medway.
We began our tour at the Historic Chatham Dockyard, whose original founding shaped the area and its fortunes, with the formal dockyard growing to 400 acres at its height. When closed in 1984, the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust was formed and led a mammoth effort to maintain, preserve and enhance the current 80-acre site. Through their approach to ‘preserve through use’ today’s Dockyard thrives as a diverse place for creativity, arts, academia, business, events and even has a residential population, whilst still accommodating nearly 175,000 visitors a year.
Whilst we could have easily stayed the entire day here, we interrupted a film set and, thanks to CEO Richard Morlsey pulling rank, escaped to walk along the river walk to the centre of Chatham. Its waterfront is currently being transformed with new waterfront homes, the redevelopment of Mountbattan House and planned public realm improvements to The Paddock green space. The Council’s plans are to make Chatham the city centre of the Medway Towns, which has been assisted with Chatham’s Future High Street Fund that will help the transformation of the Pentagon Centre and efforts to enhance the pedestrianised high street. A recent town centre masterplan was completed, and Medway are now looking to develop an exemplary design code for the town centre with funding from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Following a stroll along the high street, struggling with vacancies like many similar towns, we ended up in a creative urban oasis, being welcomed by the holiday vibe in a big outdoor patio. This was the home of Nucleus Arts, which has an expansive creative programme that reaches the youngest to oldest populations. We enjoyed ‘Kent’s best food’ before continuing our walk.
From here we were led toward the River Medway and along the high street in Chatham Intra, named as the place ‘in between’ Chatham and Rochester town centres, which has a vibrant and colourful past that emerged with growth of the Dockyard and the growing river trade. We saw a range of historic buildings, including the Chatham Synagogue that originally opened in 1869 and the Ship Inn, which is thought to be one of the oldest LGBTQ+ pubs in the country. We learnt that a range of wharfs linked the high street to the river via a number of narrow, intimate laneways and how the area now includes a range of artists as well as local and creative businesses. This creative narrative where Medway has developed a strong art and creative sector, feeds into larger initiatives, such as Creative Estuary – the first practical project of the ambitious Thames Estuary Production Corridor vision to turn the 60 miles of the Thames Estuary into a global centre of creative production.
Continuing along Chatham Intra, we glimpsed the southern end of Rochester Riverside before heading along Corporation Street. This dual carriageway severs the core of Rochester with its historic riverfront. Through a strong policy foundation and the Council commissioning subsequent visioning work, we saw this vision being implemented. New flat blocks have been recently developed, being set back from the street and introducing new avenue planting, illustrating how we can plan big streets to be more people friendly.
We end our visit by passing through the recently relocated Rochester Station to a new square at Rochester Riverside. With a consortium led by Countryside and Hyde, Rochester Riverside is extending the historic cathedral city back to the banks of the River Medway with 1400 new homes and a range of mixed uses. With initial stages on site, the delivery of the masterplan has already won numerous awards, including the ‘winner of winners’ at the Housing Design Awards for its role in creating a new vibrant urban quarter. However its success will be judged on its relationship to the riverfront, introduction of new urban streets and the reinterpretation of historic character found in Rochester.
After a long afternoon, those remaining enjoyed the spectacle of Rochester Castle (from a neighbouring pub, of course).
About Placemaking Collective UK
Placemaking Collective UK is a collective that comes together to help define place. To create it, debate it and celebrate it.
They are architects, urban designers, planners, policy makers, cultural and economic development strategists, placemaking entrepreneurs and community developers. They are free to join and open to all.
They believe that place can only be achieved by collective input and community output. They are committed to ensuring that placemaking is and remains an inclusive process.