Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Flânerie in Notts

Promising buildings; shame about the occupants.

Cities, according to Ben Wilson in Metropolis, his impressive new book, are humanity’s greatest invention. The close interaction between many thousands of human lives, and their messy, continuous cycle of decline and renewal are the heartbeat of human civilisation. Cities are where the heights of human sophistication are found – and also the depths of its failure.

A day’s flânerie in Nottingham recently provided ample evidence of this. Almost eighteen months after our last city trip, we finally took another. My wife’s new employer is based in the city, and she needed to show her face; I mostly went along as chauffeur to take the strain of the 270-mile round car trip.  But it also gave me the chance of a day walking a city I last visited as a student in 1986.

The point of flânerie is as much the thinking one does as the shoe leather one wears through – and in about 13km around the city centre, there was plenty of both. It’s about observing city life in all its aspects from a slightly detached, even philosophical viewpoint; no surprise that it’s a French invention rather than a British. My academic interest in urban geography lends itself too, and always provides another reason to investigate and ponder, even (or perhaps especially) the nuts-and-bolts of the city that visitors and shoppers are not supposed to see. Wilson contends, as do I, that the British (and Americans) don’t really ‘do’ urbanism – not in the way continental Europeans do. Their instinct is to head for the cleaner air, quiet and privacy of the suburbs, which size-for-size sprawl far further in this country than in their continental equivalents where higher-density living does not only have extreme social connotations of penthouses and slums that it does here.

All three East Midlands cities (Leicester, Nottingham and Derby) are largely products of the rapid industrial expansion of pre-Victorian market towns through textiles and engineering. All three have signs of the decaying aftermath of their boom times: swathes of red-brick Victoriana of varying quality, areas of post-industrial dereliction, and vast tracts of terraces and bland, early 20th Century suburbs. But they never quite managed to acquire the full, high Victorian civic and cultural grandeur of their larger equivalents further north and west, let alone rival those of the continent, and conventionally are thought of as, well, rather dull.

Sadly, despite my best efforts, I still struggled to like Nottingham; despite its claim to be the principal of the three cities (population 330,000; metropolitan area 770,000), it feels to me like a missed opportunity. Leicester, for my money, is making far more of its modest assets.

Having left my wife at her workplace, I headed for the city centre; it was pleasant to stroll down a wide, tree-lined pavement for the first time in a while, as the city began its day. Unsurprisingly, there have been significant interventions in the time since I was last there; the most successful by far is the introduction of a tram system that both carries large numbers and lends animation to some of the streets. I wonder whether transport planners give consideration to the theatrical potential of their proposed networks; they should. Nottingham has got this right: the trams descent a steep hill before sweeping dramatically around into the main market square, in front of the imposing City Hall.

Trams good; state of the built environment, less so.

The square itself has been given new paving and fountains, and ought to be a grand civic space with few equals in provincial Britain. But it somehow misses the mark. I suppose I need to allow for the impact of Covid: all day long, the city had a slightly under-populated feel. While this made proceedings more comfortable, it also meant the absence of ‘buzz’. There are many empty premises, proportionately far more that in my local town, which seems to have survived lockdown relatively unscathed. The closure of Debenhams department stores has left holes in town centres across the country, but I would still have thought that the larger cities had more resilience to weather the storm than smaller centres. In Nottingham’s case, the boarded-up prime site is a large hole indeed.

A missed opportunity to create a really splendid piazza…

I suppose I shouldn’t completely blame the city either, for the grubbiness. Local authorities in the U.K. have been so starved of funds that I suspect they simply can’t afford the daily cleaning that one sees in, for example, French cities. But it makes a noticeable difference when the dressed stone is not covered in the stains of takeaway food spills and worse…

A greater ‘miss’ is the lack of imaginative planting: at the height of an admittedly cool summer, the flowers should have been at their best – but the square mostly contained a selection of rather unkempt shrubs, only the display of cannas along the balcony of the city hall really making the grade. It could all have so much more flair…

The geographer in me seeks to assess the underlying socio-economic health of places I visit. Again, Covid may well be affecting the balance: the well-healed professional types are the most likely to be safely working from home, while the low-paid and less-fortunate were perhaps more likely still to be frequenting the city in person; it certainly seemed this way in the first part of the day. The numerous police patrols did not augur well, and I witnessed two altercations in the streets that morning…

For all my appreciation of life’s niceties, I am not an elitist. While the presence of a ‘top end’ is perhaps the most visible indicator of a city’s economic health, I dislike the exclusivity that it can create; cities need to be a mix, and good quality environments and opportunities should be available to all. But it is a two-way street: I am equally bemused by Britons’ inability to ‘inhabit’ their cities in the way the continentals do. This is not a product of wealth, so much as civic attitudes – and for all there were children splashing in the fountains, sadly I saw many people who seemed not to be treating their city centre particularly well, let alone with joy or pride. For many Britons, the city is a purely functional thing…

Once again, I suspect that this is partly a matter bigger than individuals: opportunity and conditioning matter. Like nearly every British town and city, Nottingham has become little more than a huge retail machine for the benefit of the same mainstream chains found across the nation. Meanwhile, I look for the presence and variety of independent shops; in most of the city centre, there were few of note. Nottingham has a reputation as a great shopping destination; I suppose it might be – if your idea of ‘great’ is large branches of all the predictable chains and fast-food outlets that appear everywhere… Expectations and perspectives also matter; the sense of the city as a proud, civic entity seems lacking.

One of the few really distinctive shops that I found in Notts

Feeling rather dejected, I pushed on into the more peripheral parts of the centre, and here, things started to improve somewhat. Having done my homework, I knew where I was going – but the experience was still underwhelming: the billed “bijou cafés” in the city’s finest arcade, where I had planned to find an espresso, turned out to be a branch of Patisserie Valerie; alright as far as it goes – but hardly outstanding or distinctive. Again, it all depends on expectations – and mine have been tuned over the years by the superior experience of too many continental cities…

The Lace Market area is somewhat more successful: tucked away in the older part of the centre, it is home to the National Justice Museum, slightly more choice shops, numerous professional services and buildings of indeterminate use, some rather fine. There I found a few more interesting premises, not to mention a rather different type of inhabitant – but still relatively few of the really interesting outlets one might expect in a large city. Precious little, for example, by way of independent food or clothes shops – or even evidence of where they might previously have been.

The high end?

In the early Seventies, Nottingham received some of this country’s earliest indoor shopping malls: the Victoria Centre, built on the remains of one of the country’s most atmospheric Victorian railway stations – but it is the other, the Broadmarsh Centre – which has recently made headlines. A vast, brutalist bunker between the remaining railway station and the centre, pre-pandemic it was being bulldozed – when the developer went bankrupt. It has been left, part-replaced, part ruin and work has only just resumed.

Out with the old, in with the new… But is it much of an improvement?
Victoria: An unhappy marriage. The clock tower is all that remains of a fine railway station.

The whole area to the south of the centre is being rebuilt; the billboards suggest a much-improved environment will result, but still dominated by large-scale retail and commerce. The addition of a new central library and bus station is laudable – but whether this new generation of comprehensive redevelopment will prove superior to its predecessor, only time will tell. Trying again to be charitable, we perhaps take too much for granted in a long storyline here: the lifetimes of city buildings are measured in decades or centuries. We are only just getting round to replacing the disasters that too often were thrown up in the Sixties and Seventies just to fill the bomb sites created in the Forties… Many cities right across Europe suffered the same fate – though the success of the recovery was most certainly not the same everywhere…

Full marks for consultation.

Post-Covid, there is a debate in the city as to whether more retail capacity is still the best use for this site. The outcome is awaited, with a new city park having been mooted as an alternative. Again, time will tell, but loosening the dominance of big retail in the urban mix need not inevitably be a bad thing.

I eventually came upon two areas that proved the point: Hockley lies to the east of the city centre and is described as the city’s bohemian quarter. Well, I’ve certainly seen substantially more bohemian than this, but the narrow streets of this area are nonetheless occupied by precisely the independent shops and cafes that are so conspicuously absent in the rest of the city centre – and the vitality of the area did indeed prove the point.

Hockley

After lunch with my wife’s new colleagues, I headed for the second: Nottingham Contemporary, an externally unprepossessing but nonetheless internally convincing modern art gallery. A pleasant hour was spent mooching around its three exhibitions and sitting out a passing rainstorm with a hot chocolate in an attractive (and once again in-house) café. I dwelt on the fact that five decades ago, express trains ran through this very spot on their way into the now-vanished Victoria Station: another building that the city would have done well to keep, rather than replace with a concrete bunker. Hopefully, we know better these days. One of my fellow rain-refugees was thinking the same, and a good conversation followed…

Nottingham Contemporary

As I said, I wanted to like Nottingham; there is little that pleases me more than time spent in a lively and attractive city centre. But even allowing for Covid, Nottingham just isn’t there yet. There is a lot of redevelopment going on – but even more needed to the fabric of the historic city, much of which is still rather shabby compared with that in other city centres. Maybe it will be better in another decade, but what has taken so long? I can accept that Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow’s needs were more pressing – but there is in any case, only so much that physical renewal can do, no matter how much money is available. What is needed is ambition, imagination and flair – things that can lift rather predictable urban renewal into a genuinely vibrant and characterful place. It’s needed not only from the city leaders, but also by the regular citizens who populate the city day in day out. The clone-shopping experience does not encourage this, but nor does the willing complicity of the junk-food-and-trainers majority, which the architects’ drawings never show.

About as chi-chi as Nottingham gets…

It wouldn’t be fair to compare Nottingham with the greatest European cities – but I have seen plenty of second-division equivalents on the continent that far outstrip it – Montpellier in France, for example is a similar size, even if its enviable climate gives it a head start… The problem, I suspect, is that really successful cities are cosmopolitan and even sophisticated – things the British, instinctively, as a nation are not.

Even at their Victorian height, British cities were about imperial bombast – but also mass squalor, the legacy of which is still with us. Nottingham is trying – but I’m still not sure most British cities really ‘get’ vibrant, spontaneous, democratic urbanism any more than they ever did, which is why so many of their more self-conscious efforts never really come off. It will be interesting to see what future visits reveal…

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