Caernarvon’s a pretty amazing town. The castle dominates one side of the town square, linking the commercial hub to the Menai Strait, and the city walls are intact, providing a strong physical and historic context for the town. The castle itself is also very impressive.
A few years ago, the town square was dominated by vehicular routes, and was looked tired and run-down (see this website). Enclosed on all sides and linking via four or five streets to surrounding areas it’s a location that deserved a full make-over, to breath new life into the heart of the town. The recently completed public works have done just that.
Since the work several years ago at Kensington High Street removing railings from the road side, and the consequent improvements in pedestrian safety, there are now a number of ‘shared space’ projects in the UK where pedestrians are prioritised in spaces shared with vehicle. Completed in 2009, Caernarvon Castle square is one of the largest recent shared space schemes I’ve seen.
The square is simply set out, with an area for the market to the south and street furniture together with tree planting and changes in material indicating a number of potential vehicle routes.
Observing from a cafe at the southern end of the square you can watch the interaction between people and traffic. Without any clear signage, drivers are unsure where to drive, or what route to take across the square, slowing their speeds. The lack of clear pedestrian separation also means that drivers are careful to negotiate the space with courtesy to pedestrians and cyclists.
A number of discrete finger-post signs are located in the corners of the square together with cycle parking – the only other parking originally set out was for disabled drivers and taxis, although now there seems to be a parking area to the east of the plaza adjacent to the water feature.
People using the square seem to mix without any real danger. As I watched the square was used by cyclists, taxis, cars and a coach party, shoppers and tourists. The new shared space seems to have invigorated the community feel of the square, and even on a cold day there were people chatting in the street, sitting at the tables and chairs, and lingering outside cafes. These are the spaces of social vitality that make a town viable, the ‘Great Good Places‘ as the social urbanist Ray Oldenburg describes them.
If I have one disappointment with Caernarvon town square, it is the railings that have been retained at some of the vehicular entrance points, and the fact that not all of the ugly street signage clutter has been able to be removed. I hope that other towns and cities will be bold enough to adopt this shared space approach with their focal public, civic spaces.
The other clear opportunity is to link the square better with the parking area for visitors to the Castle. At the moment the route from car park to square is pretty grim – you get to see some run down backs of buildings and blank retaining walls. But my understanding is that when some more money has been generated (bring on the Tax Increment Fund!), a new grand flight of steps will be cut into the western end of the square.
This will lead nicely down to the marina area, where there is an obvious further opportunity for major improvements. I’d be excited if I lived here, to see what further public works could deliver.
- A farewell to pavements (guardian.co.uk)