What’s wrong with Plymouth’s West End?

What’s wrong with Plymouth’s West End? That was the question I took with myself as I walked around Plymouth’s City Centre. I hear quite a bit of discussion about how the City Centre ‘ends at the sundial’, but is this true and what does this mean?


All City Centres need a mix of activities and tenants, and ‘lower rent’ areas provide a base for important, independent, growing businesses. The start of the 21st Century has heralded huge changes in the retail sector, with online sales taking trade away from the high streets. Choice, price, and convenience all play a role in this, making competition with online trading extremely difficult. The losers are the traditional department stores, the potential winners might be the artisan specialists who benefit from being able to provide a personal service. Does ‘going shopping’, as a social activity still have a place in our lives? It is an excuse to socialise, have a coffee or lunch, and increasingly to be otherwise entertained. I for one need social interaction on a very regular basis. I place value on feeling a part of things. The high street retailer is adapting to make the process of retail more of an experience, only recently I was reading about the incredible increase in independent book shop openings.


Plymouth's West End


We know that Plymouth’s City Centre is probably too large for its population, and the current retail need. It’s spread out with large areas given over to public realm. Visitors need to walk a fair distance, in straight lines and with limited permeability, to experience everything. Back in 1982 when I arrived in the region, the city centre itself had few eateries and cafés, and would pretty much shut down after 5.30pm, apart from Wimpy and The Magnet Restaurant. This is something that has changed a fair bit, but there could still be a better mix in the main streets. Plymouth’s West End contains more in the way of food offering than much of the rest of the centre, other than the far East End. Added benefit has come from the two recent city centre hotels, Premier Central and the Oyo.


In retail terms, it used to be that Marks & Spencer was regarded as the epicentre. Plymouth’s store is way up in the far Northeast of the centre and added to the effect of Drake’s Circus, this skews the valuable retail area far east also. From here to Frankfurt Gate is a considerable distance and ideally the city would have another significant anchor in the west of the centre, the future redevelopment of Colin Campbel Court might help to deliver more quality here and assist in redressing the balance.


Regardless, the West End does remain active, with a greater proportion of independent and specialist traders, services, and food outlets. Most notable is the Panier Market. This impressive mid 20th Century building remains easy to miss and contains an eclectic mix of traders. But Frankfurt Gate, as far as I remember, has always felt like an odd space, transient rather than a dwelling place. Despite improvement, it’s still set up in this manner which seems a shame and a missed opportunity. The architectural backdrop doesn’t help either.


Plymouth's West End


There’s no question that Plymouth’s city centre is a highly important example of post war Beaux-Arts town planning in the European Style of the time. It contains a significant number of exemplary 20th Century buildings, themselves designed by prominent architects of that era. The simple, grid-like, ‘airy’ layout and ‘festival’ architecture form a large part of what characterise the place and make it what it is. However, the city centre did not fully follow Abercrombie’s plan, many of the buildings are of low quality and subsequent interventions and landscaping of the public realm have not necessarily been for the best. This is set to change in the near future with the public realm improvements being undertaken by Morgan Sindall, I really hope this proves to be the necessary catalyst for further change. There’s enough space to house interesting, contemporary, and fun kiosks and pavilions for pop-up users or longer-term lease. Open spaces could be made as desirable as possible for housing other activities such as exhibitions, shows, performances or sports. Millennium Square appears to work well when in use, but this is quite sporadic. Why is this and how can the situation be improved? The rest of the time this is a rather unwelcoming space and again, not somewhere to dwell. Could the space contain mobile semi-permanent outlet kiosks that could be moved to create different types of space?


I’ve spent some time mulling-over what I would do to improve the situation, so here are a few of my random thoughts, in no particular order.


I believe that we need to clearly identify the low-quality buildings in Plymouth’s West End and the city centre in general, to develop a plan to replace these with mixed-use developments that also bring homes and non-retail activities into the centre. There’s an opportunity to think about including education, entertainment, and yet more hotel rooms into this mix. It’s probably not a popular comment but an above average proportion of the buildings appear of really poor design and quality and are well beyond their use-by date. Great spaces need great architecture, it sets the standard, creates interest and texture, suggests quality and promotes local ownership and pride. It speaks volumes about the aspirations, values and cultural heritage of a location. The difficult part will be bringing forward large enough sections of built form for redevelopment at one time, so the process is not completely piecemeal, and of course attracting the inward investment.


Plymouth's West End


Simple improvements to Plymouth’s West End Panier Market could make much more of both this fantastic facility and the area as a whole. If this building were, for instance, to be a venue dedicated to local food producers it could create a density of interest acting as a real attractor to visitors and for similar producers and retailers. With quality spill-out dwell spaces this part of town could become more of a destination than a way out of the city. The upshot would hopefully be the attraction of other artisan producers and start-ups, creating in time a vibrant, diverse, and unique destination that is not reliant upon the large, established high-street brands. Connecting Frankfurt Gate more meaningfully with the panier market by rerouting traffic to the east of the market might generate a different feel and opportunities for public realm / spill-out and gathering.


I think that many of the current Plymouth’s West End spaces, those between the buildings exhibit poor spatial enclosure. Either the surrounding buildings are too low / modest or of poor quality, or there is too much ‘spatial leakage’. This leaves them feeling windswept, transient, and unwelcoming. I spent 5 years in Cardiff and what impressed me was the pedestrian permeability of the city, often by way of interesting malls and gallerias. Spaces are varied and many are smaller and more intimate than those found in Plymouth. So, although the city is larger and the buildings generally taller, it feels more human in scale and hence more friendly. We have a partially blank canvas and ample opportunity to think along these lines whilst still retaining what is quintessentially ‘Plymothian’ about our City Centre.


Plymouth's West End


The upshot is that I believe that there is little wrong with Plymouth’s West End, if anything, it’s the central portion of the city centre, around the sundial, that is struggling the most. Caught between the well-performing East End shopping and leisure destination and the independent businesses of the West End, it struggles to find its attraction and hence has many vacant premises. If the above continues to be true, then maybe with the new public realm improvements the central area will become the ‘café quarter’? Accessible from either end as well as from the North and South, and with spill-out opportunities into enhanced landscaping, I could see this working well to support the retail chains in the East and Independents in the West. ‘Food’ for thought!


Plymouth’s West End has a strong community. To find out more, take a look at their website:

Dale's experience spans a wide range of project sectors, sizes and stages and has particular interests in environmental design and earth-sheltered construction. His favourite projects reuse and breathe new life into under-loved existing buildings.