27 Mar 2011

Cardiff Bay Blues

Cardiff Bay – a marketing con trick and proof of the banality of the Big Idea. Yes, I admit it, I don't like Cardiff Bay but I do love Cardiff, the city where I grew up. Of course it was not called Cardiff Bay then, or even Tiger Bay except in newspaper headlines. The trolley-bus ride down Bute St was exciting. It was lined with ethnic shops, dangerous looking pubs, mosques and exotic churches long before this was the norm for inner city high streets. In the summer the paddle steamer for Weston Super Mare or Ilfracombe left from the Pier Head across the tidal lagoon of the bay, past Penarth Head and out into the Bristol Channel.

Decline and Fall
Bute St was sanitised by redevelopment in the 1960s but the Pier Head retained an important office and commercial role, detached from the city centre a mile away at the top of Bute St. The fine late Victorian and Edwardian office buildings are centred on Mount Stuart Square around the grand Coal Exchange where my grandfather used to work. The Nat West Bank on West Bute St, completed as late as 1927, shows an American scale and confidence but in fact the docks were then already in decline. The whole area east of Bute St was derelict by the 1980s and the Pier Head commercial district was a ghost of its former self. Clearly there was a need for action. An early initiative was the building in 1975 of an Industrial and Maritime Museum on Bute St right by the Pier Head, although this meant the demolition of the fine Flemish style Merchant's Exchange. The museum, along with other proud buildings on Bute St, has since been demolished for the Mermaid Quay shopping centre. (Not a joke – more on this later.)

'A whim set in concrete' (Sian Best)

The bay with no tide

The de-industrialisation of Britain under Mrs Thatcher led to riots and the invention of Regeneration by Heseltine. One of these grand projects (probably the biggest after London Docklands) was to be a Cardiff Bay barrage creating a 2 kilometre square lake around which a new maritime city would emerge. Most people did not think this was a good idea. The tidal mud flats were one of the most important wild-fowl sites in Europe. Many people (like me) enjoyed the changing tides, the wildlife and the drama of the glistening mud. The barrage would raise the water table causing untold problems. But the Establishment was determined. The Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was set up in 1987 and although the people of Cardiff put up spirited resistance eventually the barrage was built, completed in 2001 at a cost of £200m. And it takes £20m a year just to maintain it.

Environmental disaster and boat motif

Top Gear
Cardiff Bay has always been big on ROADS. The whole plan was predicated on a 20 mile long dual carriageway loop from the M4, most of which has been completed except for a short but crucial section through Cardiff Docks. This means that if you are coming from the east you will be directed via a huge diversion all around the western outskirts of Cardiff. The road line slashed right through the Pier Head area and there was massive demolition in anticipation of its construction. To its credit the CBDC ensured that this section was put in an expensive tunnel but redevelopment above the tunnel has not re-established any coherent townscape; rather we end up with Mermaid Quay.

Welsh Prime Ministers (dead but not forgotten)

When is a square not a square? When it's a roundabout.

One of the main objectives of this grand project was to 're-unite Cardiff with its waterfront'. However if you anticipate a pleasant stroll from Central Station to the Blue Lagoon forget it, although the walk is instructive. You can take the no. 6 shuttle bus instead (free with your train ticket). There is also a station at Cardiff Bay but it does not connect to Central - it is part of the Valleys commuter network. For years the CBDC tried to remove this branch line as it stood in the way of the grand plan for the Ceausescu-like Lloyd George Avenue down to the Bay – more later.

Ceausescu-like Lloyd George Avenue

Butetown is cut off from the city centre by the mainline railway. Just north of this is the massive new St David's shopping centre with an impressive (certainly very large) John Lewis box. Strangely this seems to have been planned with a complete disregard of Cardiff Bay. Whereas you might have expected a strong pedestrian axis through the shopping centre to Bute St, in fact it turns its back on the Bay. St Mary's St, the most impressive street in the city, has been extended under the railway to the new Callaghan Square. However this attempt to improve connectivity is hampered by the Cardiff vice of unreconstructed over-the-top highway design, which means your passeggiata is thwarted at every junction by the nanny City Engineer.

Sit and watch the cars go by - Callaghan Square

Callaghan Square is a big formal space cut off in the middle of what is effectively a big roundabout. It has substantial and well considered landscaping, fountains and a statue of Lord Bute (not Callaghan). The landscaping tries to create a sense of enclosure which is very necessary as the only part of the Square to be built is the elliptical offices to the north, restrained and well proportioned. The Square is at least an attempt at place making but needs to be completed with buildings of consistent quality. The bog standard new offices to the west are not a good sign.

Butetown air-brushed out

The new ruins - Lloyd George Avenue

The problem is that Callaghan Square is not really leading anywhere. You will find the unprepossessing start of Ceausescu Boulevard beyond the railway bridge in a chaos of traffic and budget hotels. Given that Bute St runs straight as an arrow from Callaghan Square to the Pier Head, why was the parallel Lloyd George Avenue necessary? Well, you know, Butetown, Tiger Bay – not really the right image is it boy. Lloyd George Avenue defines Butetown as a ghetto just like any London Docklands council estate. Actually Bute St is a lot more fun than Lloyd George Avenue. Firstly there is the wonderful neo-Norman St Mary's Church (1845) and there are actually people. Lloyd George Avenue is the most boring street in, well at least Cardiff, lined with the most boring apartment blocks you will find anywhere, all smothered with apologetic landscaping. Actually it is lined only on one side; the other is landscaped as a cordon sanitaire to Butetown.

The death of street life -  hidden ground floor car parks

The Dock of the Bay

East Dock Life

Whilst the West Dock was tragically filled in decades ago the East Dock has been retained although it is lifeless, cut off from the sea. These were coal docks but there are some attractive warehouses at the head of the docks which are renovated but submerged in the banality of recent buildings. On the far side of the dock another dual carriageway thunders down to the Bay (I did warn you they were big on roads.) County Hall, built in 1986 as a symbolic statement of commitment to the area, is at the south end of the big pond. It is in the style of Hillingdon; a satisfying composition of low pitched roofs but rather self effacing. It looks rather lost in acres of car parking and the great expanses of the Bay.

Steel works beside the dual carriageway - East Dock

South of County Hall all the new roads come together in a chaos of roundabouts, tunnel slip roads, car parks and left over space with absolutely no urban structure whatsoever. There is an attempt at a pedestrian axis through this confusion past 'Craft in the Bay' which sits precariously in the middle of a big unnecessary gyratory road system and the Red Dragon Centre, a shed multiplex which presents a blank glass brick façade to the pedestrian boulevard, because of course you will enter this tat via the rear car park.

The Establishment bottle it

Inhuman proportion

Eventually you will reach the oval Roald Dahl Plass. This is a handsomely designed events space which used to be the sea-lock for the West Dock. Unfortunately it is subsumed into a much larger formless space dictated by the gormless dominance of unnecessary new roads. Facing this uncomfortable space is the Millennium Centre (not to be called the Opera House – it is home to 8 Welsh arts organisations). Despite the Taffia's grim determination to go ahead with the unnecessary and destructive barrage, together with the English establishment they bottled out of building Zaha Hadid's opera house, which would have been quite something. You will now have to go to Guangzhou. This is not the fault of the Millennium Centre, designed by Capita Percy Thomas. Given the lack of any urban context the building is inevitably dominant but its patinated stainless steel roof (known locally as the Armadillo) is very overwhelming. The entrance canopy has inscribed poetry, a nice touch, and to either side are wings of roughly banded polychromatic stone evoking a Cardiff building tradition. What is most successful is the auditorium itself lined in warm shades of wood – a big but very intimate space.

James and the giant peach - Roald Dahl Plass

The problem with the Millennium Centre is its lack of context. There is no enclosure. To the north space just bleeds away towards the blank multiplex and the wastelands of Lloyd George Avenue. To the west there is a remnant of the stucco Bute Crescent which follows the subtle curve of the old sea lock. But rather than strengthen this townscape the crescent has been bookended with big illiterate new blocks. Bute Place, with its fine but scandalously empty classical offices, should be a lively axis between the Millennium Centre and the old commercial quarter, but is just a race track.

The Wow Factor

Pier head detail

Your arrival at what used to be the sea is marked by the beautiful Pier Head Building of 1896 in bright red brick and terracotta, vivid with detail. You can see the great sweep of the Bay now perpetually at high tide but not quite as blue as the artists' impressions. It is sheltered from south-westerlies by Penarth Head. The barrage actually blocks your view of the Bristol Channel.

Devolution in design

Scattered around the littoral are various buildings which look rather lost apart from the imperious Pier Head Building. Richard Rogers's Welsh Assembly building must wonder why it's in this frivolous place rather than Cardiff's majestic civic centre. It has a wonderful projecting roof like a whale's tail fin over a grand flight of slate steps, visually spoilt by the need for ramps and handrails. Inside the undulating wooden ceiling is spectacular and if you manage to find the Chamber (follow signs for the loos) you will be impressed with the space, the intimacy and the great wood lined ventilation 'chimney'. This is a building, in a sense like the Millennium Centre, which is attuned to the dynamics of life in a small nation.

The Assembly building's position is challenged by a very aggressive office block with a glazed prow-like feature rearing over it towards the water. Beyond this near the lock for the Roath Basin are some more interesting small scale buildings including Alsop's 'temporary' (now 20 year old) wow factor Visitor Centre tube. This still impresses – something good to come out of the tawdry marketing of the Bay. Nearby the restored Norwegian seaman's church made of corrugated iron is charming.

WTF public art, near Roath Basin

Development on the north side of Roath Basin is at least built in some coherent relationship to the streets and the water. Some of the new offices are (almost) elegant. However the overall picture is terribly depressing. Although there is lots of paved quayside and public art, the new apartment blocks have no relationship with this and are hidden behind walls or above car parks and blank to the quaysides. The public space is completely lifeless, as is the water.

Tiger Bay but not as we knew it

The barrage 

South of Roath Basin big new developments are underway. Kitschly renamed 'Porth Teigr' (geddit?) this appears to be learning from earlier Bay mistakes with a lot of effort going into making a genuinely mixed use urban quarter with some decent public spaces. Too early to tell yet but the new BBC studios by FAT with a long, playful stage-set façade look pretty amazing.

From Porth Teigr you can reach the Barrage but it is a long rather bleak walk past the still working Cardiff Docks. Although undeniably an impressive engineering achievement the Barrage is not really very interesting, certainly not as interesting as what it has obliterated, the changing tides, the bird life and ecology of the mud flats.

The Bay that knows no shame

The mind boggles, the security guard watches from the bridge

Back past the Pier Head Building we come to Benoy's coy Mermaid Quay. This is inconsequential seaside town frivolity with a few nautical references, mostly restaurants and bars, and on a sunny day the waterfront here is quite lively. To the west are old graving docks and various old buildings and structures which have been adapted for leisure use. Beyond is the big St David's Hotel with its look-at-me sail roof.

What is unforgiveable about Mermaid Quay is that this trivial development has actually wiped out the old Pier Head at the termination of Bute St. This included the lovely Pier Head Chambers with its long Venetian facade. It gets worse; in order to build a pathetic shopping mall Bute St has actually been diverted behind Mermaid Quay's service backside - just unbelievable public squalor.

Contemporary incoherence - Sold

This is why Cardiff Bay is so awful. The new developments turn their back on the conservation area in the most ignorant and boorish way. The swathe of destruction for the loop road (now in a tunnel beneath) has created a no-mans-land of blank low rise housing turning its back to the streets, left over space, car parks and service yards. Shamefully many of the surviving old commercial buildings are vacant, some derelict and there are numerous gap sites – a real indictment of the CBDC and the City Council.

Historic coherence - To Let

Coherent townscape has shrunk to the area around Mount Stuart Square with the magnificent if pompous Coal Exchange (reconstructed in 1911) now partly used as an entertainment venue and looking down-at-heel. Gap sites, the result of extraordinary neglect by the City Council over decades, have been infilled with horribly crude and overbearing apartment buildings, but if you can screen these out of your mind, Mount Stuart Square with its eclectic mixture of style and decoration is a delightful piece of urbanity in the desert of Cardiff Bay. Together with West Bute St and the remnant of Bute St (which leads to Cardiff Bay station) this little enclave is another world which actually looks and feels like a real city. It should have been the starting point for the regeneration of the Bay, but the CBDC went for an anti-urban car based sprawl instead.

Where regeneration should have begun

Abandon hope

No public allowed

It gets worse. Immediately west of Mount Stuart Square on Clarence Road a Big Brother new police station guards monstrous stacks of gated flats that crowd along the banks of the Taff. What appear on the map as streets like Taliesin Court (unintentional irony) are actually guarded fortresses of contempt for the residents of Butetown and the whole concept of society. There is not even a public path along the riverside. Disgraceful, intimidating, alienating, alarming, depressing – regeneration my arse.

The end of urbanism

And there is more. On the foreshore between the Taff and the Ely is a bewildering array of new development. This extensive area is cut up with elevated expressways which provide convoluted access; there is no continuity with the pleasant streets of inner city Grangetown. (You can get there on the infrequent no. 7 bus from Bute St.) Yet more blocks of mostly gated flats hug the shore. There is no coherent waterfront or maritime park. Behind are massive supermarkets and retail parks. The main interest is the troubled Sports Village, originally planned around a mega casino and other iconic structures like Bay Pointe 'Wales' tallest building' but it has fallen victim to its own hubris and the recession. The City's private sector partner Orion has recently pulled out. A new swimming pool, a temporary ice arena and a white water course have been constructed. The best thing is the new pedestrian and cycle bridge across the Ely river to Penarth Dock.

Bridge over troubled waters

Expressway-side apartments on the River Ely

Penarth is a very pleasant seaside suburb which likes to think it is a separate town. The redevelopment around the narrow dock below Penarth Head is one of the more successful elements of the Bay at least once you have negotiated the obligatory Tesco megastore at the entrance. The enclosure provided by Penarth Head, the smaller scale of the housing and its close relationship to the busy marina is quite a relief after the rootlessness, restlessness and formlessness of so much of the Bay. At the end of the dock you reach the more interesting bit of the Barrage – the big sea locks. However as you would anticipate the fine old dock offices are boarded up and semi derelict.

What's the Big Idea?

Contrast & Compare #1: Cardiff Bay

Of course the mad plan goes back more than 20 years. In retrospect what is so striking is the lack of any concept of sustainability. You might ask why the unique asset of the lagoon was destroyed just to make a big, boring lake that is little used. But the environmental objections to the barrage were very convincingly made at the time and were just ignored. You may despair at the contempt for the heritage of the built environment. You might wonder why in such an exposed location there are such vast open spaces with no attempt to create sheltered micro climates. You might think it is barking that the area was developed without any effective plan for public transport, walking or cycling and that the whole thing is based on massive new roads and car dependency. You might query why there are so many apartment blocks given the number of empty flats, or why so few houses, shops and local amenities. You may compare the Bay very unfavourably to what has been achieved in big waterside regeneration plans elsewhere like Hammarby Sjostad or Vastra Hamnen in Sweden.

Contrast & Compare #2: Hammarby Sjostad

Why did it happen? The political and the regeneration mind-set sees development per se as good and big shiny things as even better. Never mind about the quality, liveability or sustainability. Cardiff, actually quite a small city, wants to 'punch above its weight' – an appropriately aggressive term given the outcome of some very unpleasant urban environments. Regeneration plc is not good at townscape, streetscape, detail or finesse.

The bay that cannot remember its past...

Ultimately Cardiff Bay is a consequence of the failure to plan properly. It is not really about the buildings – many are dreadful, most are nondescript and a few are interesting but this is not much different from regeneration schemes up and down the land. What singles out Cardiff Bay is the desperately poor relationships of buildings to the water which is the raison d'etre for the whole damn enterprise in the first place, to streets and public spaces and the lack of any attempt at place-making.

A lot of lessons should be learnt from Cardiff Bay but I very much doubt they will.
Such is the power of the Big Idea.

N.B. There are no pubs approved by the Good Beer Guide at Cardiff Bay


Sian Best: A Whim Set In Concrete
J. Newman: The Buildings of Wales - Glamorgan
M. Daunton: Coal Metropolis
J. Hilling: Cardiff and the Valleys


Anonymous said...

What a great read - thank you. I would be interested in reading extended comparisons with cities that seem to have got regeneration right - think you should book your tickets to Sweden.

Anonymous said...

The driving force behind the barrage (and the Bay development) was Nicholas Edwards MP, Tory Sec. of State.

'Taffia' he certainly was not.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, but it just focuses on the negative, and it's all been said before.

Fine, no one likes gated communities, but century wharf 'a fortress of contempt for the residents of Butetown'. That's absurd and silly stuff.

Likewise, yeah some developments have very bad use of the ground floors, but many don't. Why pick up on the bad examples? Why do that?

The picture of the barrage. An empty road. Well, my recollection is that every weekend it's packed with walkers and cyclists, people enjoying the green flag park.

So, an interesting read, but I'm sorry things like that are just so totally one sided and negative are of limited interest, and best taken with a pinch of salt like one should with the opposite end of the scale-the official marketing guides.

A more evenhand account would have been far more valuab

urban cowboy said...

who exactly are the establishment behind all these massive expensive projects and buildings in cardiff like the barrage, milleniumn centre, senedd, milleniumn stadium etc.

there seems to have been an agenda to build up cardiff while the rest of wales just got practically scraps.

the nice bit of cardiff bay is penarth marina but the rest is not great to put it mildly.

that cut off dock is just soul destroying and why couldn't it been turned into a yatching marina like swansea.

Anonymous said...

But there are three marinas elsewhere in Cardiff Bay.

This is what is so infuriating about this article. It proposes dreams like a marina in the dock, when 3 marinas already exist. Is there the demand?

Again, why people choose to focus on the negative is beyond me. It's little more than elitist and out of touch with how much Cardiffians, indeed most people see the Bay.

owen hatherley said...

Can we please be done with the notion that pointing out how people are forced to accept shit is somehow elitist, please? Cheers.

(excellent post, btw - much more to the Bay than I investigated, evidently, though I'm kindof glad I didn't. Lots of this reminds me of what was done to the docks of Southampton, a city of roughly similar size, though considerably less clout)

Anonymous said...

I made a point of dragging my mates up the bay on a cup final day. Reminded me of Salford Quays, Docklands and any number of other over engineered and disconnected adjuncts to great cities. Missed opportunities. To my mind the trick is to weave in the place, not to re-invent it. At least Utd won.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, really good read. Shame that you haven't been a planner at the city council any time over the last 20 odd years.

Jen said...

This is a really interesting analysis, thank you.

I live in one of those apartment blocks, yet I assure you it is not down to my contempt for humanity. I like my 1-bedroom flat and its modern interior (and as first-time buyers we couldn't afford a conversion or a house anyway).

You are right, though, in that we have a total lack of amenities. My local corner shop is an Asda superstore and the nearest doctor is a 45-minute walk away.

I do love the bay as a place to enjoy in the summer, eat ice cream and look at the water, but as you point out, it's the nonsensical dependence on car travel that angers me. The number 7 bus is the only public transport connection between me (in the Sports Village) and the Bay. It stops at 6.30pm.

If the whole thing had been properly thought out - conserving and converting classic buildings instead of leaving them derelict and building hideous tower blocks next door, and providing useful public transport that runs when people want to use it, the bay would be a brilliant idea.

Anonymous said...

As a lifetime Cardiff resident with family connections to Butetown,I wholeheartedly endorse this article.

I remember a sign now removed which was set up next to the new wildfowl area and some brass(necked?) curlews. It stated "this used to be just a saltmarsh but now we have made it into a nature reserve". The ignorance in that statement is mind boggling but typical of the hype that surrounds "Europes most exciting waterfront".

Phil Martin, Cardiff

Mark said...

Great article. As someone who's recently gone from visiting the bay on a hot sunday to living down there I've started to develop concerns of my own.

Nothing seems joined up for a start. I live in a nice apartment near the bay and town but i cant get to either place without picking my way through so much dilapidation and rot (and fairly unsafe looking for my girlfriend at night).

The way the Red Dragon has its back to the bay is odd, its obvious the planners would be shocked to find someone arriving there not by car, there's nothing to welcome people from the Millennium Center or the bay station other than some sort of electricity substation and the fire exits.

There are so many amazing looking old buildings rotting empty behind dull mermaid quay and now i live there and have seen the place on cloudy days and weekday evenings it just seems dead despite the face there are clearly thousands of people living within a minutes walk.

And yes, there's all these people newly moving there but no doctors or dentist for miles.

As a non-driver it strikes me how non eco friendly so much of it is. It can be difficult to get to on the bus. My flats and the quay itself have given almost no thought to bikes and theres no incentive for the casual visitor/shopper to make the walk from town as dispute obvious attempts to join the 2 places they are so very separate. (monorail down Dumball Road is the latest suggestion! I'm not even joking.)

I recently discovered the quirky bars and exotic eateries on City Road/Albany Road and its a vibrant, lively, exciting area that has also made me reflect on the mid to expensive chains that crowd the bay and dull it down so much.


Anonymous said...

Owen Hatherly,

I'm sorry, but the post is elitist. It supposes that people need an urban designer to point things out, and that somehow the relationship between buildings over-rides all the other positives in the Bay. What's more .no-one is forced to accept shit'. What an absurd, flase and patronising argument. He has taken several issues, ignored the good examples and amplified the bad.

The barrage is dismissed as uninteresting, when it contains a green flag park, links cyclists and pedestrians between Cardiff Bay and Penarth (for the first time ever) and offers see views and views over the Bay and Cardiff City centre. Sure, the Bays relationship between some buildings is poor, and old Butetown (around Mount Stuart Square) should have been improved but these negatives don't over-ride the many positives and the sheer transformation that has occured in recent years.

It is elitist in the sense that the vast majority of visitors and residents to the bay would not recognise this negative analysis.

I'm sorry, but as with so many urban designers, this post just has an air of an arrogant art critic about it. Dreamlike, lacking in pragmatism or understanding that people view things differently.

There are genuine and sensible criticisms to be made about Cardiff Bay (like every development) but they aren't made here, when they are a lost in a sea of miserable and contemptuous pompousity.

Anonymous said...

A critique not entirely without cause. Many genuine and sensible critisms.

Lets be honest about the flaws without being defeatist. Where it needed intelligent and sensitive vision, we got aggresive and poorly implemented vision.

Its not to say I don't enjoy visiting the bay, given the amount of money spent on it it would be scandalous if people didn't.

kev said...

good point from the guy from manchester above about weaving things togeather.

maybe thats why bristol harbourside is becoming so successfull as it links in with the central area of bristol better.

Anonymous said...

But many people are very, very critical of Bristol harbourside. Horrendous cheap flats, poor urban form, chain restaurants and chav bars, yet it is a decent and interesting development, much like Cardiff Bay.

That's the thing, urban designers seem out of touch with the general population. Not necessarily a problem unless your profession is designing things for the general population.

As stated, it's difficult to comment on something objectively when the article itself is about as one sided as a Daily Mail article on islam.

A more interesting article would point out the good and bad points, in the context of what was there previously (ie, a desperately derelict hell-hole) and report it in the context of urban design, but acknowledging the great many other factors that go into place making.

Jones the planner said...

Actually it was not a desperately derelict hell hole - it contained the internationally important ecological site of the tidal bay, an important conservation area, the artefacts of the old docks, lively communities and plenty of potential for more sustainable regeneration. Hundreds of millions of public money have been spent on Cardiff Bay. You be an apologist for the outcomes if you like but actually it is you who is out of touch and increasingly wild in your ridiculous accusations.
Adrian Jones

Anonymous said...

In my youth (the 1970s), my visits to nearby Cardiff would typically be limited to the city centre. Only once did I venture down Bute St in the hope of getting "down to the sea"...but I beat a hasty retreat.

So, yes, it needed something to improve the environment for local people and, of course, it makes commercial sense for a city to exploit the potential for tourism that any waterside area can bring.

During exile in England I looked forward to visiting this much talked about development, especially if 'regeneration' was indeed the ambition.

When I did eventually visit (after working out how to get to it) I have to say I performed a similarly hasty retreat. Remote. Tacky. Disjointed. Cleansed of all sense of community.

mike tudor said...

Opportunity lost :-
They could have made Cardiff Bay so so much better.
Should have kept the old historic buildings that would have linked the docks/bay area to the centre. It could have been unique, instead it (like many other places in the UK) has become an 'identikit' model.

There could have have a West Indian quarter , an Asian Quarter, a Chinese quarter, it could have outside food markets, maybe even a proper harbourside.

It has one school there, thats not very good - that in itself does make young families move to the area.

Those are the bad points - the good points, created a lot of expensive new homes - wof which many are now empty - that means housing for (insert you preffered choice here - probably asylum seekers and single mums)

The other good points - it's a nice place to go out if you want to avoid the hen / stag party area that is St Mary street.

If you want to stay in a nice part of Cardiff - try pontcanna (that was made a Victorian Conservation area - so the council cant knock any of it down), quite a few serviced apartments and B&Bs to stay in - not far from the castle / shopping centre and has enough local s pubs / cafes and restaurants - to make anyone feel very welcome.

Mike - cardiff

Chris Matthews said...

Thank for the tips Mike. Please don't get the impression that this is what we think of Cardiff as a whole - far from it. The city is probably due a Pevsner City Guide.

My own stay was brief and mainly concentrated on the Bay I'm afraid, but I quite enjoyed the arcades, the City Hall area, North Rd beside Butetown park, St Mary's St, the market and the Victorian public toilets on Hayes Island. For me, there is much more to explore and I know I will return. Adrian however used to live there and speaks highly of the place.

You might want to read Owen Hatherley's article for a contemporary city overview:


Anonymous said...

I don't think you can create a West Indian quarter, or a Chinese quarter. These things evolve organically.

I have previously stated that I think this article is very, very one sided and gives an incredibly negative overview of the Bay that few people would recognise.

I don't think that urban design can seperate itself from other aspects of urban developments. It's a weakness in the science that it applauds 3-4 well designed houses but can critice an opera house that has helped to utterly transform an area.

I also take issue with the incorrect belief that older buildings have been demolished and communities displaced. This is NOT the case in the post 1980's Bay project. The traditional community has been reinvigorated and has changed. It was ever thus in Butetown, and the traditional community is still alive and well.

The area lacks a secondary school and a library. I'll grant that, but it is not dificient in other regards. (Mike, there are three primary schools in Cardiff Bay, not one)

Again, the article raises good points, but it's lost in a sea of negative hyperbole. The Bay is far from perfect, and aspects of the urban design lead a lot to be desired, but it is a fundementally nice and popular area and a pleasant place to be, and this factor isn't considered at all.

Anonymous said...

Nice to know that Cardiff University, which hosts a large and allegedly very competent planning department has been so complicit in the development of this horrible subtopia.

Anonymous said...

The thousands of visitors who descend on the Bay every weekend and keep coming back, seem more than happy with the area.

It's the opinion of people like these that really matter, not snobs in ivory towers looking down their snooty noses at anything and everything that doesn't come close to achieving their impossibly high standards.

Unknown said...

A brilliant article. Many missed opportunities.. High rise flats abound, when low-rise houses would have sufficed. Agreed about Penarth, whose low rise, water surrounded houses and integrated parking would have worked so well in and around Cardiff Bay. Also, remember the monorail "pod" link plans; That would have linked Cardiff centre to the bay... Dropped due to cost, but unless the bay is linked to the "city" centre, it will die...Look at the tracts of waste-land, bisected by car parks, random buildings all poorly planned (cost related)- with empty offices and bland, blocks filled with rented flats and too many fragmented roads. I agree with Mr Jones... what a mess !! Opportunities missed and a great example of Council and Government planners getting it wrong..

Unknown said...


Wow, this guy... Where do I start? I could have stopped reading when I got to your opinion of the old bay:

'the drama of the glistening mud.'

You should be a spin doctor for the government! This is the most ridiculous sentence I have read this week. You must be the only person that prefers a bay of rotting junk filled stinking mud surrounded by a post-industrial wasteland. No rose tinted glasses here; I remember what it was like.

Ill agree that you do have some sound points, a greater amount of planning was required and areas of the bay are far too windswept and car friendly but I do believe that the bay is a tremendous success overall and its far to easy to criticise with hindsight. At the time the whole project was a massive gamble, this is why the planning is not as coherent as it should have been because they didnt know what was going to happen or if it would fly. And redevelopment should have started around the coal exchange, but again when a project is a major gamble it is much better to start with a clean slate next door and encourage the redevelopment to spread to the old square. It is so much easier to get investment and occupation in new purpose built buildings.

Sir you are so negative and one sided its a joke, your opinion screams of a Londoner that came off the train on a wet day in November.
If you went to the bay any time of year when there is a scrap of sunshine then the area is buzzing with activity and smiling faces. I walked along the barrage the other Sunday during the sunshine, I was practically STUMBLING over people sitting on the grass, enjoying the sun and views on the barrage.

Unknown said...


I'm Jones the planner's daughter (Jones the younger?). He has always thought the development of the Bay was going to be a disaster. I remember him taking us to the Bay when everything was being planned, showing us a model and ranting about why it was going to be crap. He's not an outsider criticising with hindsight. He's not a Londoner and grew up in Cardiff, as has been mentioned several times. He simply has a different opinion to you.

Just FYI.

Peter Nicklin said...

I lived in the Bay for over two years, staying in a (very poorly insulated) flat in Century Wharf during the week and commuting home to Newcastle at the weekends. For me it was fine as a weekday pied a terre because Mermaid Quay was a short walk away. However, I did wonder about the many other apartment developments that seemed to be an awful long way from anywhere (as one blog said - her corner shop is the Asda Superstore). Overall the impression of "the Bay" was similar to Newcastle's own Quayside development, in Newcastle's case better than what was there before, but many wonderful opportunities missed. I think Mr Jones' sharpest point was simply to show the photograph of Hammarby Sjostad in Sweden. Just one picture tells you that the Swedes (as ever) gave it some thought. Yes there are saving graces to the Bay (e.g. the barrage is great for early morning runs and the Penarth waterside development is less bad than the Bay) but Mr Jones is, in my view, absolutely right. If I as a rank amateur can read his piece and immediately see his point, then it's time that our city planners (in Wales, England etc. etc.) woke up and looked around at what can really be done.

Chris Matthews said...

Thanks Peter. A blog post about Hammarby Sjostad will be forthcoming.

Peter Nicklin said...

Look forward to it Chris. And if you / Mr Jones ever visit the North East I'd be keen to see an Urban Impression of Newcastle/Gateshead Quayside.

Phillip Martin said...

Phillip Martin said...
FYI more proposals for Cardiff.


cheers and very interesting

Phil Martin

pmartin AT uwic.ac.uk



A very active and polarised debate about this has broken out on the Guardian Cardiff webpage. Never seen such an active thread from Cardiff.

Anonymous said...

What a whinger.... I visit my old home city and love to see how the area is being developed ... HUGE improvements on the way it was - romanticising a past of mud, grubby housing and areas that people were scared to visit - give me the current position any day - when I move back to Cardiff, the Bay will be my home....

Ken Barker said...

Rereading this - thanks Phil - and find it's a well-written article with a justifiable emphasis on landscape / city-scape - the elements that make a place good for walking or cycling around, for socialising. I agree that the gating of apartments and lack of amenities for people who live there must be heavily criticised.

It's right to blame Cardiff Bay Development Corporation for the way Cardiff Bay was developed. I found them unapproachable when it came to cycling facilities - they didn't want to upset their car-orientated plans in places like Callaghan Square, and so cycle paths (where provided) have been placed at the side of each new road, and are discontinuous.

The communities in Butetown, from the Esplanades northward through James Street and Mount Stuart Square, to the heart of Bute Street, have suffered a lot, without the benefits of regeneration during that crucial 20 year period. I could have been a lot better with community development in mind.

I blame particularly the cosy political axis of Conservative Welsh Secretary Nicholas Edwards, Associated British Ports as landowners, and CBDC / Geoffrey Inken. Property and finance led development, with inadequate planning controls.

Anonymous said...

Having lived in the bay for 10 years next to the open footpath along the Taff I have to say as with all newly developed areas it is a work in progress and a good one things are going in the right direction. The Bay hosts many events and is busy every weekend, we have the opera house and walking distance to town. When my father was young this was a dangerous area, Century Wharf is full of people who cannot afford a house so buy an appartment there is a viberent community behind the gates with its low rise buildings (in the main) and its great gardens. When I lived in London they said the same thing about docklands, not anymore. This is a great place to live

mike crocker said...

Sadly, theres no real identity with Cardiffs past, a newer illustration of this is the new ST Davids 2, almost obliterating not only character and soul but some of the last remaining urban identities, the lines of the canal and old town walls have not only been lost, physically but historically, i'm 62 and grew up in Newtown [see you don't know where that is] and workedon the Hayes and Mill Lane Market [where the canal ran through] sadly if you're under 50 you probably cant say do you remember so and so, because we've had a series, over decades of poor planning and redevelopment until cardiff south is no more, its very sad.

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Steve Smith said...

A very interesting read, thank you. Sadly your tone is thick with depression about the results, and I know what you mean, although a more balanced tone might have been better.

I can tell you why. It is because - The Tories. All profit and no people. All numbers and no names. Their friends are developers, not communities. They live in more exclusive places, not here. They don't need us. Except that many are probably in Century Wharf.

Anonymous said...

This article can apply in the current situation with many historic coherent buildings to let and the council does not seem to find a solution. However, the solution is to retire early a group of planners.

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