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A majority of planners and designers fantasize and dream of making the world a better place, many of us, myself included. Use this as the reason why we do what we do, with money and sometimes fame being an afterthought. Albeit a very welcome one. But how can we achieve making spaces better in the modern day?

Tunnel Leading into Middlehaven Source: Ben Johnson

Once you walk into the world of Urban Design, Architecture and planning, you walk into an annoying world of constantly looking at things that you would improve on. You immediately begin seeing all the ways you can make the space and environment a much better healthier place. That’s the effect during everyday life in the city, but what about a blank slate? A canvas of brown field sites that are begging to be completely overhauled and redone is every designers dream and nightmare, you have all the freedom in the world to do what you want with a completely devastated site, but at the same time it’s the limitations that usually spark imagination and innovation. And how exactly can you change the perception of an existing site? How do we change years of fire and smoke from gigantic silos into the ideal little space of thriving environments of tiny businesses and dog walkers. But also retaining heritage and identity. It’s one extreme to another, but this is usually the challenges that urban regeneration face.

Let’s have a look at the North East of England and investigate two case studies that are relevant to this, with Middlesbrough’s post-industrial makeover Middlehaven and the less dramatic regeneration in South Shields.


When talking about the issues and potential of having a blank slate to play with that’s riddled with history, Middlehaven is probably the poster child for this. Once an industrial powerhouse, then a post-industrial wasteland and now being set up as the post-modern initiative to put Middlesbrough on the map. But with such strong heritage, how is this achieved?

Picture of Middlehaven in the 1960’s. Known as St Hildas or over the border at the time. Source: Richard Clayton/Evening Gazette

Once lead by ‘celebrity architect’ Will Alsop, who came up with the initial grand master plan of Middlehaven which has been associated with the project since, which depicts what looks like a bright Utopian future of Middlesbrough. With 500 Million pounds being dangled in front of the project. Just for the project to consistently be hit by financial difficulties which caused Will Alsop and his team to drop out of the project, and the initial plan was never fully implemented, with only CIAC (community in a cube), seemingly being the only building to represent that initial vision. It has since continued, carrying on what seems to be a watered-down version of Will Alsop’s vision, the project is very much unfinished to this day.

Will Alsop’s Master plan Source: Evening Gazette/Middlesbrough Council

However, what this master plan proposed and to some extent what has been implemented, is one of the most radical post-industrial makeovers you’ll ever see. Once a derelict wasteland of broken dreams now stands a place that just screams potential for a grand plan, something quite like what Will Alsop once proposed. What they have done is implemented an enormous college, not only bringing a new student ecosystem to the place but was also the first post-modern statement on the site, with the building very much being something that the place has never seen before. Off the back of that, a huge digital sector following the same principle was implemented and a pattern of huge buildings with weird shapes and bright colors emerged. Creating a new image for the town, one that would also spread into the center, seemingly putting heritage on the back burner for post-modern developments.

Middlesbrough College Source: Ben Johnson
BOHO Zone digital sector Source: Ben Johnson






Though a completely radical transformation, the project is successful in changing the perception of what was a derelict area and has generated excitement for the future of the project, even to the extent of getting Middlesbrough named as one of Europe’s top 10 small ‘cities’ by the Financial Times in 2018. Although it’s at the sacrifice of identity with the designs implemented, it seems to have won people over by making such a list, as appose to the worst place to live in the UK which the town won back in 2009.

Ski Center in Middlehaven approved for development. Source: Evening Gazette/Middlesbrough Council


On a bigger scale South Shields set out a broad scheme to connect the whole of South Shields while at the same time developing modern buildings and infrastructures to strengthen the ecosystem of the town. John Sparkes, head of regeneration of the project said this became very important when it came to the councils attention that with every £100 that residents of South Shields spent, only £3.70 was actually spent in South Shields, barely enough for a pint by the riverside never mind an economy.

Where the South Shields project differs from the Middlehaven project is that it seems to meet the vision about halfway, whereas Middlehaven is a dramatic overhaul to bring a post industrial area to the modern age with the post modern aesthetic to go with it. South Shields takes a bit more subtle approach to Urban Regeneration with sprinkles of modern buildings with more of an emphasis on the Eco system around the buildings. The council put extra importance on the existing identity and therefore looked to connect and renovate the existing assets instead of a complete overhaul of the place.

CGI concept of the New Central Library in South Shields Source: South Tyneside Council
CGI Image of the proposal for South Shields Source: South Tyneside Council






The question begs though what are the results and how should we approach our regeneration projects? With complete flashy overhauls like Middlehaven? Or more subtle regeneration that focuses on the existing?

Well the results that were discussed around Middlesbrough is a town rejuvenated, once the worst town in the UK now is seen as one to watch, reeking of potential and promise for a bright future. Meanwhile for South Shields, it’s seen as much success but without as much noise around it, the town feels more connected, the architecture looks more defined and the economy has took a boost as a result.

Annoyingly there is no real right answer to how to take on Urban Regeneration projects, context will always matter in Urban Design. The reality is, Middlesbrough definitely needed the overhaul and didn’t have enough to just sustain, so the town is seeing the rewards of a bold idea. Whereas South Shields maybe didn’t, it just needed the more delicate touch to see results. So the take away is, don’t be afraid to be bold or delicate, keep the mind set simple. Build what needs to be built.


[1] ChronicleLive (2014) Latest images show how a £100m plan will transform South Shields. [Online] Available at: Accessed on: 24/12/2019

[2] Evening Gazette (2018) Remember life ‘Over the Border’? These fascinating photos will remind you. [Online] Available at: Accessed on: 23/12/2019

[3] Evening Gazette (2019) The highs and lows of Middlehaven’s regeneration – did the ‘dream-maker’ succeed? [Online] Available at: Accessed on: 23/12/2019

[4] Evening Gazette (2018) Middlesbrough named as one of Europe’s top 10 small ‘cities’ by the Financial Times. [Online] Available at: Accessed on: 23/12/2019

[5] Harrison, J. (2019) Making South Shields ‘a place people want to visit’ again is the focus of new project. Available at: Accessed on: 24/12/2019

[6] South Tynside Council (2019) South Shields regeneration [Online] Available at: Accessed on: 24/12/2019

[7] Vernau, K (2018) Is urban regeneration worth the effort? [Online] Available at: Accessed on: 28/12/2019

2 responses to “Wasteland To Dreamland: Regenerating Urban Environments”

  1. Thank you, Ben, for expressing one of the challenging questions; how can we design a blank site or a brownfield? I think this question has more than one answer when we take a look at the various urban regeneration projects, as you said context always matters.

    Limitations are a good starting point that inspires innovations as you said. The analysing process of urban design allows us to understand what a place is and presume what it can be. We are trying to create places for people, at least this is our claim, but who are these people? When I first examined the Will Alsop’s design one question rushed in my mind. Alsop’s project’s visuals look like a dreamland, but it is hard to tell whose dream is this. Alsop’s or the people who live in Middlesbrough? Urban design is a well-developed field in terms of spatial analysis but when it comes to social aspects of place most of the claims depending on designers’ subjective ideas. The danger is that a designer’s dream can be people’s nightmare. Maybe not a nightmare but it might not have meant that much to people. What happened in Middlehaven is understandable and it can be read an act of good decision making, they chose to regenerate Middlehaven for an innovative digital sector which refers to a certain profile. But how well did that work? Did the digital sector initiative create a domino effect? No, it didn’t, just a few new modern shiny buildings and rest of the area still a brownfield, nothing to drive people to participate or support. Middlehaven is still a lost space that is in need of redesign after all. We need a fresh look at what really matters to people who use urban areas and consider them as a whole instead of as unrelated parts driven by sectoral interests. Variety of urban areas with different characteristics is essential for a vital city if they are fitting together as a whole.

    Getting to know your client is a good starting point as I mentioned earlier. We have to consider the local residents as the most important client in every case and we need to expand our knowledge in order to presume accurately the effects of our design on them. I think we are already bold when it comes to making decisions. We are so confident with all of our subjectivity, sometimes we are just going with our instincts and we have to because the urban design is not %100 science. It doesn’t mean that urban design is the magic dust that can make everything okay either. We need to find a solid ground for our decisions with scientific analysis which will lead us in the right way.


    Tibbalds, F. (2012). Making people-friendly towns: Improving the public environment in towns and cities. Taylor & Francis.

    Trancik, R. (1986). Finding lost space: theories of urban design. John Wiley & Sons.

    Carmona, M. (2010). Contemporary public space: Critique and classification, part one: Critique. Journal of urban design, 15(1), 123-148.

  2. Thank you, Ben, for such an interesting and thought-provoking piece on how planners and urban designers effect the regeneration of urban environments. You start by pondering the issue of how we (as professionals) can make better spaces in the modern day. In order to do this, I think it is firstly important to define what makes a good space, or more specifically a good public space? Georgiana Varna introduced the concept of the ‘The Star Model of Publicness’ to help measure the publicness of public spaces and establish how good a place they are. This ranks spaces based on 5 factors: animation, physical configuration, ownership, control and civility. Seeking to achieve these qualities from the outset, one would presume that when designing a new or regenerated public space urban professionals should aim to meet these requirements, to make sure it works and is well used.

    As an extension from this, if we can establish what detracts from a good space, we can learn from others (or our own) previous design mistakes to create better places in the future. From research I conducted it was found that a bad perception of safety in a place caused a reduction in the usage the public space. This is supported by a study from Howell and Sheppard (2016) who found that poor perceptions of safety cannot only create “negative effect of how people think and feel” but also produce social exclusion. Many people commented that factors such as underpasses, blind corners and poor lighting all contribute towards this. While Pain (2001) found that signs of incivility and housing quality were also factors creating unsafe environments, which could be improved through better design. I therefore see safety as a major factor to take into consideration when designed a good public space.

    You raised the question of how to change a bad perception of a place. When people form an opinion of a place, they usually consider both their past personal experience and the images portrayed through the media. The vast use of technology in today’s world could therefore be a key tool for professionals to use to change public opinion. By seeing the regeneration on the television, the news and the vast reach of social media, people may be better informed and their perceptions influenced.

    Your case studies of Middlehaven and South Shields are excellent examples of urban regeneration, although both achieved in very different ways. In answer to your questions, I feel there is no right way to redevelop an area, as it will completely depend on what is appropriate in the surrounding environment. A question these case studies spark for me is, are there any lessons we can take away from these examples to create successful redevelopments of other brown field sites?

    As professionals scrutinising these redevelopment efforts, we can recognise their success in terms of architectural form, economical boosts and social inclusion. However, success could also be measured by whether the community’s general opinions of the place been changed for the better? If so, was this instant, did they change slowly over time or will the past stigmas be harder to shake off?


    Howell, J. and Sheppard, J. (2016). “Social exclusion, self-affirmation, and health information avoidance”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 68: 21-26. Available at: . Accessed on: 02/01/20.

    Pain, R. (2001). Gender, Race, Age and fear in the City. Urban Studies, 30: 899-913.

    My Tutor. (undated). What factors affect the way a place is perceived? Available at: . Accessed on: 02/01/20.

    Varna, G. (2019). Measuring Public Space. Lecture, Newcastle University, delivered 31st Oct 2019.

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