Photo: Nottingham City Council

The Old Market Square in Nottingham is one of the oldest public squares in the UK, with an 800 year history as a market place.  At 11,500m2, it’s the second largest in Britain after London’s Trafalgar Square. Its recent regeneration has involved the replacement of a design by T.C.Howitt, designer of the square and architect of the adjacent Council House building.  Both the square and building were completed in 1929, and the square was listed in 1994.

Having achieved the status of one of Britain’s eight ‘Core’ cities in 2001, many people felt that the square did not reflect Nottingham’s ambitions and aspirations, but if redeveloped, it could be the catalyst for greater change.  Disabled access had become an important consideration, however the formal design of the earlier scheme with its numerous low walls, steps and sunken was difficult to negotiate, and did not meet current guidelines.  It also compromised the city’s ability to stage civic and cultural events, and the lack of suitable lighting also contributed to create an unwelcoming atmosphere at night.

In 2004, The City’s Development Department organised an international design competition.  The brief was to; provide unhindered access for all, use high quality materials, provide new water features, introduce soft landscaping, integrate street furniture, create flexible performance space, allow people to linger, encourage 24 hour use, enable perimeter activity to spill out into the space, and attract pedestrians by virtue of its design.  It also had to create a sense of place and reinforce the distinctive qualities and character of Nottingham.

Gustafson Porter were among six short listed entrants, whose schemes were developed for public consultation.  This process involved an exhibition in the Council House and shopping centres, and an online voting system.  Final consideration was given by a distinguished Design Jury, which selected the Gustafson Porter scheme unanimously.

The city now feels that the new design has achieved all of the requirements of the brief.  Since opening on 16th March, the new square hosted some of the largest, and best attended events ever staged in the square.  These have included free concerts, firework displays, a fine food fair and a bulb and flower market.  A diverse programme events has been prepared, which includes sporting events, military displays, a variety of markets and public health campaigns, culminating in a spectacular ice rink in the weeks before Christmas.  The day to day impact of the new square has been immediate, and has already become a well used space at lunchtimes, and early evenings, in addition to a popular attraction for tourists at the weekend.  The head of the City Council has said it exceeds all expectations, and local public opinion is positive.

Pedestrian activity and public realm studies were commissioned, which revealed that 78% of people crossing the space avoided the centre due to the many steps and low walls.  One of the aims of the design was to reinforce the squares connections to busy shopping areas and cultural quarters.  The intention was to create a space that still felt calm when busy yet animated when empty.

The new design incorporates the organic topography of the original medieval square, and accommodates existing falls by gradual level changes for wheelchair users and drainage.  The predominant material is granite, to reflect the importance of the space and provide a long design life.  Many UK public squares are dominated by road traffic, signage and street furniture; however collaboration with City Planners has resulted in a clutter free, contemporary design.

The materials have been designed and selected to be sympathetic to their context and robust enough to stand the test of time. The central market square is composed of a large light coloured surface of slip resistant granite from Portugal that compliments the Portland stone of the Council House.  It is accessible to vehicles for staging events, setting up markets and creating the backdrops required for a variety of performances.  New terraces providing significantly more seating than before and are formed of grey, black, white and beige granite blocks.  These colours reflect the range of stone used in the surrounding building facades and also delineate level changes.  Their tapering forms create rows of benches, whilst others form planters.

The planting creates a sense of intimacy in the space; lines of plants create a layer of separation from the activity of Long Row and the tram stop.  Planters lined with a box hedge are filled with 4,000 colourful flowering bulbs, perennials and 800 shrubs that provide a living frame to the square, changing constantly in accordance with the season.  These are also designed to accommodate temporary planting schemes by the Nottingham in Bloom team.  A formal line of Ginkgo biloba trees has been planted along Long Row to reinforce its status as a promenade. They have a bold angular form, distinctive, bright green fan-shaped leaves which turn bright yellow in autumn. On South Parade leading into Angel Row, an avenue of Quercus palustris or Pin Oak, whose leaves turn bright red / brown in autumn, reflecting the brick facades of many of the square’s 19th-century buildings has been created.

The 4,400m2 water feature comprises a reflecting pool, a 1.8m waterfall, rills, 53 jets and a scrim, arranged as four terraces, which can be turned off when used as a stage or temporary viewing areas.  At night the water feature is lit up to shimmer and sparkle with fibre optics inlaid into each individual water jet. Long Row has been transformed into an ambient boulevard with atmospheric lighting cast from the refurbished listed lanterns, complemented by up-lighters set in to the paving.  To the south of the square, reflectors on the four lighting masts provide indirect background lighting to ensure that the Square feels safe and inviting.  These are also capable of supporting temporary lighting trusses and banners, which transform the square into a stage for spectacular events.

The aim of the design was that the new square should match the quality of Europe’s finest public spaces, such as the grand squares in Paris.  There is a sense of civic pride that ensures that huge resources are focused on management and maintenance.  Whatever the circumstances, Gustafson Porter will always strive to produce something innovative and beautiful.  When dealing with a public space, it is hugely important that the design serves its purpose and performs well, that it inspires people and provides a memorable experience. If it does this, it will engender a sense of communal well-being.

In the long-term it is hoped that the square will become an important landmark, drawing interest from people around the country, which will in turn help the local economy, acting as a catalyst for Nottingham’s ongoing regeneration

 

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