An empty 1970s shopping centre in Nottingham could be transformed into wetlands, pocket woodlands and a wildflower meadow as part of a post-pandemic urban rewilding project.
The debate about Broadmarsh shopping centre, considered an eyesore by many, has rumbled on for years. This year it was undergoing a £86m revamp by real estate investment trust Intu when the firm went into administration.
The number of empty shops on UK high streets has risen to its highest level in six years, and as retail giants such as Debenhams and Arcadia Group falter, Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust has come up with a new model of inner city regeneration: urban rewilding.
The trust wants to bulldoze the already half-demolished Broadmarsh building and turn it into 2.5 hectares (6 acres) of scruffy green space at an estimated cost of £3-4m. The designs were created with Influence Landscape Architects and could set a precedent for what to do with the growing amount of vacant retail space in other cities. “It’s unbelievable to hear that stores like Debenhams are in the position they are in – they’re stalwarts of the city, but it does put out an opportunity,” said Sara Boland, managing director of Influence.
Ponds surrounded by reeds, crocus meadows and wet grasslands would attract butterflies, dragonflies and a range of birds including reed warblers and black redstarts, according to the Wildlife Trust, which is calling on people to back its green vision. It will put its plans to Nottingham city council in the coming weeks as the authority canvasses views on what Broadmarsh could become as part of a 10-week consultation process.
The proposed scheme would run counter to the conventional idea of urban parks and instead hark back to what Broadmarsh would have looked like in centuries gone by. “Often open spaces in cities can be manicured and a bit formal,” said Boland. “The idea of this was to have more rewilding, restoring, protecting – this kind of connectivity, so the zones we then developed were about foraging, pond dipping and protecting species.”
Nineteenth-century maps helped architects get a clear picture of what this part of Nottinghamshire once looked like – a fertile garden area covered in fruit trees. Old street names include Pear Street and Peach Street; those fruits would be grown in the park to reflect its heritage. Crisscrossing the park would be walkways based on centuries-old street layouts.
Nottingham Wildlife Trust has long wanted to create green corridors in this area of the city to connect it to Sherwood Forest to the north. It has put up nest boxes on many buildings close to Broadmarsh to encourage black redstarts, which used to live in the city but are now rarely seen.
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“We’ve actually spent quite a bit of time over the past 20 or 30 years looking at various redevelopment proposals for this part of the city and for the Broadmarsh centre. We’ve submitted ideas for roof gardens and new avenues, all sorts of greener features,” said Erin McDaid, head of communications and marketing at Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust. “We feel this could be a real opportunity for the city to stand out from the crowd as cities across the UK look to recover their economies and find a new direction for urban centres.”
The Broadmarsh centre was opened in 1975, in an area of the city designed with drivers in mind. Now times are changing, said Nottingham resident Ewan Cameron. “I don’t think people really want [a shopping centre]. It’s kind of a 90s style of thinking … Broadmarsh felt like a place that people used to walk through, but there was no sense of community, no sense of life.
“Anyone coming into Nottingham on the train would have to pass by it before they reached the city centre, and it was just this horrible, ugly building with no windows. It was very unwelcoming,” he said. When Intu went into administration five months ago, Cameron started a petition to turn the unloved shopping centre into green space. It struck a chord with many people, and already has 10,000 signatures.
Last year Nottingham city council won the Guardian’s public service award for its ambitious policies to become the UK’s first carbon-neutral city. The city met its 2020 target to reduce carbon emissions by 26% four years early and the energy consumption of council buildings has fallen by 39%. A green development would show the city’s commitment to securing 30% of land for nature by 2030, the Wildlife Trust says.
David Mellen, Nottingham city council leader, said the conversation about the Broadmarsh site had captured people’s imagination. He said: “It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine a significant space right in the heart of one of the country’s core cities and build a new vision for urban areas following the coronavirus pandemic that is people centred and green but also leads to jobs and housing, improving quality of life.”
Cameron said he was “blown away” by the new designs. “It’s a chance for people to rethink how cities work and how we can design cities to make people’s lives better, rather than a place to shop,” he said.
“I hope the council will genuinely listen to people and I hope they haven’t made their mind up already and this isn’t a box-ticking exercise.”