Swindon councillors consider parklets scheme in bid to revitalise town centre

TINY pop-up parks could be one of the solutions used to help Swindon town centre recover from the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Councillors on the borough’s growing the economy committee were presented with the local authority’s plan as it looks to plot a way out of the crisis.

Among the ideas was using parklets – small spaces with seating and greenery – to encourage a wider use of the main retail area than simply shopping.

These might take up the space used by one or two on-street parking spaces – or could even be as big as Wharf Green.

Town centre coordinator Mark Walker said: “We might look at using spaces such as Wharf Green, and others across the town centre as green spaces for people to enjoy.

“That might tie into food markets where existing businesses can set up, or new pop-up businesses or others from outside Swindon can come in.”

He added: “They could be tied in with spaces for community arts – music, dancing and theatre.”

One of the aims is to give people more reason to come to the centre and to stay longer.

Mr Walker said: “Figures show that the peak time for visits to the centre is 10am-3pm. If we can flatten that a bit, if we can extend it, then we can link that daytime use to the night-time economy.”

Another strand to the recovery strategy is a central database and website listing all the empty units in the town centre.

Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet member for the town centre Dale Heenan said: “Traders and landowners in the town centre maybe used to see each other as rivals – now they know they have to work together to face a different challenge.

“We have a listing of all the empty units in the town centre, in the Brunel, in The Parade, so an independent business or a start-up just has to look in one place rather than different agents’ websites.”

The councillors were told footfall in the town centre just before the start of the current lockdown had bounced back to 80 per cent of its pre-March lockdown levels, compared to a figure of 50 or 60 per cent in many other towns.

But Coun Heenan said: “The shopping area will contract. If you look Bridge Street and Fleet Street, the nightclubs are still up for sale. We will have more residential there and Kimmerfields and the Cultural Quarter will be key to regeneration.”

The Labour group’s spokesman on economic regeneration Junab Ali said: “Labour welcomes any report aimed at helping revitalise our town centre and will engage constructively with it.

“We can’t afford to let our town centre wither on the vine – I hope the council will seek the views of businesses and people in Swindon on the best way forward.”

“With many businesses understandably concerned about their trade in the run-up to Christmas, it’s vital that the Conservatives use this period of lockdown to set out a plan for the next few months to give workers and businesses the certainty they need.”

Liberal Democrat councillor Stan Pajak said: “The suggestions are great and universally supported across the country in various schemes, notably the parklets in London bringing seating, green ideas and a fun place to perhaps enjoy the produce of a nearby cafe and park your cycle.

“Another idea I would suggest would be week themes utilising town centre locations and not halls where you pay an admission for such things as a book, cake, sport, antiques, nostalgia, GWR weeks with charities encouraged with free spaces.

“All the suggestions are good but depend on the commitment – a recent example being the poor Christmas markets in our town centre when compared to neighbouring towns.

“As ever we are late in this but bringing together all the players with the goal of enhancing and making Swindon town centre a place to visit is a worthy step in the right direction.”

Plenty of other councils across Britain are also looking at parklets. An article in a tabloid newspaper criticising local authorities for installing them mentioned Meristem Design, one of the country’s leading producers of the parks. It saw enquiries leap by 20 times.

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