As a Great Place finalist, Swansea Maritime Quarter is perhaps unusual given the relatively wide geographical area it embraces and the range of varied characters within. Nevertheless, after a 40-year period of development it is now substantially complete, to represent a clearly defined district and a key tourist destination.
The Maritime Quarter occupies an area immediately to the south of Swansea City Centre, this comprises three water frontages to the River Tawe, the former South Dock and the beach to Swansea Bay. For the assessment this focussed on the area bounded by the Oystermouth Road to the north, the River Tawe to the east and Civic Centre complex to the west.
The poet Dylan Thomas, Swansea’s most famous son, described his birthplace as an “ugly, lovely town”. What residents and visitors see today is vastly different to the one in which Thomas grew up, with much of the city centre redeveloped during the post war period. By the 1970s Swansea’s docklands, much of which is now occupied by the Maritime Quarter, had entered into terminal decline, the extensive rail shunting yards and former coal docks became derelict and essentially regarded as a ‘no-go’ area.
Around this time the docks began to the be infilled to allow for the construction of a relief road, but the potential of this waterfront location for regeneration also began to be recognised by Council officers. Early master planning was undertaken by former City Architect, Robin Campbell, whose vision was strongly influenced by Port Grimaud, a seaside town created in the South of France during the 1960s. This was clearly the source of inspiration for the characteristic quayside colonnades evident in the initial phases of development undertaken in the early 1980s. At that time Swansea led the UK in waterfront regeneration, with representatives from Liverpool apparently visiting to gain ideas for the Albert Dock regeneration. The Maritime Quarter has slowly evolved since those early days, with the public sector continuing to instigate and coordinate the various phases of development.
In order to evaluate the Maritime Quarter’s success as Great Place finalist, it is necessary to provide an overview of the various elements which make up the Quarter and assess their relative contribution to the place as a whole. The key component parts include the beach and promenade, the South Dock, the Maritime Quarter Conservation Area and museums/leisure precinct to the northern edges, the residential developments and River Tawe frontage.
The Quarter enjoys a superb natural setting, with the expansive beach and dunes providing spectacular views across Swansea Bay to the Mumbles, and on a clear day, across to north Devon. These, in themselves, provide a unique sense of place and recreational asset for the city as a whole.
The former South Dock (now the Marina) undoubtedly provides the centrepiece and principal focus to the Quarter, extending some 800 metres in length. Historic dockside structures, the lock gates and the presence of boats including the historic vessels moored as part of the National Waterfront Museum greatly add to the overall character, vitality and visual interest of the location. The working boatyards and supporting marine businesses similarly contribute and their operations appear to exist harmoniously with the adjacent residential uses.
In contrast, the Maritime Quarter Conservation Area lying to the north west of the Marina, provides an area of historic townscape character. Originally laid out as a Georgian resort with fashionable townhouses, museum, guildhall and assembly rooms, this area was eventually subsumed by port activities in the early 19th Century as Swansea’s ambition as a coal port won the day following the industrial revolution. Today, this quiet enclave serves as an important reminder of Swansea’s early ambitions but in many respects would seem to have closer affinity with the function of the city centre rather than the essentially modern Maritime Quarter. However, the National Waterfront Museum, a Wilkinson Eyre designed project from the Millennium, has incorporated a listed dockside warehouse to form a successful linkage between the areas to the north and the Marina.
Flatted residential development embraces much of the Marina area and the seafront promenade to achieve both containment and a strong visual backdrop. These developments would appear popular and well maintained. However, their architectural quality is mixed, these mostly comprising a range of generic residential styles which were commonplace through the 1980s to the 2000s. The assessment team felt that resulting sense of place across the various phases of development had perhaps been more successful in some instances than others, but did identify some general concerns in relation to the limited nature of external amenity space, the poorly conceived nature of areas of public realm and the extensive use of rendered finishes which are perhaps not ideally suited to an extreme coastal environment.
The most striking recent addition to the Quarter is the 29 storey Meridian Quay tower, which opened in 2009. Its elliptical form and position to the south western corner of the Marina reinforce a powerful sense of place and identity. The tower also provides an excellent public vantage point with popular restaurant but it was disappointing to learn that some of the residential accommodation still remains unoccupied nearly a decade after completion.
A permeable pedestrian network has evolved as part of the areas regeneration to provide a walkable neighbourhood. However, poor pedestrian connectivity has resulted in the Quarter feeling slightly detached from the city centre to the north. To address this, the council are currently promoting the ambitious Swansea Arena and City Park project to further enhance links through the area.
In terms of the wider public realm, the majority of spaces fronting the Marina and the seafront promenade present an attractive traffic-free environment. These areas have been enlivened by the retention of historic dockside features and a range of public art interventions, implemented as part of a percentage for art policy which operated during the early phases of development.
The Maritime Quarter represents an exemplar of post-industrial regeneration noteworthy for the cohesive sense of place and distinctive character which has been achieved through a sustained vision and strong political leadership.
The Quarter now forms a major asset to the city offering a richness and eclecticism which captures the very essence, history and psyche of Swansea. The area has emerged as a popular destination for both locals and visitors bolstered by the excellent museums and leisure attractions.
The approach to date has set a benchmark but ongoing waterfront regeneration remains central to what Swansea is doing. The strength of local political ambition and entrepreneurial spirit is admirable, and while much has clearly been achieved, the assessment team felt that a lot of the enthusiasm is about what is yet to happen.
The Arena and City Park project, once complete, would certainly be worthy of further examination, as would the development of the new University of Wales innovation quarter and SA1 regeneration area to the east of the River Tawe. The much-publicised Swansea Bay barrage proposal which would lie adjacent to the Maritime Quarter also continues to enjoys widespread local support.
If this optimism and ambition translates into delivery, Swansea can certainly look forward to a bright future.