Sunderland has perhaps suffered from bad press in recent times, a little tucked away on the northeast coast and often vying for attention with its larger neighbours – Newcastle and Gateshead. But it is also a seaside city with twin beach resorts; Seaburn and Roker having been family favourites for generations. The qualities of these seafront neighbourhoods do not seem widely known outside the city, yet they boast sweeping golden sands with blue flagged status and panoramic views along the coast.
Over the past decade, the City Council have spearheaded a programme of regeneration to the seafront areas comprising a series of public realm enhancements and development projects, benefitting from £11 million publicly funded investment. Seaburn and Roker in the north east of the city represent its more affluent wards, with attractive and well-ordered suburban development, much of the housing being the most expensive in Sunderland.
Roker established in the late Victorian period and by the early 20th Century had become a thriving seaside. Seaburn’s reputation as a resort came slightly later in the 1930s following construction of its promenades, hotel and the Seaburn Hall, a famous dance hall and live music venue.
In the 1980s the Sunderland’s vast Nissan car plant began to replace many of the old heavy industries but it was also around this time that Seaburn and Roker enjoyed their last burst as holiday resorts. The visitors still came but in smaller numbers and focus changed towards day trips rather than holidays.
Through the 1980s and 1990s Sunderland progressed a number of regeneration initiatives. But it was in 2004 that the potential of the coast for tourism began to be recognised with commissioning of a Tyne and Wear Coastal Regeneration Strategy by a body of local councils.The main recommendation of the report identified areas for action including image, transport, jobs and skills.
It also recommended the area’s future development should be based upon key tourism products including: maritime and coastal activities, history and heritage, events and sport, business tourism and developing a range of niche tourism products. This report was followed by the City’s Seafront Regeneration Strategy prepared by the City Council in 2010. The consultation exercise which was undertaken gauged public opinion regarding the vision for the future of the seafront with the results advocating separate visions for Seaburn and Roker seafronts. The purpose of the Strategy was fourfold: 1) To establish an agreed vision and regeneration objectives for the seafront; 2) To act as a supporting document for future funding bids; 3) To ensure development is cohesive and joined up, and 4) Acknowledging the high level of vacant land in council control would provide a means to influence the quality of development coming forward. To deliver on the aims and objectives, the strategy identified that area masterplans would be prepared, these would be supported by a Promenade Public Realm Strategy and Seafront Management Plan.
For the purpose of the assessment, the team focussed upon the 2km stretch of coastline extending from Seaburn Promenade to Roker Pier, this also including the Roker Cliff Park and Marine Walk areas. The team also explored the hinterland to the rear of the seafront area including Roker Park, the surrounding villa area and the ravine leading down to the shoreline. The St Peter’s Marina and National Glass Centre lying to the south have also made a successful contribution to the regeneration of the wider area over the past 25 years, although they pre-date much of the recent enhancement works and were not therefore considered as part of the nomination.
Our starting point for the visit was Seaburn Promenade.The principle focus of works in this area has been the re-modelling of the old seafront structures and extensive public realm enhancements, including the calming of the busy coastal road. Some former public conveniences now serve as an attractive beachfront café, with popular bar/restaurant being developed above. This has both provided a visual marker to the seafront and serves as a driver for activity.
Further to the south lie Roker Cliff Park and the Meiks lighthouse with the evocatively named Cat & Dog Steps – a steep staircase linking to the beach below. The partially split-level nature of the promenade and the presence of the main road does separate the seafront from its hinterland, forming a barrier to movement. Although some steps have been taken to address this such as traffic calming, east-west access for pedestrians could be further enhanced.
The Victorian Roker Park lies slightly detached from the main seafront, this connected by a picturesque ravine. With bandstand, ornamental lake, bowling greens, crazy golf and miniature railway the park still possesses some traditional qualities of a bygone age. The facility would appear well managed and has achieved Green Flag status, but the assessment team did feel that these excellent facilities could perhaps be better integrated with the seafront attractions. At the foot of the ravine, we discovered three unusually designed wooden pods, which serve as kiosks. These were developed with an arts consultancy called Art Gene and provide accommodation for school groups and an environmental charity. We were sorry not see these in use and understand from the Council these have not worked as well as planned.
The Roker seafront which includes the Marine Walk area and Roker Pier has formed the second main focus for the seafront regeneration. This area has retained its more traditional seaside attractions – fairground rides, amusement arcades and fish and chips stalls. The location plays host to the established North East Diving Academy and the Adventure Sunderland Watersport Centre perhaps emphasising the attempts by the Council to diversify the areas traditional offer.
The centrepiece to the redevelopment of the area has been an attractive mixed-use development delivered by the Council in conjunction with a private developer. With its lively gable-ended roofs, new restaurant uses occupy the ground floor with residential situated above. Although this area is not primarily residential in character, the new flats have provided a greater level of passive surveillance. This scheme has been complemented by attractive contemporary landscaping and public realm, providing connections to the historic Roker Pier, which forms a half-mile long breakwater to the mouth of the River Wear. Punctuated by its lighthouse, this feature has recently been the subject of sensitive restoration using Heritage Lottery funding. However, a number of sites in this area still remain vacant highlighting that there are still a number of areas to be tackled. A former seafront shelter also had a slightly dilapidated feel, although attempts have been made to enhance its appearance through some painted murals.
Regrettably the City Council were unable to join the assessment visit but it was apparent that majority of the current success can be attributed in some way to the Council, with the regeneration being very much Council led. Whilst the individual components of the regeneration are perhaps relatively modest, the approach has delivered a series of coherent spaces that form ‘events’ along the coast.The various interventions are generally well detailed and sensitive to place. All the areas we explored were immaculate with little sign of vandalism – we understand from the Council that this is a priority area which enjoys an enhanced level of maintenance.
The Council must be commended for having the foresight and vision for preparing the Seafront Regeneration Strategy in the first instance, but also for their ambition to deliver.The Council have played an instrumental role in the area’s sustained regeneration; securing funding, co-ordinating development, design, promotion and the programming of events – the area plays host to the Sunderland International Airshow – the largest free event of its kind in Europe and still forms the main focus for the Sunderland illuminations which take place every September to November.
Although we were not able to observe the dynamic of the place at different times we understand that the area does have a year-round appeal and is popular during the spring and summer months. Businesses have reported an uplift in trade with new businesses start-ups which perhaps suggest a change in the area’s fortunes. The success of Sunderland’s seafront demonstrates what can be achieved through sustained public sector-led regeneration with relatively limited means. This is a popular, much rejuvenated and highly inclusive place of which the city and the region can be rightly proud.
Lead Assessor: Francis Newton AoU