Poundbury today

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D.(Arch.)

In 1993 The Prince laid the founding stones for the 400-acre Poundbury development at Dorchester. This new “urban village” eschews modernist planning principles and auto-dependent suburban housing in favor of a diverse, walkable mixed-use traditional model. Now half complete, it is possible to evaluate how well the original goals are being achieved.

Pummery Square & Brownsword Market

Almost thirty years ago, HRH The Prince of Wales invoked the wrath of some of England’s architects and planners. He had commented on a towering extension to the National Gallery as a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend"[1], and followed this with remarks about “the dreariness and heartlessness of so much urban planning.”[2] In 1991, in appreciation of his championing city livability and appropriate human-scale architecture, IMCL presented the Prince of Wales the IMCL Lewis Mumford Award.

The Prince has acted as a lightning rod, drawing attacks to himself on behalf of all those fighting for more livable and sustainable cities. He was castigated for daring, as a layman, to criticize; mocked for his desire for a built urban environment that brought beauty and dignity to all; and accused of meddling in political matters when he commented on the growing gap between Britain’s wealthy and the poor.

Poundbury, planned by Leon Krier, with key buildings by Britain’s most accomplished traditional architects, continues to be heaped with snide comments and vitriolic invectives.

Preventing sprawl

Poundbury was conceived as a compact, mixed use neighborhood that would prevent sprawl and maintain a clear boundary between the built, and the natural environment. Like a traditional village or small town, Poundbury succeeds admirably in this goal.

Dorset architecture and diversity

Domestic architecture. Photo left by David Oliver

Fundamental to the development was to ensure that it fitted appropriately into its geographic and cultural context. Poundbury was intended to genuinely reflect the character of traditional Dorset towns, particularly Dorchester, the small County town to which it is connected. Traditional materials, construction methods, window, door and roof detailing were all modeled after existing patterns. Far from producing monotony, this has resulted in an extraordinarily diverse architectural composition that retains the human scale. No two adjacent buildings are alike, particularly in Phase One, yet they connect to, and respect each other.  Poundbury has become almost a catalogue of small town Dorset architecture and creative interpretations.

 Focal buildings

Unique buildings, often by renowned architects, are placed at focal points and turns in the street to enhance the vista and strengthen a sense of place.

As Phase Two is completed, a new aesthetic is emerging. A more civic style of architecture is appearing, with terraced, mixed-use buildings, particularly around Butter Market, the square at the heart of Phase Two, and at Queen Mother Square that will form the heart of Poundbury.

Architectural urbanity - Kings Point House; Butter Market; Perspective of Krier's design for a tower with lantern that will close Queen Mother Square

Buildings on Butter Market are Regency in style with decorative cast iron arcades and terraces. They are a little reminiscent of Marlborough’s colonnaded main street shops, north of Dorset, or Brighton’s Regency terraces, east of Dorset. David Oliver, who was involved with Poundbury at the beginning, first as County Planning Officer, then as a Consultant to the Duchy of Cornwall, contends they are more reminiscent of New Orleans than England. However, there is no doubt that they create an attractive and practical frame for the public space.

Around Queen Mother Square, a grander, more urban scale of architecture is being introduced. These buildings will be far larger than Shire Hall, the grandest building in Dorchester. Quinlan Terry, designer of Richmond’s magnificent Riverfront development, designed Kings Point House, a 4-story limestone classical-style office and commercial building that frames the west side of the square. This building is arcaded at street level, with a 5-story “tower” on the southern corner.

A 4-story building by Ben Pentreath soon to be constructed on the east side of the square will bring more urban character. An iconic building with a lantern by Leon Krier will close the vista on the north side.

Architecturally, Phase One excels in creating an aesthetic, human scale environment at a village scale. Phase Two creates a more urban environment that reflects some of the best British architectural traditions from a broader region. While some cavil at the apparent abandonment of the original, more modest aesthetic, Poundbury was proposed as an “urban village”, a concept that integrates these two scales.

 

There have been some disappointments in achieving a consistently high quality of construction. Stains are visible on a number of buildings due to leaching of lime from stone lintels or mortar. This is disappointing because it could have been avoided by proper masonry practices and quality control of the mortar ingredients (David Oliver used no lime in the mortar of his house and has no staining). However, it can be, and is being removed, and now the problem is recognized, hopefully will not be repeated.

 

Urban design and the public realm

Krier’s original design identified four quadrants, each with its own main square, united at the center by a grand piazza. Pummery Square forms the heart of Phase One (the Southeast Quadrant). Within the 167’ x 165’ irregular square stands Brownsword Hall (designed by John Simpson), a traditional columned, open sided market hall surmounted by a community meeting room.

Butter Market, the commercial hub of Phase 2, the Southwest Quadrant, is a curving, funnel-shaped commercial street, climbing a hill and widening to an octagonal building by Ben Pentreath.

Queen Mother Square will be the heart of the whole Poundbury development.  It is a large piazza, approx. 200’ x 300’ that will house the statue of the Queen Mother atop a monumental plinth, and will be surrounded by classical-style buildings.

Pedestrian lanes and passages. Photo left by David Oliver

The layout of streets and succession of open spaces are pleasing to move through, with unique architectural focal points at the culmination of each street view. They are not laid out on a grid, but relate to the lay of the land, and to the natural gathering points at the lowest, and highest points.

If anything, the urban fabric may be too permeable. It offers delightful variations in getting from A to B – one can cut through narrow alleys, cross semi-private back yards, and emerge on another street. But this plethora of secret alleys perhaps facilitates a little too much social avoidance. You can weave your way through the whole development from one tiny alley to another, darting in and out of archways and narrow walkways, avoiding all of the larger streets. Some residents feel they encourage miscreants, such as kids who ring doorbells and run away, but this should decrease as a community spirit develops and residents become identifiable to one another. Actual crime is very low.

Beechwood Square

With the exception of Middle Farm Way and Peverell Avenue, streets and squares are designed for the pedestrian scale, and subtle traffic calming devices are in place – paving stones to mark transitions, raised platforms, short jogged streets, and roundabouts at major intersections.

As many critics have observed, there are hardly any pedestrians to be seen – only parked cars. The majority of spaces, even those with names such as Chaseborough Square, Hessary Place, Beechwood Square and Queen Mother Square function as car parks. One wonders whether the initial vision precluded an underground parking option[3], and whether the vision failed to include social life in the public realm.

To be fair, there is very little moving traffic on the streets. Traffic that does exist moves slowly, and Poundbury did not propose banning car ownership. The lack of pedestrian traffic, even around the lunch hour, is due to the fact that most of the shops and restaurants around the two main hubs have not yet opened, or even been built. When Butter Market and Queen Mother Square are complete, one would expect a lively pedestrian atmosphere.

Generating community

It is the proximity of business, residential, commercial and service facilities to each other, and to hospitable public places that generates social life in the public realm, facilitating the development of community. The plan paid attention to creating places, but apart from Pummery Square, the building uses around these places are not yet in place.

Village Stores. Photo by David Oliver

Pummery Square has a columned village store along the east side, the Poet Laureate pub on the south. The southwest corner opens to the Octagon café and an outdoor dining patio. There is a boutique and a soft furnishings shop on the west side. The upper chamber of Brownsword Hall, managed by the Poundbury Village Hall Trust, functions as Poundbury’s community hall, and is hired out for community, private and commercial events. Initially, this square was lively on market day.

Each element is essential to building community, and each has been beautifully designed, but together, they are not quite enough – or the population of the quadrant is too small - to make this a lively place that generates community without the market. Perhaps indicative of this, the square now functions as a car park. A couple of young lads hang out there with their bikes, practicing tricky maneuvers, but they are listless: they need an audience and other young people to hang out with, and, though they may not consciously know this, at their age they are looking for practice in interacting with people of different ages and learning how to become socially skilled. Pummery Square does not support this important social development. This neighborhood is also cut off from the rest of Poundbury by the broad Middle Farm Way.

Terraced shop/houses on Butter Market, still in construction

Butter Market is a more commercial street. On the south-facing slope below the café are terraced seating areas that will be a great attraction. Small shops and workshops are currently being completed to line the street, with flats and condos above. Nearby, there are shops selling bikes, crafts, kitchen/bathroom fittings, quilts, carpets, beads and clothing. On the Butter Market so far, only one shop selling gifts, perfumes and soaps has opened. If the shops lining this street serve the local community (rather than appealing to specialized tastes or visitors) then Butter Market could generate social life and community.

Queen Mother Square has not yet been built. Its size and location at the center of Poundbury should make this the obvious place for people to gather for community events, festivals, farmers markets, and everyday informal social contact. And yet design of the square and use of surrounding buildings may work against this.

On the south side is a 4-story brick building of flats and offices. The building contains an art gallery and other commercial premises at ground and first floors with residential accommodation at second and third floors.

The 4-story building soon to be constructed on the east side of the square will house 62 purpose built, assisted living apartments, designed exclusively for the over 70s. This will provide a range of facilities to include a waitress service restaurant, domestic assistance and personal care assistance. A shared lounge and landscaped atriums will offer communal areas. This group may be good users of the square if it is hospitably designed, but they may not contribute as much to the economic success of surrounding businesses. It would be unfortunate if this population group visibly outnumbers other younger users of the square.

Kings Point House on the west contains 35,000 square feet of office space (whose workers would be good lunchtime clients for the cafes), and 28 affordable flats, (whose residents will be important clients for all commercial establishments around the square) and an underground car park with 100 spaces.

It is helpful that Kings Point House already contains a Waitrose upmarket supermarket, appealing to the whole population of Poundbury. It will also contain a “pannier market” for local produce, handmade arts and crafts. To augment these, more shops and services around the square are needed, as well as two or three restaurants or cafés with tables and chairs on the square in fine weather.

The farmers’ market[4] takes place only once a month with 40 local producers selling honey, preserves, baked goods, game, lamb, beef, cheese, plants and more. The diversity is good, but it is surprising that locally grown fruit and vegetables are not sold on the square at least once a week.

Perspective sketch of Queen Mother Square and monument

The square has been laid out in a geometric pattern of stone paving, apparently to assist in its primary use as a car park[5].  There seems to be no consideration for providing formal seating in the way of benches, or informal seating in the way of steps and ledges. There are a few trees that seem placed for architectural effect, rather than to provide shade. Even the monument to the Queen Mother lacks hospitality, having been designed with a sheer 12’ high plinth.

We hope that very careful attention will be paid to the design of this square, and to the social implications of building uses around the square so that it becomes a living heart for the community, and not just a dead ceremonial space.

Population mix

Currently, there are only 2,000 residents (complete, it will house 5,000). Statistics show that Poundbury has almost exactly the same demographics in age ranges as Dorchester, though Poundbury has a slightly higher percentage of children (18.2% aged 0-15, compared to 15.8%). This has been achieved in part by the fact that 30% of the housing is social housing – houses and flats indistinguishable from market rate homes.

The Prince of Wales championed the relatively unknown concept of affordable housing for Poundbury. This program has proved so successful that it has been adopted by the government as a flagship government policy

Poundbury also offers a special arrangement to assist those at a lower income level to buy a house at a percentage of the market rate, called shared equity homeownership  While they live there, they pay interest on the amount owing. If they sell, they receive their percentage of the selling price.

Phase 3 is scheduled to provide 35% affordable housing to enable more young families to live there. Currently, facilities for children are limited to the Sunny Days Nursery & Play Loft, which provides an out of school club for 5-11 year olds and an outdoor play area. The primary school is scheduled for construction in Phase 3.

For certain population groups, such as retired couples, Poundbury provides an ideal home and opportunities for community involvement. 

Younger people looking for a more dynamic community heart and teenagers seeking to fulfill their developmental need to hang out “where the action is”, may have to wait until Butter Market and Queen Mother Square are complete.

Business and commerce

Poundbury is already home to 140 businesses that provide employment for some 1,600 people[6], making it possible for a substantial percentage of the population to live within walking distance of their place of work, if they wish. Businesses include Dorset Cereals factory; 27 services including medical, dental, therapy, hair and beauty, financial advisors; 19 shops, including a supermarket, a garden center, bike sales, clothing, furnishings; 10 eating places; 6 offices; 6 real estate agents; and a bed and breakfast.

According to David Oliver, it was a conscious decision to scatter shops and businesses throughout the whole development, though they are mostly located along the main streets and clustered around the main squares.

There was also a deliberate design decision to separate each quadrant’s hub from every other hub, and from the central hub. A large park stands between Queen Mother Square, the heart of Poundbury, and the Butter Market, the heart of the Southwest Quadrant. To walk from Pummery Square to Butter Market or Queen Mother Square one must cross Middle Farm Way, a very wide green avenue.

While the intention was to bring commercial activity to all parts of Poundbury, in practice, this policy may be counterproductive to the goal of reducing car use. It is difficult to conduct all shopping errands on one trip, thus making it more likely that residents will drive from one shop to another.

 

The Octagon Cafe

Small shops are more successful if they are located in a lively hub among other necessary shops and services. The traditional pattern in English market towns is to have a main street or marketplace at the center of a compact network of small streets with many shops, services, businesses and higher density housing close together. This pattern facilitates easy pedestrian accessibility for a large residential population, and can be easily accessed by public transit from surrounding areas.

Locating businesses, shops and eating places close together can be mutually beneficial. It helps to generate street life, workers are more likely to support local cafes and restaurants at lunch, and to do incidental shopping during their lunch break or on their way home.  Queen Mother Square still has the potential to become the primary commercial and social center; Butter Market still has the potential to become a lively secondary center.

Need for regional planning

Like many cities around the world, Dorchester and Poundbury suffer from the proximity of large shopping malls and big box retail. Dorchester’s main street shops failed to maintain upper floor residences over shops. They are vacant, or used for storage, so in the evening the main street is dead, making the main street even less attractive. Weekly shopping is conducted by car at the mall. Large supermarkets containing pharmacy, bakery, meat and fish counters also destroy the opportunity for specialized independent shops to survive on main street.

Independent high street shops can reclaim the economic edge over shopping malls if they ensure a residential population over the shops and within walking distance. This makes the shopping street the center of a community – a quality strongly desired by young and old. Poundbury’s Butter Market, lined by residences over shops, could provide a successful model for towns across Britain.

In addition, a strong county-wide regional planning effort aimed at preventing big box retail and large auto-dependent shopping malls would be advisable. This regional planning approach, employed by Germany, France and Switzerland, has been extremely successful in protecting independent businesses in villages, towns and cities in the Upper Rhine Region. As a consequence, this area now offers perhaps the highest quality of life in Europe.

Conclusion

When Poundbury was first conceived, the conventional wisdom was that planning a new compact mixed use ‘urban village’ that would help prevent sprawl was radical and impossible to achieve.

Poundbury has already proved extremely successful in the visual aspects of architecture and urban design, in it human scale, use of traditional materials and architectural forms, and ecologically sustainable features. These are now a part of mainstream planning policy. We hope that when Butter Market and Queen Mother Square are complete, Poundbury will also prove successful in the social aspects of architecture and urban design, in generating a dynamic social ambience and vibrant commerce that will bring together old and young, rich and poor, to create a true community.



[2] HRH The Prince of Wales. 1989. A Vision of Britain, A Personal View of Architecture. London: Doubleday

[3] The first underground parking has been provided beneath Kings Point House on Queen Mother Square, and yet the square still seems to be designed as a car park.

[4] In April, 2013 the market moved from Pummery Square to Queen Mother Square.

[5] There seems to be a huge lost opportunity to provide parking under the square. As David Oliver observed, this would have been easy to achieve, since there is a difference of several feet between the elevation of the approach road that runs across the south edge and the elevation of the square.