Darlington Gateways: focusing future investment

4 April 2001 | blog, frameworks, small towns, strategy

High Row, Darlington town centre
The brief issued by Darlington Borough Council for this study stated that, ‘the key focus of this work was to look at improving the environment to make it welcoming and attractive to businesses, potential investors, visitors, residents and rate payers. The scheme should provide an environment which promotes civic pride and confidence that Darlington is an attractive town in which to concentrate future investment‘. The lead consultant was Janet Benton Landscape Architect.

Overview and introduction

The origins of Darlington can be traced back to Saxon times but the oldest visible remains of the early settlement date from the medieval period and can be seen in parts of the town centre street layout. The majority of the urban form seen today however, was laid out and built up during the town’s heyday – from the early 1800’s into the first half of the 20th century.

Darlington’s rapid 19th century expansion came about largely as a consequence of flourishing iron, railway and engineering industries, with the town absorbing a ten-fold rise in population over a 100 year period. The distinctive townscape of present-day Darlington, with its mosaic of grand civic buildings, fine Victorian and Edwardian villas and ranges of more modest back-to-back terraces, is the lasting legacy of Darlington’s 19th century innovation and productivity.

By the 1960’s, Darlington’s traditional heavy engineering and manufacturing industries had been finally eclipsed, and since then much effort has gone into diversifying and restructuring the economic base of the town. Today, Darlington is a commercial and administrative centre that serves a relatively affluent catchment of 184,000 people, from a hinterland that encompasses the whole of South Durham and North Yorkshire. According to recent studies the town has “…done as well as or better than other towns in the region” (Adding to Quality: A Development Strategy for Darlington Town Centre, October 2000) but the same studies indicate that Darlington is still under-performing economically, and there continue to be concerns about falling levels of employment and the consequent decline in levels of disposable income.

It is acknowledged that the future economic growth of Darlington relies on attracting new investment to the town, and in particular, knowledge-based businesses and services. Darlington already offers many of the necessary quality of life attributes which are important to attract this form of investment – good quality housing and education, shopping, leisure and recreation opportunities and a distinctive and generally attractive environment. However, it is also widely recognised that the town has a poor image to outsiders and in particular, that the visual appearance of the approaches to the town creates poor first impressions that could impact on future growth potential.

Issues of image and first impressions are especially significant given that Darlington has the potential to act at a more strategic level as a “Gateway”, whereby the prosperity of the town would contribute to the prosperity of the wider Tees Valley and Western Growth Corridor area (Tees Valley Vision).

Study rationale

The reason for seeking to improve the approaches to Darlington is therefore to develop an environment that will promote confidence in the concept of Darlington as an attractive town in which to concentrate future investment, by making it attractive and welcoming to businesses, potential investors, visitors, residents and rate payers.

The aim of improving the perceptions of visitors to Darlington correlates with the objectives of other current strategies at both the regional and local level. The Regional Action Plan 2001-2004, Regional Economic Strategy 2000 and the Tees Valley Vision all make explicit the importance of the links between environmental quality, image and economic potential.

At the local level, Darlington Economic Regeneration Strategy 1999-2006, the Borough of Darlington Local Plan and Darlington Local Transport Plan 2001-2006, stress the importance of environmental quality in improving the function, character and identity of the area and in certain cases specifically refer to the need to address issues of quality on the approaches to the town.

Objectives of the study

The primary objective of this study is to develop a strategic framework in which to deliver improvements to the principal Darlington approaches and gateways, focusing specifically on 8 key radial road routes and Bank Top railway station.

The proposals take into account current strategies, policies and extant delivery plans of the Borough Council and other agencies, and develops an implementation plan to deliver the strategic framework over the short, medium and longer term.

Conclusions and recommendations

The future economic growth of Darlington depends on attracting new businesses to the town and although Darlington already possesses many of the quality of life attributes which help attract new employers and residents, there is evidence that a poor or uncertain image may discourage new investment.

The Darlington Gateway Project was commissioned to investigate opportunities to improve formative first impressions and the study has highlighted the fact that in places the approaches are distinctive and attractive, but that elsewhere the lack of consistency in environmental quality gives a more mixed, and sometimes poor impression.

The study makes recommendations for the creation of a clearer, more distinctive identity, through the adoption of a more confident and contemporary design approach. It recommends that the improvements to the approaches should be sympathetic to the historical context and celebrate important historical features, but that there should be more evidence of a forward-looking and creative design culture.

The study has made recommendations for an extensive programme of projects ranging widely in their scale and scope and programmed over 10 year period. It will not be feasible to deliver the entire programme simultaneously and so the identification of a prioritised, phased strategy will be essential to the success of the scheme. Nevertheless, the Gateway Scheme contains an accumulating sequence of relatively modest actions that have the capacity to have an impact in the short term. As the Scheme progresses it will improve investor and business confidence in the town and foster civic pride.

Darlington Gateway Analysis and Proposals

Willie Miller, the founder and principal of WMUD, died on 12th January 2021 after a short illness. Willie was a much-loved husband and father and had a huge circle of friends  and professional colleagues. He was a multi-talented urban designer whose work had a major impact on hundreds of cities, towns and neighbourhoods throughout the UK and over the past 25 years. He also worked in Ireland, the Channel Islands and the USA.

Ines Triebel has been with WMUD since 2005, and she will continue the practice, drawing on her skills as a planner and designer. Ines has worked on place strategies, masterplans, policy guidance, regeneration and development frameworks, and the design of public realm and streetscape projects. She has extensive experience of working with communities, including charrettes.

WMUD will continue its long-standing strategic partnerships with Benton Scott-Simmons, Nick Wright Planning, Kevin Murray Associates, icecream architecture, yellow book and others. Please direct inquiries to Ines at [email protected] or contact any of the practices named above.