Kirkwall Town Centre Placemaking Proposals

19 October 2014 | blog, designing streets, frameworks, place making, small towns, street design, town centres, waterfronts

Harbour Street, Kirkwall - placemaking option-2A
In parallel with our work for Orkney Islands Council on the Kirkwall Townscape Heritage Initiative we carried out a wider study which dealt with a placemaking strategy and proposals for Kirkwall focusing on the Harbourfront and Central West areas.


Responding to the different character and functional areas of Central Kirkwall, a hierarchy of design principles was developed that performed different functions and also worked within different scales of ambition and budget.


Theme 1 – Large Elements

Kirkwall La-areas
Orkney Islands Council are committed in principle through their Placemaking Strategy approved in April 2013, to investigating three major projects – two within the THI area of concentration and another at the western edge of the town centre area. These are:

Broad Street including Castle Street and Palace Road: the civic and historic heart of the town with St Magnus Cathedral and other significant historic buildings as its centrepiece. Public realm work in this area has the potential to connect two areas of high quality environment, namely Albert Street and Victoria Street. The improved environment would provide opportunities for local businesses to populate external spaces and use new pedestrian priority areas and provide a much more appropriate environment for St Magnus Cathedral itself. This could be achieved by wider footpaths, a series of obvious crossing points along Broad Street and a revised entrance to Victoria Street, The work would include reworking the junctions of Palace Road and Castle Street to create a different priority system for vehicles and pedestrians. This work would also create a new civic space south of The Reel which would be used for events and car parking. The proposals will be developed that try to get a better balance between vehicles and pedestrians without inconveniencing either.

Harbour Street: including the Old Harbour area: an important entry point for cruise liner visitors as well as the daily passengers from ferries from the northern islands. Breaking down the dominance of traffic along Harbour Street through reducing the width of the street, providing a median strip and increasing the widths of footways on either side of the road would make it easier for pedestrians to use the cafes and bars along the street as well as improve access to the old harbour. The proposals here aspire to create a more positive relationship between the working harbour and the edge of the retail core of the town.

West Central: being the commercial and industrial area abutting the Conservation Area and forming an entry point to the retail and civic core of the town. This is an important area and very much a working part of town that feeds into the rest of the town centre with activity through its car parks, supermarkets, civic buildings and commercial/industrial premises. The emphasis here will be on improving pedestrian and cycle connections into the core of the THI area, making road junctions less vehicle dominated and improving opportunities for local businesses to use the public realm by widening footpaths at appropriate places.

Designing Streets

A key element in the Council’s approach to placemaking is the idea that the divisions between what are exclusively pedestrian spaces and vehicle space should be broken down to create a better environment containing the benefits of both types of space. In other words while there is still access for vehicles, their domination of spaces should be lessened where pedestrians require a higher standard of environment.

Appropriate materials: Surfacing materials in Kirkwall in the mid to late 19th are likely to have been stone paving slabs for pedestrian areas with a trim of cobbles or setts used in gutters or other drainage tracks. From old photography, most roads would have had a compressed earth or gravel surface on some form of hardcore. At the turn of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, cobbled or setted road surfaces became more common. As the 20th century progressed, asphalt surfaces replaced setts and slabs as the dominant surface.

In the context of the THI, authentic materials for public realm improvement are essential and so stone paving and setts offers the best response in this historic environment. At the same time, the cost of re-laying roads in slabs or setts is likely to be prohibitive and it is likely that areas of asphalt will remain. In some circumstances, the asphalt could have coloured chippings or aggregate appropriate for their immediate environment. Outwith the Conservation Area, coloured aggregates could be used more extensively to define shared surfaces while reducing costs.

Priorities: Given the cost of implementing these large projects, it is reasonable to assume that priorities have to be established and a phasing plan for the works agreed. The priority project area is generally agreed to be Broad Street and within that area, the first area to be tackled should be the southern section between the Town Hall and the start of Victoria Street. The two other large element projects are likely to have significant cost implications however the following themes outline smaller scale proposals which could be more easily achieved and make a real improvement in the public realm of Kirkwall.


Theme 2 – Social Spaces

Kirkwall Ss-projects
This theme deals with the idea that smaller spaces can also contribute to the general feel of the town centre through positive interventions to create opportunities for a more comfortable pedestrian environment for crossing roads, for stopping to chat or better facilities for shelter and sitting down.

Initially fifteen of these interventions have been identified (Ss-01 to Ss-15) and shown on the plans. The majority of these are street junctions where changes should be made to kerb radii and widths of footways will make a critical difference to pedestrian comfort. In other examples, tidying up interesting features – for example the traditional telephone kiosk and letter box at the junction of Albert Street and Bridge Street is a popular spot for tourists from cruise liners but could be improved by providing seating and tidying up the gable end and surrounding facades (Ss-02). A larger example is Ss-05 at the Wireless Museum and the Pet Shop premises at the intersection of Junction Road and the entrance to the Albert Car Park to the rear of Bridge Street. Here it would be possible to create a much more appealing pedestrian environment which provided a friendly threshold for the Wireless Museum and local businesses.


Theme 3 – Networks

This theme deals with the varied nature of street layouts, linkages and connections in the town centre. The theme explores opportunities for encouraging visitors to stray from the well-trodden main axis of Bridge Street, Albert Street, Broad Street and Victoria Street into circular routes that explain more of the history of the town or which brings them into contact with other buildings and scenes of historical or architectural interest. For example The Laing Street Loop (Nw-01) is an obvious starting point taking people through a sequence of four streets off the main north-south axis which features fascinating townscape and four remarkable listed buildings including two which are key priority projects in the THI (see below under EX existing assets).

Signage and interpretation will be required to make the most of these opportunities.

Other possibilities include more loops to the east of the main axis including the Strynd (Nw-03) and potentially the Copland’s Lane loop onto Palace Road. To the west of the main axis there are many other possibilities for improving routes into the centre of the Conservation Area and the entry points to the historic core as well as connections to the Peedie Sea through the Central West area (Nw 06-07)


Theme 4 – Greenspace

Kirkwall-Gr-Green Projects
The centre of Kirkwall has important greenspace associated with the Cathedral and Palace and also with Tankerness House. To the east of the main axis, there are many mature trees in gardens and other private properties which make a positive contribution to the environment, the historic streetscape and public realm. This is in contrast to the western side of the axis where the general street environment is harder and with few trees and areas of greenspace.

A greener environment is not just about trees. There could be more opportunities for seating areas and for play areas that introduce softer elements into the public realm. This theme identifies areas where positive steps should be taken to provide these elements. Lines of street trees are not necessarily the intention as that might run against the informality and organic nature of the Kirkwall historic environment. Rather it is proposed that in the areas shown, opportunities should be explored for green interventions in a number of forms – from trees in gardens or trees at work schemes to opportunities for sitting or play areas around new planting.


Theme 5 – Existing Assets

Kirkwall-Ex Projects
Kirkwall’s historic core has many strong assets in terms of public realm. In addition to the physical and visual benefits of retaining older buildings and street patterns there are potentially other positive benefits deriving from making the most of cheaper property as a driver for new businesses in the town centre, using heritage as an additional marketing strategy and developing skills in traditional building and construction. All of these could contribute to employment generation and an increased sense of civic pride and community involvement in the fabric of the town centre.

In the context of the Kirkwall THI and addition to the public realm works outlined above, there are currently five priority building projects where early funds are targeted on conservation works to particular important buildings. It is logical to propose that in addition to these building works, the external environment of these structures should be brought up to an appropriate standard, where appropriate or feasible.

Two of these buildings are on the Laing Street Loop (Nw-01) identified above and in both cases, an intervention including changes in road surface, wider footways and encouraging the use of the public realm would be desirable.

Similarly the setting of the building on the Albert Street and Strynd corner would benefit from public realm improvements and these could be carried out as part of the Broad Street project.

The Existing Assets plan also shows the Kirkwall Conservation Area and Listed Buildings which contribute to the stock of assets.

The five themes described above combine into a strategic public realm concept for the centre of Kirkwall. The diagrams shows the locations of potential projects under each heading although this is not a finite collection of proposals. Rather these are the themes under which a range of proposals should be pursued.


The proposals represent an opportunity for Orkney Islands Council to continue the development of placemaking initiatives and to start a process of implementing public realm improvements in Kirkwall. The suite of projects ranges from large scale transformational projects with significant costs to relatively inexpensive but positive and effective proposals for the improvement of key parts of the town centre.

Successfully implementing some of these projects at an early stage will give the Orkney community the confidence to proceed with more complex proposals outlined in this report that involve new development and the support of the private sector. Moreover, involving the local community not just in the choice of projects but also to an extent in their design is an important factor for the future. Residents, businesses and the Council can continue to develop future ideas together and manifest these in physical form. Vulnerable users will be considered in all circumstances and local stakeholder groups will be consulted on specific proposals where improvements to the public realm are to take place.

Some of the proposals outlined in this report may take many years to implement. They will require much discussion between residents, local businesses, public agencies and the Council. This report suggests that the proposals will make a genuine difference to Kirkwall and represent a positive, effective and achievable way of creating an improved public realm for residents, businesses and visitors.

Town centres are the focus of much attention at the moment from the Scottish Government. There is much support for and interest in the range of initiatives which Orkney Islands Council are pursuing. The time is right for Kirkwall to push on with these proposals for its town centre.

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.