Kirkwall Townscape Heritage Initiative

13 August 2014 | blog, designing streets, place making, street design, town centres, working with heritage

Kirkwall Townscape Heritage Initiative - St Magnus Cathedral area
Orkney Islands Council appointed a team led by Gray Marshall and Associates together with Brian Burns Associates, Leslie Burgher Architect and WMUD to prepare a bid for a Conservation Area Regeneration Scheme and a Townscape Heritage Initiative to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the Kirkwall Conservation Area.


Our role in this work was to examine the place making and public realm aspects of the Conservation Area. Kirkwall has a unique character and historic form although over time, much of the building stock has undergone change or deteriorated through lack of maintenance and through unsympathetic repair. This is as much in the erosion of the boundary walls from the original burgage plot system as the buildings themselves. The study itself involved close cooperation with residents and householders through specifically targeting investment in vulnerable properties and to encourage investment in the building stock generally.

There are a number of historic shop fronts, but many more shop fronts that have been replaced by large plate glass frontages. It was hoped that through partnering with the proposed BID programme there would be a specific programme to engage with retailers to bring back more sympathetic frontages. This would have helped to meet the BID objective backed by the Scottish Government of creating a more attractive vibrant town centre with strong place making with a strong shop local campaign.

It was also important to consider the public realm in Kirkwall as so much of the setting and sense of place comes through the traditional flagstones and setts in the streets. Much of the public realm has eroded over time or been repaved with inappropriate materials and many of the wynds and lanes have been downgraded from paving to tarmac.
St Magnus Cathedral, Broad-Street, Kirkwall

Proposals for the Townscape Heritage Initiative

Given the different character and functional areas of Central Kirkwall and its immediate environment, it is sensible to develop a hierarchy of proposals that perform different functions but also work within different scales of ambition and budget.

La – Theme 1 – Large Elements

Orkney Islands Councils as explained before, are committed at least in principle through their Placemaking Policy approved in April 2013, to implementing three major projects – two within the THI area of concentration and another at the western edge. These are:

  1. 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 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Central West: 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 the rest of the Conservation Area with activity through its car parks, supermarkets, civic buildings and commercial/industrial premises. The emphasis here will be on improving pedestrian connections into the core of the THI, making road junctions less vehicle dominated and improving opportunities for local businesses to use the public realm by widening footpaths at appropriate places.

Shared space: 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 more 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. This has become known as shared surfaces. Kirkwall already has environments like this – in fact Bridge Street and Albert Street have many of the qualities which the shared space concept aspires to.
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 20the century, cobbled or setted road surfaces became more common. As the 20th century progressed, asphalt surfaces replaced setts and cobbles.

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 cobbles or setts is likely to be prohibitive and it is likely that some areas of asphalt will remain.

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 Reel, Broad Street, Kirkwall

Ss – Theme 2 – Social Spaces

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 stopping to chat, sitting down, looking at people or taking a photograph.
Eleven of these interventions have been identified (Ss-01 to Ss-11) and shown on the plans. The majority of these are street junctions where changes should be made to kerb radii, 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.

Nw – 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 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 (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.
Tankerness House Gardens, Kirkwall

Gr – Theme 4 – Greenspace

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 sitting 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.

Ex – Theme 5 – Existing Assets

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 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 Loop 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 plans accompanying this section show the five themes combined into a strategic public realm concept for the Conservation Area. The diagram also 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. Also, there are overlaps between different elements.