Future Town Centres: Dover

Words:
Josephine Smit

Millions pass through the ferry port every year. What would it take to entice them to linger in the town? Shortlisted practices Periscope, Purcell and RX Architects each had their own approaches

In association with
The mid-town focus of the competition.
The mid-town focus of the competition.

Dover has a lot going for it. It has a major tourist attraction in the castle above the town as well as heritage buildings like the medieval Maison Dieu, now the town hall. Over 10 million people use its ferry port every year, but few ever think of stopping for a stroll and a coffee in the town centre.

The subject of this part of the competition was rejuvenation of the mid-town, the 5.9 hectare most northerly block of central Dover that houses the council offices, town hall, police station, health centres, a largely redundant telephone exchange and a college. Through the middle runs the River Dour, a potential asset but also a flood risk in this valley town.

The brief asked architects to revitalise the centre, giving it a more compact and less linear form, as well as make positive use of the river. Entrants were able to think beyond the mid-town to how it would connect with the wider area, to the castle’s elevated location, Pencester Gardens, a park to the south, and the A20 dual carriageway to the Port of Dover, which forms a barrier between town and sea. 

Judging took place in the Maison Dieu, where Dover District Council’s Roger Walton outlined concerns: ‘We don’t have the problems of access that other towns have, but we do have the dual carriageway.’ All the entries advocated a more varied housing and business offer, public realm improvements and a riverside walk. But Periscope won because its concept captured the essence of the place and used the topography. ‘It creates a joyful place,’ summed up judge Gary Wilburn.

Main challenges
> Channel ferry visitors pass by but don't stop
> Disconnected from sea and castle
> Development has been ad hoc, largely disregarding the river

  • Periscope's masterplan showing proposed zoning of the town.
    Periscope's masterplan showing proposed zoning of the town. Credit: Periscope
  • Periscope’s submission turns the river into a point of interest, leisure and means of supporting biodiversity as well as flood prevention.
    Periscope’s submission turns the river into a point of interest, leisure and means of supporting biodiversity as well as flood prevention. Credit: Periscope
  • Periscope's proposal suggests creating new cycle and pedestrian routes and new cultural spots, including  a small gallery.
    Periscope's proposal suggests creating new cycle and pedestrian routes and new cultural spots, including a small gallery. Credit: Periscope
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Winner: Periscope

Acupuncture is the word that best sums up the method behind Periscope’s winning entry. In developing its approach to respectfully adding buildings, uses, walking and cycling routes and public spaces, the architect looked at the high street over time, to understand how typical uses have changed. This showed that the high street used to be an important public space for experiencing theatre, artistic expression and community events, as well as trading. 

Periscope’s proposal creates spaces for such activities while considering resilience, connectivity, localness and sustainability. Compared with the other Dover entries, this scheme put the environment high on the agenda, encompassing urban ecology, a renewable energy strategy and a network of green streets within a compact urban grain.    

The River Dour is transformed into an ecological river park with walking and cycling routes and footbridges. The blue-green corridor provides flood attenuation as well as potential for leisure uses. It is one of three routes or ribbons leading towards the sea, with the others running alongside commercial buildings and homes. The flow of vehicles around mid-town is altered to give pedestrian priority on key routes and create a shared surface on the high street (Biggin Street). The landscape is continued from Dover station to Pencester Gardens and eastward to Dover Castle, making the town easier for visitors to navigate.  

Small urban squares and pocket parks are added at key points: the station, mid-town arrival point and a new town hall square. New anchor buildings around the town hall draw people to it, while a series of publicly focused ‘attractor’ buildings introduce moments of activity in key places. These include a community art gallery, small business hub in the telephone exchange, and the town hall reimagined as a civic centre and venue for public events.  

Periscope addresses the issue of housing with small apartment blocks on the park edge along the river. The judges saw the potential for this area, currently associated with lower value housing, to become desirable. They also praised the design’s focus on the river. ‘Putting the river at the heart is fantastic for the town, nature and people’s health and wellbeing,’ said judge Sue Morgan. And the acupuncture approach meant it could all be done gradually. ‘Even a mobility hub could begin with vehicle charging points and scale up,’ said Periscope’s Kirsty Badenoch. 

  • Purcell's masterplan for Dover mid-town.
    Purcell's masterplan for Dover mid-town. Credit: Purcell
  • Aerial view of Purcell's proposed new plaza over the river in Dover.
    Aerial view of Purcell's proposed new plaza over the river in Dover. Credit: Purcell
  • View from Dover town hall showing a new avenue to connect vistas with the castle on the hilltop.
    View from Dover town hall showing a new avenue to connect vistas with the castle on the hilltop. Credit: Purcell
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Shortlisted: Purcell

Opening the presentation on behalf of this heritage-renowned practice, architect Louise Priestman said that for Dover ‘It’s not just about heritage buildings; it’s about people and place.’ And so, to inform its design, the team scoured the town, gleaning opinions from locals, shoppers, day trippers, even the volunteers at a social hub for older people. The conversations identified a strong affinity for place but, incidentally, a lack of awareness of heritage assets, and concerns about vehicle pollution.

As a result, one of the first aims of Purcell’s proposal was to improve wayfinding and make transport greener. It suggested an eco-bus to take people around the town centre and to the marina, introduced semi-pedestrianised zones, a river walk to connect heritage assets and a new ‘edible’ bridge, planted with fruit and vegetables, over the A20 road.

The second focus was on mid-town itself and the large-scale overhaul of the river to create a large plaza, conceived as a gathering space with a series of grand boulevards radiating from it, one of which would improve sightlines from the town hall to the castle. The scheme relocated retail south to create a more compact high street and introduced a culinary school and almshouses – available at a peppercorn rent – to encourage younger people to stay. 

While the panel appreciated the bold moves of the design, the scale of the plaza gave rise to concerns. ‘Will there be enough organic footfall?’ asked judge James Galpin.

  • RX Architect’s proposal considers the beauty and utility of the chalk river, making it a leisure space but also creating businesses that draw on it.
    RX Architect’s proposal considers the beauty and utility of the chalk river, making it a leisure space but also creating businesses that draw on it. Credit: RX Architects
  • Glimpse view of BT Tower from town hall.
    Glimpse view of BT Tower from town hall. Credit: RX Architects
  • Looking north from town hall.
    Looking north from town hall. Credit: RX Architects
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Shortlisted: RX Architects

Dover owes its existence to the River Dour, but over time it has been partly culverted, fenced off and forgotten. ‘The culture of the river has always been there, but there’s a need to reinforce what’s there, and make it more civic,’ explained Derek Rankin of RX Architects. Removing barriers and revitalising the river is the core of its proposal. 

It creates a blue-green corridor with planting and water pools that not only addresses flood risk but provides pleasant spaces for community uses such as vegetable gardens or petanque pistes. Traditional riverside industry, such as a brewery, is reinstated. Apartment buildings with cafés and bars at ground level would help create a neighbourhood that could attract young professionals. Community facilities are centralised, with the technical college repositioned in a new building facing the river. 

Existing buildings are reconfigured, including the telephone exchange, which becomes a small business hub.

With the introduction of conservation courses, students at the technical college could even become standard bearers for ecological management of the river. 
‘This proposal really celebrates the water,’ said Galpin. That creative use of the river and reuse of buildings made this entry a strong contender.  

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