The pull of the park

Gosforth Shopping Centre opened in 1979: an internalised world of covered shopping. The centre offered a pedestrian-only alternative to the busy traffic of Gosforth High Street, historically the retail backbone of the town. Although a few storefronts opened onto the High Street, the greater part of the High Street frontage was taken up by the doorless side of a supermarket (originally Presto and currently Sainsbury’s). The majority of units, including the supermarket, opened onto the internal mall.

Lest it be a distraction to the act of retail consumption, the centre turned its back on Gosforth Central Park, the main open space of the town. The blank wall of the centre can be seen beyond the trees in the view below.

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The effect of this long, unpunctured elevation was visually and functionally negative – it looked terrible and it blocked access between the park and the High Street, each in its own right a major destination in the town.

Unsurprisingly (for most people but not for the designers and investors in the original project) the shopping centre never lived up to the potential of its location. While Gosforth thrived, house prices rose and the general sense of affluence increased, the shopping centre remained as it had from the very beginning – lifeless and soulless. The world quite literally passed it by.

It was therefore a surprise and a delight to revisit Gosforth Central Park today and see that an “active” elevation has been opened from the shopping centre onto the park.

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A cafe has been created, linking between internal and external worlds. Next to this, a door leads directly from the park into the covered retail mall. People were sitting in the cafe and walking through the doorway. The urban blockage has been breached and the pull of the park has created a new, convenient channel of movement.

This move aligns with the steady drift in urban retailing: opening malls outwards and not fencing them in and away from their settings; acknowledging that context is to be embraced and not shunned; appreciating the power – and the value – of the wider street network.

The city will, like a force of nature, have its own way in the end. For Gosforth, this has taken 30 years: three decades of inconvenience to residents and visitors, several cycles of suboptimal performance and diminished return on investment.

It is therefore in all interests that other “maldesigned” places turn more quickly; likewise, that future projects take heed from cases such as the Gosforth Shopping Centre and choose to go with the flow of the city, not against it.

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