Since January last year an independent group of individuals, inspired by the past and passionate about the future, has been encouraging an online conversation about the future of Beeston. They did so in anticipation of a special #Beeston2020Vision event planned at the Pearson Centre – initially intended for May 2020, but now postponed twice by the pandemic until some safe point in 2021.
This simple step of seeking creative ideas to help shape our town over the next decade continues, with each delay drawing more contributors from a broad spectrum of the Beeston community from the Mayor down. Their responses show how tapping the imagination and insight of Beestonians can contribute to a depth of understanding when creating a diverse, independent and vibrant future.
We can use this information to begin to unpick why Beeston is special, what makes the town centre tick, what becoming an exemplar carbon-neutral community might mean and much else besides. There are exciting project ideas, thoughts on lockdown and much more.
The #Beeston2020Vision project stems from ‘The Story of Beeston’ written by local historian David Hallam and commissioned by CP Walker and Son to mark their 120th anniversary, and from an earlier Vision for Beeston event sponsored by the Beeston and District Civic Society in 2017.
Why is Beeston special?
We are special because of a rare mix of good fortune. As a diverse community, we share a riverside location with a world-class nature reserve, close to the City and to the University. Grace Li, (Youth Mayor Broxtowe, 2019-2020) describes with pride her experience of growing up in a lively, creative, multi-generational and multi-cultural Beeston, well connected to a wider world.
Others refer to a welcoming, tolerant and resourceful place, where community action is shaping our lives. Volunteering is at the heart of the success of the Attenborough Nature Reserve, the recent Canalside venture, station improvements and other initiatives – channelled through strong local institutions such as the Middle Street Resource Centre, Beeston Library and the Pearson Centre.
Jeanie Barton, notes just how many creative people live in Beeston, including musicians of all genres, plus poets, writers, film makers, graphic designers, photographers, dancers, actors, presenters, painters and so on. She describes it like Camden without the physical vibrancy, leading Jeanie to start the Beeston Street Art project to reflect and encourage the abundant creativity of our town. Attractions and events help the retail experience and cultural vibrancy is attractive to residents too. She believes that creativity is a unique selling point for Beeston that will continue to bring in visitors from far and wide.
David Hallam sees Beeston is a resilient community that has successively and successfully reinvented itself over the past 120 years to meet changing needs. Public initiatives will play an important part in future change, but input from all who care about our future – that should include all of us – is essential and can make a difference by developing ideas and driving them forward.
Managing a changing town centre
David Hallam also notes that towns are judged by their centres, now increasingly under threat by out-of-town shopping and on-line buying. Encouraging places where people can relax with a coffee and more has worked well in Beeston, but Covid and increasing on-line shopping has accelerated this threat to retail. He suggests encouraging a sustainable number of demand-led retail outlets, returning empty units to residential use. This could be transformational especially if coupled with more green space. An agreed strategy to protect and manage the High Road area might protect us from the worst of market forces and help to achieve longer-term objectives.
Nelson Blackley suggests that the future of Beeston town centre depends on flexibility and resilience; localness, connectivity and greening. He notes that pre-pandemic Beeston had a retail vacancy rate of 5%: lower than the national average of around 12%, while above-average numbers of hair, beauty and nail salons, barbers and estate agents reflect the relative health of the personal care and property markets in our local economy. At the same time, Beeston had only around 5% of its total shop units occupied by local and national charities, that is below the national average of 8% for towns of similar size. Beeston could do with a marketplace or public square where people can gather, as Beeston Square is too off-centre on the main retail axis of Chilwell Road and High Road to fulfil that function.
Peter Swann, praises Beeston as a good local retail centre, with many excellent shops, cafes and restaurants and with much of the High Road pedestrianised, yet Beeston does not achieve especially good ratings in the league tables produced by various consultancy companies. These rankings are designed for high streets and retail parks that have many of the big brand chain stores, and that sort of measure does not do justice to the things that Beeston does well. Peter would like to see a new sort of location ranking emerge, which is not so preoccupied with big brands but tries to measure how well a retail location serves the diverse needs of a local population. Such an index would go beyond existing measures of retail quality to consider rankings for retail diversity, sustainability and a healthy independent sector, doing justice to things that make Beeston special.
Beeston as an exemplar sustainable community?
On broader issues, Gary Smerdon-White believes that a sustainable carbon-neutral policy will be central to every aspect of future town development, design and construction over the next decade. Embedding sustainability into all activities, developments and programmes will help climate change, enhance air quality and improve our health and well-being. Gary would like to see Beeston and Broxtowe working with the City to become a medium-sized town exemplar in sustainability. He develops this theme in the contexts of the built environment, transport and travel, suggesting Beeston as a working hub for green technology. Considering the extent of detailed individual adjustments necessary to make this happen, he asks whether we are ready for this challenge?
Creating a green corridor and other proposals
Giving Beeston a bio-friendly makeover need not cost the earth and we could create a lush green environment as part of that process. Robert Howard proposes an imaginative green canopied corridor from the Square via the High Road and Broadgate to the University’s West Entrance to restore a sense of vibrancy and difference. A continuous canopied run on both sides of the High Road, with well-placed wind breaks, could be achieved in stages over time as resources permit. This practical idea is the incremental extension through enterprise and partnership of our present green pedestrian area. As the climate warms, so trees, shade and breezes become ever more important.
Inevitably there are many other possible projects. Based on experiences elsewhere Ian Culshaw would like to see locally run cafes in the town’s parks to encourage safer use. He would also like to see less plastic, fewer pubs, more clubs and more focus on younger people. There is an idea for a bee based town trail and app, stimulated by the Beekeeper. Opening up more of the town centre to pedestrians and a performance and exhibition space like Lakeside are other suggestions.
Lesson from Beeston in lockdown
There are thoughts on lockdown. Working from home can be empowering for some – avoiding commuting makes the day longer, healthier and our world more sustainable. We are getting to know our neighbourhoods and our neighbours more intimately by exercising on foot, while more individuals, families and communities are volunteering. Lockdown highlights Beeston as a place of gathering that satisfies a real need, but social media is no substitute for face to face contact. Proximity, rubbing shoulders, handshakes, hugs, are all things that we have come to miss.
That said suburban settings like Beeston are well placed to meet the needs of a more home-centred world. Our town is big enough to support supermarkets and small enough to be conveniently accessible on foot or bike, which makes it healthy for us and good for the planet.
Our past suggests that meeting changing needs is a tested survival strategy. If we want Beeston to continue as a shopping and services centre we must plan to meet needs that cannot be met easily online and as individuals and as businesses we must use our local services if they are to survive. Council-led initiatives have a role in supplying a policy framework with clear objectives.
What can you contribute to the diversity, independence and vibrance of Beeston?
Rex Walker defines modern-day Beeston by its diversity, independence and vibrancy. We are not a homogeneous community. It is the interactions and combinations that make Beeston a special place. Traditional town centres will continue to face overwhelming pressures over the next decade, but building our way out of trouble should be much more than a numbers game.
Developing pride of place starts with accepting and celebrating the town’s individual character. In ten years time, each of us might look back and ask “how did I contribute to the diversity, independence and vibrancy of Beeston in the 2020s?” What will your answer be?
There is no shortage of ideas, but we would like to encourage more. Check out the Beeston Vision corner of the C P Walker website for yourself and the Facebook page, or contact us directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org