How will Newcastle look in 2065? New exhibition looks at how city's past will shape its future

Tony Henderson reports on a venture which will draw on Newcastle's past and look to decades ahead

Ryder Architects
A 1969 scheme, designed by Ryder Architects, for a deck across the Tyne including arts and civic buildings and a helipad

Stand on the south bank of the River Tyne, look across to Newcastle, and the view is of layers of history.

From the 12th century Castle Keep to the 20th century Law Courts, this is a city which has been continually changing and evolving.

In the early 19th Century, Richard Grainger’s wholesale recreation of the centre of Newcastle propelled it from medieval town to what was described as a “city of palaces”.

The Victorians were also not shy in leaving their imprint, not least in the way the railway, linking to their Central Station showpiece, slices through the castle site.

In the tide of concrete which came with the 1960s-70s, the rate of upheaval was no less intense.

Now a major exhibition and events programme will examine the changes since 1945 and what, given the current trends in society, the Newcastle of the future could- and should - look like.

Newcastle City Futures, at the Guildhall on the Quayside from May 23 to June 10, will seek to stimulate debate, with the public centre stage, on the gains and losses of the last 70 years, and what the options are for the future. It will also explore Newcastle’s relationship with Gateshead.

Newcastle City Council
In the 1960s Newcastle chief planner Sir Wilf Burns proposed redesigning the city to cater for cars, including a motorway under Northumberland Street
 

The partners in the exercise are Newcastle University, the Royal Town Planning Institute, Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal, Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives, and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

There will be a lot to chew on.

Consider what has happened over 70 years - the development of the Metro system and airport, the expansion of universities, the revival of the Newcastle and Gateshead Quaysides, the saving of Grainger Town, the Eldon Square shopping complex, the redevelopment of St James’ Park, the Byker Wall, and the current rise of Science Central and the Stephenson Quarter.

There are also the grand schemes which never became reality.

Mark Tewdwr-Jones, Professor of Town Planning at Newcastle University who is involved in City Futures, reflects on the visions which didn’t make it.

There was the 1960s idea of catering for increasing car ownership by giving over the ground level to traffic and providing an upper walkway for people, linking the City Library area with Northumberland Street and the university quarter.

The first stretches were started around the library. If completed, Haymarket landmarks like St Thomas’s Church and the war memorial would have been isolated by walkways and motorway lanes. An east-west motorway was proposed, connecting with the Central Motorway East, which was built.

Byker Lives archive/Newcastle City Council
Demolition in old Byker
 

The cross-city motorway would have dived under Northumberland Street, emerging at St James’ Park and linking with the new Redheugh Bridge. Another span would have crossed the Tyne near the site of the current Millennium Bridge.

The impact can be judged from the scale of works which accompanied the construction in the city for the Metro.

“If you put in a lot of infrastructure to transport people quickly, you cause havoc in the architectural environment,” says Mark.

The loss of John Dobson’s Royal Arcade to the Swan House roundabout was testament to that, with the adjacent historic Alderman Fenwick’s House and the Holy Jesus Hospital being lucky survivors.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, we did lose a lot of buildings. In the process of developing a vision, there will always be a cost,” says Mark.

“But what happened then will perhaps never be repeated again.

“Then it was the bulldozer. Now heritage is seen as absolutely vital and that a mixture of styles, history and heritage is what makes a place.”

There was also the late 1960s vision of building a concrete deck over the Tyne between the Swing Bridge and the Law Courts, making a connection between Newcastle and Gateshead.

The central motorway east roundabout flyover shaves the historic Holy Jesus Hospital
 

It would have accommodated an art gallery and an opera-house style building which today have come to pass in the Sage and Baltic, though firmly anchored on the Gateshead bankside rather than being literally on top of the river.

Another grand plan was the Geordie Ramblas from architect Sir Terry Farrell, who grew up in Newcastle, which envisaged a route connecting the university with the Quayside.

Traffic would be taken away, leaving an environmentally-friendly space which would attract cafes, bars and businesses.

The Central Motorway East has been criticised for cutting off the east end of the city from the centre.

The other side of the coin, says Mark, is to imagine driving around Newcastle without the motorway.

A post-war challenge was the rehousing of thousands of people - 17,000 from Byker alone.

Down came the Byker terraces and up went the internationally-acclaimed Byker Wall, built in consultation with local people who wanted to stay in the area.

An alternative was the low-rise housing development at Kenton, with several forward-looking features.

Nexus
Construction underway at Newcastle Central Station for the Metro in 1979
 

The idea for Newcastle City Futures came from Mark’s participation in the long-term planning scenarios being carried out by the Government Office for Science.

He has been involved in examining land use and the future of cities.

Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, visited Newcastle in December on a fact-finding mission.

“He encouraged us to think about long-term issues. I thought it would be an idea to generate a conversation and focus attention on looking at the future,” says Mark. The City Futures programme is the result.

It is not, he says, about predicting the future but rather considering trends such as an ageing population and its needs, and what sort of housing, transport and health provision will be required.

Through the project’s free public events, it is also about giving people access to the experts and a big part in the conversation.

It is also about what-ifs.

“What if we extend the Metro to the West End of Newcastle, to Ashington or Blyth or south of Sunderland?” asks Mark. “With Newcastle’s population set to grow, what about affordable housing, and job creation?

“I hope this is the start of involving people in a more transparent and open way of discussing the city’s future. In the past, Newcastle has constantly changed and has always bounced back from what has been thrown at it. Now we can prepare for the trends and not be caught out.”

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