Regenerating a river: how the future of the River Tyne could be its past
By Erin Gill
I’m not the first – or even the thousandth – person to feel that there is something genuinely thrilling about the view from Newcastle’s quayside across the River Tyne to the enormous, undulating Sage Gateshead. It’s a view that is supported, rather than undermined, by the much older architecture of St Mary’s church, which is immediately adjacent. The view is enhanced further by the way both buildings are framed by the glorious bulk of the Tyne Bridge and by the double curve of Gateshead Millennium cycle & footbridge.
Seeing it again recently with colleagues from the Power & the Water environmental history network, I felt a surge of gratitude toward the many individuals – none of whom I know – who made this ambitious plan for the Gateshead riverside a reality. My guess is that a good many of them were – or are – employees of Gateshead City Council or other organisations currently under pressure as England operates under the grip of public sector ‘austerity’.
The renewal of the Gateshead portion of the Tyne riverside isn’t something that was bound to happen. It takes a city – or two, perhaps a whole region? – filled with determined and rather ambitious people to turn an urban regeneration project of this scale into a lasting success. I have lost count of the number of times people I know from the North East have told me what a wonderful place the Baltic-Sage-Millennium Bridge-Newcastle Quayside area is. They usually add that when they were young (or when their parents were young – it depends on the age of the speaker) that the area was too rough for them.
‘You didn’t go down there.’
Their comments have made me wonder about the now-erased urban industrial waterfront. I particularly wonder about its decline. My friends’ comments suggest there might have been a time after the waterfront’s heyday as an industrial workspace, when it was in decline and when it became less a place of work and more one of malicious mischief, a place of danger after dark, and sometimes during the day. Is this accurate?
I wonder also whether I have understood the regeneration story correctly. First was Gateshead Millennium Bridge, beautiful to look at, but even more exciting to use. Designed by architects Wilkinson Eyre, it opened in 2001. Next was Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, creating a new use for a derelict flour mill. Completed in 2002 it was first imagined by public sector body, Northern Arts, in the early 1990s. Then in 2004, the stunning Fosters & Partners-designed concert hall, Sage Gateshead, opened. Gazing at it initially from the Newcastle side, I was reminded that the North East is a region that has a history of ‘big’, ambitious structures – from the Tyne’s many bridges to Durham Cathedral to the now Grade II*-listed Byker housing estate, completed at the end of the 1970s.
Given the enormous scale of Sage Gateshead, it’s a good thing that Fosters’ design proved so successful. The Sage looks ‘made’ for its setting. By contrast, the architectural horror that is the Hilton Newcastle Gateshead and several of the identikit blocks of flats recently built on both sides of the Tyne in the vicinity of the Baltic do not inspire. Too much more of this type of mediocrity and the Tyne riverside running through Newcastle & Gateshead risks looking as awful as London upstream from Vauxhall Bridge.
Having created a cultural zone on the Gateshead side, complemented by the social zone of Newcastle quayside with busy nightlife and handsome Victorian municipal architecture, is there anything missing? I wonder if the time has come for the Tyne’s industrial heritage to be made more visible. Not with some twee quayside museum. That wouldn’t do, and surely has been considered and rejected already. I’m imagining something that says: “this was a big and mighty working river, a liquid highway. Today, it may be a river of leisure, but not long ago it was a river of graft.’
The ideal opportunity is already there, on the riverside: Dunstan Staiths, that incredible wooden structure a bit upriver from the Sage, also on the Gateshead side. It was built as the final link in a network that allowed coal mined in the North East to be transported by rail and loaded onto ships. From Dunstan Staiths coal was carefully cascaded into waiting boats. Now standing mute, Dunstan Staiths is a testament to the North East’s history as the source – for a short time – of the world’s coal. There were dozens of these huge wooden structures along the river. Only Dunstan Staiths remains, and it only partially. Can it be revived and protected in some imaginative way? Now that the heart of Newcastle’s and Gateshead’s urban riverside has been re-cast as a cultural and social space, can’t the next project remind residents and visitors of the past? Of the machines, the pollution and the toil of working people.