Worthing’s favourite developers

For some time, Worthing’s been singing to the tune of one local property developer. Roffey Homes are behind a number of developments in the town.

Established in 1960 as a building company, it’s since 2000 that the company has taken off; all the directors are members of the Cheal family, and presumably the change in direction came when the children took over their father’s business. All Roffey Homes work is carried out by Westbrooke Developments – registered at the same address and with the same set of company directors.

Everything Roffey Homes build is billed as ‘iconic’ but in fact, they’re all pretty bland regeneration-lite architecture. It’s all blocky, all crams as many ‘luxury flats’ into as small a site as possible, all degrades the public realm with poor integration with the street, and is all aimed not at local people who need homes, but at people who wanted a second home by the sea, or somewhere to commute from. In short; they’re not developments that are good for Worthing’s people.

Worthing Pier

They’re not the kind of buildings that are recognised as good planning anywhere (Jacobs, Mumford and Tibbalds are all turning in their graves), but in a town that’s been desperate for change (pre-Roffey, there have been no significant developments since the 1970s) and which has a large incoming population who don’t understand the grain of the town’s history, they’re big shiny signs that change is happening. Council officers can point and them and say ‘we’re delivering regeneration’ and councillors can say; ‘look what was built on my watch!’ It’s a great example of the Politician’s Syllogism:

We must do something, this is something, we must do this.

But actually the ‘something’ is doing huge damage, although it’ll probably be 20 years before the scale of that is understood. Remember that the Guildbourne Centre, and the Marks & Spencer site on the seafront, and even the old Aquarena were all seen as high-quality when they were built.

The first major Roffey development destroyed a lovely 1930s block, Roberts Marine Mansions. This building belonged to one of London’s trade guilds, and provided homes for retired tailors and haberdashers. It was built with care and class, full of beautiful period details, windows and railings and reliefs on the walls, and was knocked down in the late 1990s to build a pastiche Art Deco block where apartments sell for twice the local average home and 17 times the average local wage.

That’s a pattern they’ve continued on the site of the Warnes Hotel, Eardley Hotel and Beach Hotel, all landmark buildings demolished to build cheap pastiches full of luxury apartments.

And those three developments do further damage, removing any hopes of tourism growth in Worthing at a time when UK tourism is in growth. A recent report suggested that demand for affordable hotel and guesthouse accommodation is high, and the existing businesses turn away trade, and that there’s a local need for an ‘incremental growth in accommodation supply and a focus on high quality, modern accommodation offers that can generate new business.’ It says that Premier Inn are looking for an 80 rooms site locally, and there’s further potential to develop the market for accommodation from kite surfers and watersports markets.


Even worse is the way that the developments are segregated from the town. The Warnes site and the neighbouring Eardley development are both at key points on Worthing seafront, providing the link between the town centre and pier, and the revamped East Beach, fast becoming the new centre of beach life in the town. But both developments are walled off, providing aggressive frontages and contributing nothing to the street. The Warnes building (pictured above) has a wall at street level. Neither building has entrances or windows at street level. They’re very carefully excluded from public life, and not for local people.

That goes against the successful regeneration of this area of Worthing, too, which has all been about fine grain, people-scaled urbanism. The success of Craft:Pegg’s public realm at Splash Point (pictured below), the East Beach Studios, even the new swimming pool itself, are because of their friendly scale.


And incredibly – Roffey Homes latest plan is even worse. Worthing Borough Council spent over £17 million building a new swimming pool, to replace the larger 1960s Aquarena. To give you something to compare that to, it’s the same cost as Margate’s Turner Contemporary, which has attracted over 1.5 million visitors to the town and has generated acres of press coverage. To fund this expensive new pool, with a pirate ship inside named after local councillor Paul Yallop, the old Aquarena site would be sold for development. It’s a prime beachfront site, at the edge of Worthing’s string of Victorian parks and butting up against the new swimming pool’s expensive (and genuinely iconic) architecture.


Roffey’s proposal for this important spot? a twenty storey towerblock (taller than any other building in Worthing) providing more exclusive apartments. It’s clad in something white, has a poor rhythm of jumbled windows, and has a string of cheap balconies up the sea side, A cluttered jumble of low rise blocks and some privatised public space at the bottom complete the proposals. Is it good? No. It’s cheap architecture, it doesn’t relate in any way to the location, it contributes little to the expected future of this active beach and it crams homes into a small site, straining local infrastructure. Schools locally are full, the small grid of local roads often at gridlock and the next door pool often has long queues.

Residents already expressed their concerns, at a series of consultations in June; but the developers have ignored them and come back with a towerblock the same size.

And it’ll probably get permission, because Worthing Borough Council need to pay down their large debts on the neighbouring pool. Councillor Bryan Turner, in charge of regeneration, said before any plans were even drawn up that “I look forward to working with Roffey Homes, to bring another high quality development to Worthing.” When you have the council’s Cabinet Member as your cheerleader, you must feel pretty confident.

‘Why did you move to Margate?’, people ask

People ask why we moved – me, Mrs T, three children, a dog, lots of books – to Margate: here’s why.


The summer kicked off with Outboard, a block party in an old boat yard in Margate. Photos here.


Then there was a performance by Siobhan Davies at Turner Contemporary. Photos here.


Face Up! with Andy Lewis marked 50 years since the Mods vs Rockers fights. Photos here. We did it a couple more times after that, too. Photos here. Thanks Pretty Green for helping make it happen.


Margate Meltdown the next week was pretty ace. Well, it’s the Ace Cafe run. Photos here. There were more motorbikes, when the First Night Riders visited the Theatre Royal. Photos here. And we popped down the Harbour Arm a few times, to catch the beautiful cars at the Thanet Classics meetup. Photos here.


Breakfast Club led us off on a walking tour of Margate’s history. Photos here. And Story Hunt by Daniel Bye was rather special, too. Photos here. The storytellers who own Margate’s shop are a whole summer’s entertainment by themselves. Photos here.


A short drive took us on a daytrip to the Historic Dockyard at Chatham. Photos here. And short walk takes us to The Shell Grotto, always open – a proper ancient mystery. Photos here.


The Red Ladies visited town and staged a demonstration at the Theatre Royal. Photos here.


There was also a great night at Follow The Herring at the Theatre Royal.


And Dwelling appeared at Turner Contemporary – worth visiting again and again, as the light changed. Photos here. The Red Ladies and Dwelling were part of Summer of Colour which included bundles of other stuff, too. Photos here.


Roundabout was another bit of Summer of Colour, a pop up theatre which the Theatre Royal brought to the Winter Gardens. Photos here. We saw three shows in there. And in the Winter Gardens in its normal role, we saw Coco and the Butterfields, when my son’s choir sang with them.


There was more music for the Margate Soul Weekend – with Norman Jay, who I DJ’d with years ago. Photos here.


Another day trip took us down to Folkestone. Photos here.


And in Margate, there’s a constant background noise of artists like Paul Hazelton and Tom Swift to keep you entertained, too. Photos here.


Throw in trips to Whitstable, Herne Bay, Broadstairs and Canterbury, days out at the Powell-Cotton Museum (below) and Quex Park (photos here from their military weekend), art on the doorstep at Turner Contemporary, the Giant Print festival, sandy beaches and chalk cliffs… well, why wouldn’t you move to Margate, if you possibly could?


PS And that’s without including the fast train to London so I can get to work in Stoke quickly…

Thanet Press plans refused

TP1It was a bit of an honour to be asked to speak at Thanet District Council’s planning committee last night. I was there on behalf of our local residents, asking the council to turn down plans for a large site on the road where I live. The former Thanet Press works is a lovely jumble of buildings from the earlier Bobby & Co, the first Victorian printers on the site, up to 1950s modernist blocks built when Thanet Press was part of the publisher Eyre & Spotiswoode. I’ve written about the history of the site previously. The plans are to replace this with two large blocks of flats, one storey higher than the surrounding terraces and over twice the height of any buildings currently on the site. The current facade, a pleasing jumble of buildings in different styles, would become one big, uniform building – a tower block laid on it’s side and dressed in an amateur dramatic company’s version of a Georgian costume.

Our ward councillor, Iris Johnston, had called for the plans to be seen by the full committee, after planning, traffic and conservation officers all recommended refusal. And Iris spoke on behalf of the developers last night, who she confirmed she’d had a number of meetings with. She reinforced her credentials as a supporter of the Armed Forces, and suggested that the 64 one and two bed flats to be crammed into the site might be ‘Homes For Heroes’ (there’s no evidence that this is the plan). Iris was taking a brave stand, speaking out against 34 of her constituents, the Resident’s Association in her ward, the town’s Conservation Area Advisory Group, and the council’s own officers, who’d all objected to the plans – not one local had written in support of them. Iris asked for any decision to be deferred, to allow a site visit to the collection of buildings which are just across the road from the council’s offices.

TP2Thankfully, councillors disagreed with her, with Cllr. Clive Hart pointing out that he’d walked past the site at least a thousand times. The plans were refused unanimously, fourteen committee votes against them.

Here’s what I said last night:

Good evening Chair and members; my name is Dan Thompson. I am a Union Crescent resident  and am speaking on behalf of the Hawley Square Residents Association.

We urge committee members to refuse this application for all the reasons raised by Planning Officers. Residents would like to draw attention to 4 points:

1. Density
Margate Central is already densely populated, and is one of the most deprived areas in the UK with a high concentration of small flats. Existing houses in Union Crescent are split into as many as six flats.
The small flats attract a transient population, which causes problems which the council’s planning department, the Margate Task Force and our ward councillor are aware of.

The housing strategy says we have too many small flats and not enough family houses – a fact highlighted when we moved here, from Worthing, and struggled to find a family home to rent. This scheme proposes 64, 1 and 2-bed flats. This is completely against policy. Instead of addressing a need, this development would make a problem situation, worse. Cllr Hayton spoke earlier about cramming – this is cramming on a massive scale.

2. Highways
These additional flats with 1 parking space will be harmful to the amenity of all neighbours, and is against policy D1.
The strain on street parking and pedestrian movement highlighted in the officer’s report is increased by large numbers driving in from elsewhere and using the mosque, churches and the Theatre Royal. And this in a road already busy with buses and delivery lorries. We are particularly concerned about the problem of crossing at the top of Pump Lane and note the Highways Officer’s concerns about crossings for those with impaired mobility.

3. Heritage
Union Crescent is in a Conservation area. It is lined with a variety of fine buildings, many grade II listed.
The collection of industrial buildings that form Thanet Press are unique and tell the story of earlier prinetsr on this site and of a nationally-important company, founded in 1770, printing everything from bibles to Royal Wedding invitations and exam papers. Policy says these buildings should be protected or enhanced. Wiping out this history would be harmful to the Conservation Area.

The massive block of flats proposed would be overbearing and even more harmful to Union Crescent,  Princes Street and its Listed neighbours.

Demolition and redevelopment is only permitted if it would enhance the Conservation area. This does not enhance the area, and should be refused because it is against national policy and local policy D1.

The existing buildings can adapted and re-used. Their heritage celebrated. Other developers do this –The Vinyl Factory in West London, Butler’s Wharf on the Thames and Circus Street Market in Brighton are all premium developments because of their history.

There is no evidence of any attempt to preserve these buildings and people like me, who’ve approached the agents, have never had a reply, or have been told the site is unavailable.

4. Employment
Which leads to my final point; employment. Thanet Press at one time provided employment for 300 people. While the economy has changed, there is still a need for employment in the area, which has above average unemployment.

At the same time, businesses like mine are unable to find suitable premises and creative studios and coworking spaces across the town – of which there are a remarkably high number – are all at capacity.
No other site in Margate lends itself so well to a mixed ecology of studios, offices, spaces for small-scale manufacture, live-work units – all with an excellent street-facing façade and just a minute from the old town which is also at full capacity. This is in line with both local and national policy.

Thanet Press boarded up is a problem; but opened up by good development and new use, this could be the biggest opportunity Margate has to embed the emerging creative economy in the town centre.

Thank you.

nb The above is taken from my notes and is not a transcript of what was said so may vary slightly from any recording.

The Post Office

In a town of beautiful buildings, it’s easy to overlook the functional ones. But a cluster of mid-century modern brick-built buildings in Addington Road are worth a second look.

Facing the street is the grand modernist Royal Mail sorting office, dated 1951. Clean lines, sweeping curves, plenty of fenestration to give tantalising glimpses of the insides of this building-as-machine. Sharp red brick, the lines of Crittall windows copied in UPVC, heavy doors. Neglected planters and unpainted railings suggest the care given to public spaces has been forgotten in recent years. Reinstating an entrance onto Addington Street would make all the difference, connecting this building to the town again and reducing vandalism, too. The Royal Mail sign, though slightly faded, suggests that it wasn’t that long ago that somebody cared enough to make sure the lettering fitted the curves of the building, which echo the town’s Regency bay windows.


Behind the sorting office, separated by loading bays and Royal Mail vans, sits a similar building with an almost identical footprint, the Telephone Exchange from 1946. Only a few years older, this building looks more like traditional, classical architecture. The neglected, over grown steps and fancy lamps are from an earlier generation. But again there’s a curved front entrance, and this building’s bold, curved buttresses are more solid, functional and even rather brutal. Just visible through windows are banks of machines, like steampunk computers. This building even looks good from behind, where a handful of yellowbrick bayfronted houses remain, facing the Telephone Exchange’s almost abandoned carpark.

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The Telephone Exchange has a later addition, probably 1960s or 1970s. Although the connection between the two is unloved, this later, square building still has architectural quality, particularly in the way the rounded corners echo the earlier building.

The final building that makes up the site is slightly more unusual, though. Built onto the side of the streamlined Sorting Office (or, just maybe, the Sorting Office fell onto it, splitting it in two) is a little piece of suburbia; an empty semi-detached house.

Thanet Press

Union Crescent gentle curves at the top of Margate’s town centre, an unloved sweep of opposing Georgian terraces and a religious collection of church, mosque and Salvation Army Hall. The biggest mass of buildings on the street are a jumble, united only by peeling, faded red paint and in the Sterling board covering the windows and door.


Behind the boards are The Thanet Press. Anybody who’s shopped around Margate old town will have found mention of this place; all the shops have old leather-bound ledgers from this business, which collapsed in 2011 under the weight of a £100,000 unpaid tax bill. Have a look in fashion boutique Ahoy Margate for a blood red ledger, full of copperplate script listing ‘Plant and Repairs and Renewals’. And that ledger tells you more; embossed in gold, it’s titled ‘Eyre & Spottiswoode Ltd (Thanet Press Account)’.

That’s a name that is full of history. Eyre & Spotiswoode are the Queen’s printers, entitled to print the King James bible without her permission. And they printed invitations and other material for Princess Margaret’s wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960. They were printers for exam papers, too, and – if all that establishment work was too much – also produced the fan club magazines for The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

For all of that, Thanet Press was a rough commercial printers, producing manuals, journals, diaries and calendars for a range of different organisations. The business survived almost a hundred years, since the first records of Bobby & Co as a printer in Union Crescent. The site is a jumble of buildings, from Victorian industrial with pretensions to grandeur through to mid-20th century modernism. There are factories, offices and shopfronts facing onto Union Crescent. There are a dozen doors, windows at every level. A courtyard, the old front office curving into it. This is organic, not planned, a site which has grown over time, the kind of street scene loved by Jane Jacobs and Francis Tibbalds and Lewis Mumford. Individual buildings may not have much architectural merit, but collectively they show that even a seaside town like Margate had industry, even here in a street full of seaside boarding houses.

And they show that there was a pride in industry. Look at elegant ventilation, curved glazed bricks, the details of shopfronts, and it’s obvious that this was an important building, made to last.

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The back of the site, on Princes Street, has its own style and tells more of the story. It’s mid 20th century, streamlined even as it slips down a hill, but even here there are odd, older doorways and well-proportioned details. There’s some heavy industrial ducting, too, and an electricity substation that is humming behind red louvred doors that remind me of the post-war junior school I went to. This is the bauhaus ideal made in brick: a delight in technology and an elegance in simple function.

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Of course, change is inevitable and the site is scheduled to be cleared, and a dull, cod-Victorian block of flats built in the place of Thanet Press. And this in Margate, which has over 200 empty homes already.

I can’t understand how an architect can look at this site, and not be inspired by glazed brick, perfect proportions and elegant fenestration. And instead of demolition, suggest these buildings repurposed, an assortment of flats, live-work units, workshops and studios bringing new employment.  New ideas must use old buildings, Jane Jacobs said. what better than housing young, digital businesses and start ups in an old printworks?

This site is quite ordinary, but very special because of that. Some buildings are made great, and others have greatness thrust upon them. That’s what Thanet Press deserves. 

This was originally published on another blog in 2013: I’m moving it here as I have a ‘blogs I never really used much’ cull.


The problem of how to create social spaces in public places is a well-known one, and there’s lots of attempts at regeneration that fail to make public spaces work.

At a recent workshop in Stoke, artists tried to wrestle with this problem. Sarah Nadin was one of half-a-dozen artists I worked with, and her solution was #chumbrella. Perhaps best known for her sculpture remembering Stoke’s connections with Lidice, which she produced as half of Dashyline, #chumbrella is a more light, agile and nimble approach to creating art in public places.


Inspired by the act of sharing an umbrella with a stranger the day before, Sarah imagined a place where a distinctive hashtagged umbrella was a sign that the person was willing to share it with a stranger.

During the workshop, Sarah created a black-and-white prototype and took to the streets. It started conversations and got people’s interest.

So when I was looking at my own London Road project in Stoke, I could see a natural fit. London Road is one and a half miles long, but – and despite being plentiful in parks, gardens and green spaces – it’s not a very social place. People in shops stop and talk, but the street is all about bustle as you’d expect on the main road in and out of the city.

So as part of the London Road project, with funding from Appetite, I asked Sarah to move #chumbrella from prototype into production. She created a yellow and white design, the umbrella split in half rather than the more conventional segments, and had a first batch manufactured. It’s a move from big sculpture to being a social artist, so I feel like the investment is in the artist as much as the artwork. And if this idea spreads, she’ll be creating literal pop up social spaces in streets across the country.


The first public outing for #chumbrella was a walk along London Road. Half a dozen artists agreed to be the first to carry #chumbrella, and they started a dozen conversations, as well as making lots of people smile as they walked from Campbell Place to The Boulevard and back again.

#chumbrella will be back on London Road in September, and I’ll be carrying one as a useful tool in my work there. But the aim is also to see how far it can be rolled out, creating a simple How To guide and distributing the first batch of #chumbrellas to people around the country who can use them. Open source, freely available public art? The medium is, as they say, the message.

An alternative to ‘gentrification’


The second theory proposed by London and Palen is based on a sociocultural explanation of gentrification. This theory argues that values, sentiments, attitudes, ideas, beliefs, and choices should be used to explain and predict human behavior, not demographics. (London and Palen, 1984). This analysis focuses on the changing attitudes, lifestyles, and values of the middle- and upper-middle-class of the 1970s. They were becoming more pro-urban than before, opting not to live in rural or even suburban areas anymore. These new pro-urban values were becoming more salient, and more and more people began moving into the cities. London and Palen refer to the first people to invade the cities as “urban pioneers.” These urban pioneers demonstrated that the inner-city was an “appropriate” and “viable” place to live, resulting in what is called “inner city chic” (London and Palen, 1984)Strutton Ground

We all want the places where we live to be better than they are; around the country, I meet and work with people who are trying to increase opportunities, raise aspirations and create more chances to do great things.

And it’s hard to argue against that. Who doesn’t want better parks, cleaner streets, nicer shops, friendlier cafes, more life in public spaces, a new swimming pool, locally-sourced food, good schools, the opportunity to enjoy the arts, for there to be a little more money in the council’s hands so they can provide more services locally?

The problem, of course, is gentrification – when those things come, the place becomes more desirable, new people want to move in, so the cost of living increases. Some thinkers would have you believe that this is something new, a problem created by a new class of white urban hipsters with beards and bobble hats. While they’re an easy target, it’s not their fault.Brighton

How did Brighton move from being a small fishing village with a huddle of squalid cottages around an open steyne to being the bustling bohemian city it is today? A wave of literal gentry-fication in the 1780s as Londoners bought cheap land, a railway boom in the 1840s which brought the town closer to London still, a decline as a seaside resort in the 1970s and a resurgence as the creative classes leaving London picked up cheap space from the 1970s to the 1990s. And today, property prices are high, living costs more than ever, the poor are struggling and the city has never looked better. There was no single act, no one decision to ‘gentrify’ the neighbourhood.

And we see the same in Brixton, too. Urban designers Spacemakers have been blamed for the gentrification of the neighbourhood. But look more closely, and we see, less the hand of gentrification, than the swirl of a busy, changing city. Yes, they’ve transformed the market in Granville Arcade by bringing in new traders, but that was never a static space. It was 50% empty when they took over, and the traders there were selling to a mix of different local populations. People remembered it as the centre of a vibrant West Indian community, but it hadn’t been that for a long time. Granville Arcade was built as a market for Eastern Eurpoean Jews. As that community left the area post-World War Two, it changed.

Oswald Denniston, passenger on the Empire Windrush, became the first African-Caribbean trader in the Granville Arcade (and, I’m certain that if you want to delve in dusty local paper archives, you’ll find angry stories about how the market is changing beyond recognition as these young, black men replace old Eastern European traders). From the 1960s to the 1980s, it became a market with one strong culture, but during the 1980s and 90s, it faded; a new community, formed around immigrants from the Indian sub-continent moved in. And in the 21st century, it shifted again, half empty until Spacemakers intervened, and the people priced out of Camden, Covent Garden and the East End moved their businesses in.Secondo

Gentrification isn’t the act of some person with authority; it’s not imposed on places by central decree; it’s not dictated. There aren’t property developers looking like people managing the Battle of Britain, a giant plan table with a map of the country, ‘move a squadron of performance artists there and a battalion of web designers here’. That’s not what’s happening.

And neither is it the grand task of local councils. Anyone who’s ever tried to work alongside one, tried to secure planning permission from one, ever worked for one will know that they’re simply not that clever. Yes, they’d like big, shiny developments – but largely, because the perpetual promise of a new swimming pool, ice rink or multiplex cinema keeps local residents passive.

In the last hundred years, we’ve all got better off. We all have a standard of living that would probably be unimaginable to my grandparents, to my great-grandad who was born in Brixton, my grandad who was bombed in Dulwich, my grandma who lived in a terraced house in Worthing and walked 2.4 miles before dawn every day to the house where she was in service.P1020273

And we all expect that to continue. We want that to be even better off; we all want cleaner neighbourhoods and nicer neighbours, better parks and bigger playgrounds, schools that do well and shops that sell good stuff. We want the buzz of the city, the background noise of art, culture and creativity, the diversity of experience, the vibrancy of the street, the taste of good food.

The value of places shifts, changes, moves – Covent Garden was cheap when people said ‘Rhubarb to the Covent Garden Plan’, Camden was affordable when people bought land from crate maker T E Dingwalls – it was the dirt, disease and degradation of boutique-central Seven Dials that inspired Charles Dickens.

So places will change, the richest will become the poorest, new people will move in and old ones will leave. If you’ve got a suggestion for a better way than gentrification, a way to make places better to live in without encouraging more people to want to move there, I’d love to hear it. But I suspect there isn’t one, and that what we’re seeing is part of the natural life of places.


Struggling to find life in shiny public spaces

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Jane Jacobs

Can artists build a real relationship with city planners, regeneration professionals and perhaps most importantly, the people who use our streets? That was the question raised by Beneath The Pavement, a two day workshop for artists who want to work in public spaces.


Organised by Airspace Gallery and supported by Appetite, the day brought four lead artists together – Anna Francis, Emily Speed, Mark Gubb and me. We each presented our approach to working as an artist in public spaces, which were similar but slightly different. The overlaps were significant, and probably represent the way most artists at the same stage in our careers work; we’re all interested in spotting gaps, all looking to make temporary interventions, all have an eye for the derelict corner, all enjoy a light humour, all find ourselves weighted down by the history of a place, and all question whether more formal urbanism really works.

Stoke’s problems – and opportunities – were laid out for us and the twenty or so artists attending in a series of walks around the city centre, taking us through old streets, abandoned buildings, back alleys, community spaces and into public buildings. That walking and talking made it clear that Stoke has two big hang ups, it is obsessed with the idea that its six original towns can’t make a coherent city, and it believes that its industry is dead. Both of these ideas are wrong.

All cities are a jumble of older places, loosely connected, threaded together across the years but still holding onto their original identities. Stoke has held onto this ‘we’re not a city’ like an article of faith, but, coming from outside, it feels irrelevant. Chanting it, ‘we’re not a city, we’re not a city, we’re not…’ makes no difference. Stoke is a small-scale city, permeable and human-scaled. Nowhere does it overwhelm a person. The city twists, turns, tumbles up slight rises and through informal spaces (not formal squares, but wide and curving public spaces). This does, sometimes, make it difficult to navigate – it’s not a legible city centre, doesn’t move you to a big central space, doesn’t allow you to navigate by landmarks and statues.

The buildings are good, across the decades; there are beautiful proud Victorian commercial buildings, as you’d expect, but also some great mid-century modernism – the curved arches in an abandoned shopping centre, the fine typography on Tontine Buildings, the bold space-age fins of the BBC building.








These two periods – grand Victoriana, mid-20th century (Art Deco through to 60s Brutalism) track Stoke’s industrial wealth. The potteries which spread teapots, cups and saucers across the Empire adapted well, post-1945, as both expressions of New Elizabethan optimism (look at Spode’s RCA range, for example) and as high-tech industry, manufacturing ceramics for electrics. The decline came later.

And that’s Stoke’s second myth – that the big, empty sites mean Stoke’s industry is dead. That’s simply not true; it’s moved on, there’s no ripping coal and clay from the earth here today, but Spode, Emma Bridgewater, Portmeirion – these are still big names and they’re still be produced. That’s more major manufacturers, all well-known-names, than most British cities can muster. Be proud of your history – Minton, Clarice Cliff, Wedgwood, Susie Copper – for sure, but also be very proud of what you’ve got now.

Stoke’s city centre is undergoing something of a transformation. It’s being given a massive public realm makeover. The work is well-intentioned, and is much better than what went before. If you compare the way the new layout gives the car less authority over roads, to areas in the city which are still waiting for improvement, it’s going to change the way people use the city centre and make it a much better place to spend time.


But it still lacks focus, still lacks legibility and worst of all, includes too much Pointless Public Realm – space without purpose. The problem, really, is that while planners talk about ‘vibrancy’, and creating ‘mixed use’, and encouraging people to ‘linger’ – they also want to control space. So they try to plan out real vibrancy, allow only certain types of mixed use, and stop some people lingering. As a result, benches are split in two, to discourage rough sleeping, and seating is designed to be uncomfortable, so that teenagers and street drinkers don’t linger too long. There’s lots of space, but not in useful places, and not focused – empty space, waiting to be reclaimed and reused.

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The council’s presentation of this work to Beneath The Pavement was interesting to watch; an example of two world’s not so much colliding, but existing in parallel universes, and surprised by a sudden glimpse through a window of each other. The council know that the work is needed, have given it a decent budget, and are working to a high quality. But in thinking of city-as-engineering-challenge, they’re missing the point made by good thinkers like Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford and Francis Tibbalds. They’re creating a blank, neat city not one for people to fill. This is where the artists working at Beneath the Pavement became most frustrated, but it’s also where they’re needed most.

“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” Jane Jacobs


Stoke’s future must be in these spaces being useful being part of life, being filled again with bustle and life. For Beneath The Pavement, the artists I worked with made small interventions in other parts of the city; a series of stickers saying a polite ‘thank you’ for following instructional signs, a sign to ‘Seize Your Space’, a series of chalked cartoons and #chumberella, a shared and social space to keep the rain off (which, I reckon, should become an international movement).


But all of them avoided working in the neat, new spaces. And that’s where we need to go to work right now; before they become tomorrow’s failed visions of a better city, things we look back at and say ‘what were they thinking?’. The city’s planners might think that, in a year or two, they’ll have finished, that the job of work is over; that building new places is a process with a start and an end. But the truth is, the layers on top of them, the gradual accretion of life and disorder, are what really make a city live. And that’s up to us. Let’s get started.




London Road

P1130382Stoke’s London Road connects the buzzing, active communities of Boothen, West End and Oakhill to the town centre along a long, straight road that’s full of history, unusual buildings, old architectural features and public spaces waiting to be brought to life. It’s a beautiful street, as the photos I’ve taken so far show.

So it’s going to be a great place to spend the next year as artist-in-residence for the whole road, collecting stories, working alongside local people, and making connections between communities. I’ll be living for a quarter of the year in Penkville Street, one of the steep terraces that climb off London Road.

To see some of what I’ve found so far, you can download a map of London Road’s significant people and places.

P1130397This year-long artwork commissioned by Appetite uses the whole street as a venue. As I uncover stories from London Road, they’ll be marked by the reanimation of unloved spaces, restoration of original features, reinvention of forgotten buildings, gentle reminders of why the road is special, and regeneration from the bottom up.

It will end in the publication of a book. This will be a psychogeographical, slightly fictional telling of the story of London Road, from one end to the other, from the Roman to the modern day. In that writing, focused on one special road and the people who use it, I’ll tell the whole story of Stoke.

You can follow the progress, and join in with the project, with the Twitter hashtag #allabouttheroad or on a Facebook page.

Council crush community

ImageOne of the things that most inspired me about Margate was the community-built skatepark on the abandoned Little Oasis Crazy Golf course.

The skatepark was built on a small corner, a former remote control car track. Built by people who knew what they were doing, it had proper poured concrete ramps and othe features.

It cleared a plot used for flytipping and covered in rubbish.

And brought people together – English and Eastern European, young and old worked together, played together, invested time and effort together. Collectively they made the area feel safer, feel cleaner and feel happier.

This morning at 6am, protected by Kent Police, Thanet Council contractors moved onto the site, demolished everything, and broke up the tarmac base. One corner of Cliftonville feels less safe, less clean and less happy.

A workshop that showed social media works

P1070426I’m often asked to talk about social media, and have discussed the subject at conferences, workshops and discussions for the last few years. I’ve never claimed to be an expert (I don’t think there are any, and certainly don’t think there are rules to follow). But social media is very much part of the work that I do, and is wrapped into everything Revolutionary Arts has ever done since we created artistsandmakers.com, which let users set up a profile and create their own content. So I have some practical, grounded experience to share.

But as a social artist, I don’t think just talking about social media is enough. It only really works when you couple the words with some action. Like the Pink fairies say, ‘Don’t talk about it man, all you gotta do is do it’. I’m a social artist because I want to make things happen.

So when long-term collaborator Steve Bomford asked me to come back to Portsmouth for Global Entrepreneurship Week I said yes – as long as we could do more than talk. I wanted to bring together people who wanted to learn more about social media, find out what they had in common, and create a live project by the end of the workshop. So about twenty people, with diverse experiences and skills, came together at Portsmouth’s impressive Guildhall in November.

I thought we might get a Facebook page, or a Flickr group, or some kind of funky mashup. But Portsmouth’s finest creative minds went one further, and used social media to create a one-day busking festival, Southsea Sunday.

The event, just a few weeks after the workshop, focused attention on local shops and cafes in the run up to Christmas, and raised funds for Southsea’s Food Bank.

Even better, the gang that met at the workshop are still working together, and are planning what’s next:

So one afternoon, a good room with coffee and biscuits and reliable wifi, and you can not only learn what social media is and how it works, but test that in action and have some fun doing it. I’d love to repeat the workshop  elsewhere and see what a different twenty people come up with. Get in touch if you’d like that to happen.

Is Deal really Britain’s best High Street?

Yesterday I visited Deal, voted Britain’s best High Street by Bill Grimsey and the Telegraph. It’s a good enough town centre, clean and tidy, although not especially busy on a wet Saturday afternoon.

It’s a long, meandering street which seems to run roughly parallel to the seashore, but doesn’t link to it at any point. It’s almost like it’s trying to pretend the beach isn’t there. There’s little to make the town centre legible.

There are some high-end independents alongside the usual suspects like Iceland, The Original Factory Shop, Savers and Poundland. There are also lots of charity shops, mainly the clone-town chains. All in all, it feels rather jumbled. There are some good shops, and lots of very ordinary ones; but I can’t see anything radical, inspiring or edgy that suggests what tomorrow’s town centre might look like.

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2014: What The F*ck Is Going On?

2014 will be about: Discordianism, exploring British towns, 7″ singles, Bedford, Powell Cotton, the intersection of Northern Soul and songs about being happy, seaside urbanismThe Shell Grotto, Eris, Primitive Methodism, crazy golf, Mods vs Rockers, YIMBY, the KLF, Dreamland, cultural places as social objects, bicycles, East Street Arts, words/signs/typography, Things Found In Books, picking up litter, Fred Perry, postcards and podcasting.

Where’s Dan?

Town hall smallIn 2013, I spent time in Worthing, Reading, Shoreham, Leeds, Rochdale, London, Portsmouth, Brighton, Spalding, Boston, Lewes, Docklands, Sydney, Newcastle NSW, Bradford, Liskeard, Whitehall, Halifax, Margate, Bedford, Reculver, Camden, Hastings, Broadstairs, Holbeach, Congleton, Canterbury, Belfast, Eastbourne, Dover.

Where’s 2014 going to take me?

Dreaming locally

P1090878“In every community there are cultural assets that have shared value and contribute to the imagination, happiness, pride, social connections and dreaming of that unique place.”

A beautiful sentence – here in the UK, we don’t think about the power of dreaming. It’s from this great Australian report on what we might call ‘local distinctiveness’ and the power of looking at things locally.

Business rates for pop up shops

There’s a campaign been started to stop pop up shops paying business rates. After some thought, I have chosen not to give this my support. For one thing, I think it’s a PR stunt, not a considered attempt to steer government policy. But in any case…

A pop up shop may be a real enterprise, in which case it should pay, the same as any other local shop.

It may be testing a new business, in which case it should pay – so it provides real evidence for a future shop.

Or it’s a charity, community or social project, in which case it should pay or use the business rate relief that already exists.

The case for the creative reuse of empty shops has been made, so far, on the basis that those of us who are fighting are serious about the High Street. We’ve argued that our approach is as business-like as the local shops we’re mixing with. We’ve made the case that we’re doing this to support local shops. That we’re complimentary, not competition. Special rules for pop up shops take us away from those arguments.

Such changes could also create a loophole which other businesses will exploit; how long, if the financial incentive was good enough, before the big multiples took advantage – a Tesco Metro pop up shop, maybe?

There is a wider issue about the fairness of business rates, and clarification of how they’re applied locally. In fact in Pop Up People, based on work with people tackling the problem of empty shops around the country, we proposed a three month period free of business rates for any new business moving into empty shops. It would benefit shops opening up – and any occupants that were only around for a short time. That’s considered, reasonable and a fair change that brings benefit to everybody working on the High Street.

In the future, everyone will be an expert for 15 minutes

In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes

The trouble with experts these days is that as soon as they’ve said something, it’s been made irrelevant by something changing. We are living in times when things change so quickly the experts can’t keep up. What are the experts in Jacquard Looms, typewriting, Morse Code, the ARPANET, BBC Microcomputers, Ceefax, Friends Reunited and MySpace doing now?

And things aren’t going to slow down; each new piece of technology shortens the time that it takes to make the next new piece of technology. Literally – 3D printers are being used to print bigger, better 3D printers. It’s getting faster, and you’re getting slower. This applies to the way that social media has changed the music industry, to the physical bricks and mortar of our town centres, to the way we teach our children. Everything is changing, here comes everybody, and everybody is an expert.

We can still be experts, but it’s not a badge for life. Learn something, learn it well, but be willing to be overtaken by technology and another expert quite quickly. Being good at something doesn’t make you a master, not any more. We’re going to have to learn to take turns at being experts.

So here’s Thompson’s Tenet: In the future, everyone will be an expert for 15 minutes.

Bill Grimsey, King of the Clone Town

Strutton GroundRetail expert Bill Grimsey has published his report this week. It’s based on facts, says Bill, proudly. But for all the facts, the report says nothing new – it’s a rehash of other people’s ideas, and is very similar to the Mary Portas High Street Review that came before it. It takes as its foundation the death of the High Street, and is based on the belief that independent shops should just give up now.

And today Bill’s been Tweeting his praise for Tesco – it’s ‘the real deal’, and ‘Tesco’s Harris + Hoole coffee shop chain has been given licensing approval for cafes. The day out at Tesco is getting better!’.

Bill’s also Tweeted about his pleasure with Primark’s increased profits, saying the ‘consumer cares not where the stuff comes from only price!’

Of course, an alternative view would be that big stores like Primark and Tesco are actually the problem. They’ve championed price over quality or fair working conditions. Tesco have used unpaid work experience placements.  And Primark are currently paying compensation to 4000 people after the Rana Plaza sweatshop collapsed in April, leaving over 1100 people dead.

Bill’s unflagging support for Tesco, Primark et al is unsurprising, from a man who’s lived his life in clone town retailers like Iceland. But the comments about Primark are something different. I’m not sure whether they’re ill-considered, or just uncaring.

In any case, maybe we should look for grassroots ways to tackle the problem, from the floorboards up not from the boardrooms down.  An alternative view would be that, with the number of independent shops increasing in the last year by over 400 stores, it’s the clone town that’s dying. There’s certainly evidence that the number of empty shops in city centre is falling, while it’s rising in shopping centres and retail parks. So that belief that the high street has a chance is not just nostalgia, Bill; it’s facts.





Isle of noises

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears,

The Isle of Thanet is full of noises. As I write, the Salvation Army band are making a joyous noise unto the Lord in the Salvation Hall across the road.

Last night, our garden filled with yelps as dancing girls can-can’d in the Theatre Royal behind us. Before the show, there was a giggle of girls walking to the stage door, wheeled suitcases rumbling behind them on the uneven road. The end of the show was marked by the distinctive sound of counterweights being released as curtains came down

A couple of nights ago, a riot van pulled up to stop the dull thud of techno from a party down the road. Dogs are always barking on our street, people banging on the door across the road and calling out ‘Sumner’. Next door’s buzzer sounds loud in our downstairs bedroom.

The council’s daily, early-morning emptying the dumpster across the road is an unrehearsed, unrhythmic, unsocial, unwanted performance by Stomp. There are voices in the boarded empty print works down the road echoing round the vast spaces where print machinery once rattled. You can still smell the ink.

Our evening walks on the beach are accompanied by show tunes from the Winter Gardens, or dance music from the bar on the seafront, or the buzz of 125cc scooters bouncing from the cliffs by the empty Lido. On warm, light evenings paragliders rip the air above our heads. There is always a rude and noisy chorus gulls. Walk along the harbour arm and waders call to each other as drinkers chatter.

And Dreamland, oh Dreamland. The noisiest place of all. Dreamland is empty, the rude mechanicals packed away and being restored elsewhere, but the rattle, calls, laughter, cries -the familiar noise of fairground rides, sideshows and the Victorian rollercoaster – still reverberate around the crumbling site. The mechanical laughter from Laurie Anderson’s 1952 documentary still rings. You can still hear the Rank lion’s roar if you put your ear to the boarded-up cinema.

The isle is full of noises, but be not afeard. It’s just the sound of a place that’s awake, alive and full of possibility.

Bill and Mary forgot about people

P1050725When retail experts like Mary Portas and Bill Grimsey talk confidently about the death of the high street, there’s one thing that they seem to have forgotten.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Amsterdam, Bedford, Belfast, Bexley, Boston, Brighton, Brixton, Broadstairs, Coventry, Chichester, Eastbourne, Enfield, Guildford, Halifax, Holbeach, the Isle of Wight, Leeds, Lewes, Littlehampton, Manchester, Margate, Newcastle in New South Wales, Portsmouth, Rochdale, Rotterdam, Salford, Shoreham, Southampton, Streatham, Stresa in Italy and Worthing in the last year or so.

P1050907And what Bill and Mary have forgotten? Independent record stores, quirky bookshops, antique shops, food markets, toyshops, ironmongers, vintage clothing emporiums, art materials shops, mod-style menswear boutiques, tailors making suits for older men, shops selling scooters, electrical stores, wool shops, greengrocers, model railway shops, comic stores, flea markets, stationery shops, galleries, haberdashers and charity shops do more than just ‘retail’. They’re about people. Grimsey and Portas have forgotten about real people.

From North Laine in Brighton to Manchester’s Northern Quarter, from Coventry Market to Covent Garden, from Brixton Village to the beach at Broadstairs, there are shops that are social spaces, as well as places to sell things. And there are shops that are making things, closing the distance between small-scale manufacture and being a shopkeeper. Shops are providing a focus for communities with a common interest, and are places that people meet, hang out and go shopping together.

The facts and figures retail experts like Grimsey and Portas use, the kind of data they’re used to using in their dayjobs working for big shopping centres and the massive retailers who’ve done the most damage to our town centres, assume that every business is after growth and that every customer is just after the lowest price. Grimsey and Portas can’t even see these blurred, hybrid spaces – let alone understand them.

Of course, many shops are closing and many more will in the next year. This isn’t a plea to preserve the status quo. Because change is good, and change does not mean the end. Our town centres have become clone towns, dominated by the big chain orthodoxy, by sell fast and don’t linger, by the lack of imagination of management interested in only the fastest route to the biggest profit. It’s time we had something different. We deserve better.

Imagination and creativity will win. It’s a defining part of the British character. Some shopkeepers want a small, sustainable business (not to make millions) and are finding a corner of a crowded market. They’re mixing online and the high street in ways that defy the experts’ data. They’re making shops that fulfil a useful social function, bring a benefit to our towns beyond mere selling.

And many customers still want to shop, because it’s a social activity. They want to come together around a shared interest, be it model soldiers or vintage clothes or knitting or riding scooters or just a love of food. Shopping isn’t just about the acquisition of goods, but about gaining knowledge, experience and understanding – you can’t beat a bookseller’s suggestions, an ironmonger’s advice, the tip-off from the chap in the record store, or the thing the man in the flea market has put by for you.

Yes, shops are closing: yes, it’s tough being a shopkeeper: yes, the high street is changing. But don’t expect shops to disappear, just because retail experts and their clients would like them to. Let’s support this new, local business with reduced business rates. But first, let’s visit them, linger, meet shopkeepers and customers, and understand the change that’s happening.

TEDx Bedford, Everyday Radicals and Placeshaking

What joins up events on Worthing Pier, street play, the Primitive Methodists, pop up shops, guerilla gardening, The Caravan Gallery and yarn bombing?

They all get threaded together in this talk about the idea of Placeshaking – informal, loose, DIY urbanism that helps to define what makes places special.

It’s the first time I’ve spoken at a TEDx event, and I’m a bit sceptical about them – I prefer action to talking. But I was invited by Bedford’s Kayte Judge, who have a lot of time and respect for. Seems it turned out alright in the end.

Marcus Westbury and Australia’s ‘Renew’ movement

P1060383I’ve been lucky enough to meet Marcus Westbury a couple of times while he’s been in Europe – and to go out to Australia to work with him as well.

He’s the driving force behind Renew Newcastle (backed up by a great team, it has to be said) and has inspired Australia to restore, renew and reactivate high streets. He’s made the idea of using empty shops and other buildings for creative purposes mainstream out there.

There’s a real depth to Marcus’s work and, in the best Buddhist way, he matches right thought, right word and right action. He’s a clever chap, but in an honest and straightforward way because he’s interested in actually doing things. All the same things I’m interested in doing here, but Marcus is far more eloquent than I’ll ever be at explaining them.

That’s why the fact that Marcus is currently crowdfunding a book about his work is so important; if you can support him, it’ll be well worth it. You can pledge to support Marcus here. And you really should.

Children, risk and trust

Street play 8We need more risk when bringing up our children. Riding bikes around the block, climbing trees, paddling in the sea. These are good things, simple things and powerful things.

Like much of my work with Revolutionary Arts, the decision to let my children play outside is all about reclaiming public space. It’s making the streets democratic. They don’t belong to home owners or car drivers, but to everyone that lives in them. This is nothing new, as back in the 1950s Jane Jacobs argued for children to be able to play on pavements and streets. Attempting to create secure, isolated courtyards or gated play areas is futile, she said:

No normal person can spend his life in some artificial haven, and this includes children.

And because I love free outside play, I’m not a fan of indoor play, which tends to be dull because it’s so safe, and feel tatty because it’s cheap. My children were getting bored of indoor play by the time they could walk! But these Luckey Climbers structures are a great way to do it. Putting our trust back in children and creating high quality indoor play seems like a good complement to reclaiming the pavements.

We live in a risk-adverse society where the idea of trust is dumbed down. This minimizes risk and … we worry so much about the intent to sue that we deprive ourselves.

Exploring Newcastle, New South Wales

‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’ TS Eliot

P1050553There are three answers to the question (often asked) ‘yes, but what do is your actual job?’ The first, the most honest, is that I’m a social artist. The second, for people who wear suits, is that I’m a consultant. The third, the most secret, is that I’m an explorer.

I’ve been to dozens of towns and cities across Great Britain, discovering insane buildings in Leeds and unusual history in Coventry; I have spent a few short days in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, places that let DIY culture get under the paving slabs; I’ve wandered through an Italian village that was like Portmeirion without the rain. The furthest I’ve been in my exploring, though, was my recent visit to Newcastle in New South Wales to take part in the Creating Spaces conference.

It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since I first found out about Renew Newcastle and the work of Marcus Westbury and his team.

P1050864Newcastle is a post-industrial town, that just a few years ago had a seriously hollowed-out city centre. Hunter Street was full of empty shops, and other buildings were emptying out too. But that changed, and by 2011, Newcastle was on the Lonely Planet Guide’s top ten list. And 106 Renew Newcastle projects later, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a problem that needed fixing.

Newcastle’s city centre (the Central Business District or CBD) is long and thin, a familiar enough layout for anyone from an English seaside town. This city centre is of course off-centre, the geography skewed by the harbourside to the north and the beaches to the south. Hunter Street is the spine, stretching parallel to the harbour.

At Newcastle East is the headland of the harbour, stunning beaches, magnificent sunrises, old warehouses turned into holiday apartments and an Art Deco sea bathing pool. Near this end of town is the Hunter Mall, the main shopping area of Hunter Street. This is where Renew Newcastle has had the biggest impact.

P1050730It’s an area of beautiful heritage buildings, glorious Art Deco facades against deep green trees and impossibly blue skies. Buildings are grand, and proud, and show that Newcastle was a rich, industrial city. Think Leeds or Manchester, but with brighter skies and clearer air. The ghosts of old businesses are everywhere; plaques mark banks that have traded for 100 years, shop names are found in ghost signs, and there are more significant enterprises who carved their name in stone. There are ghosts too, of the failure of salvation by brick; the skeletal remains of an ambitious, million-dollar scheme to encourage a street market to appear.

P1050725There’s also an impressive amount of street art. Vibrant murals, quirky quotes like Facebook inspirational memes gone real world, and creative flyposters are sprinkled along the Hunter Street spine. The best are the works curated by Street Art Walking’s Simone Sheridan, and they add colour and draw you up side streets as you walk.

But Hunter Mall doesn’t have many empty shops, though. Not now. These have been replaced, first with temporary projects brought in by Renew Newcastle, but then by other businesses.

Projects like Make Space, a collective of female makers who fit the shop around family, and vintage photobooth hire company Strip of a Lifetime, and roller derby stickermaker NataLickIt are finding new uses for old spaces. They’re pioneers, opening up the city for the entrepreneurs that always follow.

And follow they have, here like anywhere else in the world. Newcastle is starting to get its share of cool cafes and hipster coffee shops. A national chain tried to move in, piggybacking on the creativity, but was ignored. People stuck to the independents and the chain closed and left town.

And perhaps more importantly – Renew Newcastle graduates, having tried and tested in temporary premises, are now going full-time and filling spaces.

P1050907Renew Newcastle has a good track record of encouraging start-ups, with workspaces like The Bank of Ideas and Studio Melt, studios like Shannon Hartigan Images, and beautiful, quirky shops like Alie Jane as living testament, but that’s not its aim. Renew Newcastle set out to achieve the activation of empty buildings, maintaining them and improving the look of the city centre while that post-industrial future is worked out.

The real achievement though is discovering that post-industrial future as part of the process. Newcastle is now a vibrant, creative city, where artist-makers, graphic designers, illustrators and software developers alike are making new products for export to a global market. And at the same time, improving the place where they live and make it an attractive destination for a worldwide audience who like architecture, and heritage, and creativity, and culture, and good cafes. And the great beaches don’t hurt, either.