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Learning from Blackpool Promenade: re-enchanting sterile streets
Blackpool emerged as a popular UK seaside resort in Victorian times as
increasing numbers of workers from the Lancashire cotton-towns made day trips and
later booked weekly holidays. Though suffering declining popularity in the post-war era,
the world’s first working class holiday resort continues to attract around 17million annual
visitors to experience the funfairs, beach, Tower, Winter Gardens and amusement
arcades, many staying in the town’s abundant cheap accommodation. Blackpool
remains Britain’s most-visited seaside destination and though derided for lacking
sophistication, it continues to host numerous cultural events and popular cultural
entertainments. Noting the town’s reputation as ‘tacky’ and vulgar, in this paper we
nonetheless focus on how the recent inventive redesign of Blackpool’s Promenade
might critically inform street design and place-making practices elsewhere, given that it
emphasises particular qualities of streetspaces as playful, convivial and life-affirming.
In making such arguments, we recognise that Blackpool’s seafront promenade is
a linear space possessing distinctive social and spatial qualities that contrast with those
of many contemporary streets in the urban West. As we discuss below, urban streets
are now often heavily monitored to (over)regulate their aesthetics, flows and functions,
resulting in unsensual, single-purpose and sterile realms.
These contemporary desires for functionalism and rigorous sensory control
chime with the contentions of modernist doyen, Le Corbusier, who claimed that plentiful
light, space and clean air would encourage the rational development of the individual,
whose eyes, nose and ears would be uncluttered by sensory ‘rubbish’. This is
exemplified in his demand to ‘kill the street’ in favour of linear spaces of pure
transportation. Le Corbusier (1933) asserted that ‘there ought not to be such a thing as
streets; we have to create something to replace them’. Smooth streets, devoid of cafes
and other species of ‘the fungus that eats up the pavements’ (ibid), would be ‘as well
equipped as a factory’ (cited in Berman, 1982: 167) and facilitate 'productive'
movement, leisure, work and thought.
The post-war redevelopment of many British towns partially included some of
these modernist principles (Greenhalgh, 2018), and Blackpool was no exception. Local
architects, Tom Mellor and Partners’ 1965 Masterplan, advocated a Le Corbusian
makeover of the resort (Brodie and Whitfield, 2014; Brook, forthcoming) that entailed
the redevelopment of the former Central Station to accommodate a brutalist Magistrates
Court, police headquarters and multi-storey car park. Traffic directly flowed into the town
centre from a new motorway, with dilapidated housing, stalls and other Victorian
vestiges demolished to make way for large entertainment complexes connected at first
floor level by a system of elevated ‘pedways’ and concrete gardens. A pedway
stretched over the Promenade to connect to the seafront and foster a ‘seamless’
separation of people and traffic. Recent regeneration attempts have focused on
removing this concrete legacy.
In contradistinction to these modernist schemes, concerns about the ‘death of the street’
preoccupy contemporary urban design practitioners and new urbanists, who have
rediscovered the writings of Kevin Lynch (1981), Jane Jacobs (1961) and W.H. Whyte
(1980). Building on Jacobs’ criticism of modernist planning and the negative impacts of
cars on sociality, Gehl and Gemzoe (1996) call for a return to traditional street designs
that prioritise pedestrians and produce enhanced safety, walkability, community
cohesion, social encounters, vitality and a sense of belonging. Reiterations of such
principles are articulated in numerous professionally-driven guides that proffer
technocratic solutions and measurable criteria, including The Lexicon of New Urbanism
(Duany et al) and the Urban Design Alliance‘s Designing Streets for People, Returning
Roads to Residents, and in the UK, the 2007 Manual for Streets and its 2010 successor,
Manual for Streets 2.
Yet though inspired by notions of vibrant street life, the design codes and
international standards of the ‘new urbanism’ threaten to throttle the messy, chaotic
diversity of street culture. For instance, Manual for Streets calls for a decluttering of
obstacles and signage, suggesting that smoother, more regulated environments are
conducive to positive social outcomes. Edward Robbins (2013: 315) points out the
similarities between New Urbanism and the modernist movement in their prescriptive re-
ordering of streets and advocacy of technical guidance: ‘the irony is that the New
Urbanism is in many ways a resurrection of modernism but cloaked in the dress of the
A standardisation has eventuated in which generic streetscapes and shared
tastes are articulated and ‘aesthetic consent’ produced (Julier, 2005: 874), reiterating
similar designscapes across diverse urban settings in which signifiers of the local,
peculiar and arresting sights are largely absent. Moreover, tendencies to foreground
venerable structures often produce generic forms: cleansed industrial patinas, brightly
painted antiquated ironwork and information boards that peddle selective interpretations
of heritage. Accordingly, contemporary urban streets are often over-functional,
unimaginative, unsensuous and untethered to place.
Despite these dominant tendencies, Monica Degen (2008) shows that residents
and visitors can continuously contest such ordering strategies. Other examples, such as
the streets of urban India, can serve as a critical point of contrast to over-regulated,
sterile streets in foregrounding the rich sensory experiences, multiple social activities,
inclusivity and every-changing scenes that play out (Anjaria, 2012; Edensor, 2000).
Similarly, the reconfigured Blackpool Promenade stands outside these normative street
designs, yet is neither a small-scale, community-led project nor a site for tactical
urbanism. It remains a linear space that is conventionally managed and organised. Yet it
acknowledges the resort’s rich cultural histories, does not attempt to make the resort
conventionally fashionable (Blackpool has never been cool) but accommodates the
effusions of popular culture: as we argue, it does not sterilise space, and encourages
multiplicity and inclusion. Accordingly, this paper explores how the promenade might
serve as an exemplary space through which to critically examine how streets might be
designed otherwise. Rather than being overdetermined by the regulatory desires of
bureaucracy, the class-based aesthetics of gentrification and their universalising notions
of modishness articulated by the creative class, how might street design be deployed to
promote pleasurable social interaction, playful engagements, enhanced sensation and a
deeper sense of place.
Blackpool and its promenade
Blackpool’s diverse attractions include Britain’s most visited holiday attraction, the
Pleasure Beach, the nineteenth century Tower, the Winter Gardens complex of
ballrooms, theaters and bars, huge amusement arcades and three piers, as well as the
beach. Though not comparable to the vast crowds of the first half of the 20 th century,
Blackpool remains a site for popular cultural entertainment and fun. Visitors tend to
return year-on-year, steeped in family traditions and annual routines (Edensor and
Millington, 2013). As a site of ‘industrial saturnalia’ (Cross and Walton, 2005) and
popular modernism (Peter, 2007), Blackpool is still characterized by what Laura Feigel
(2009: 631) describes as a ‘garish overabundance’. Like other sites of pleasure such as
fairs, carnivals and markets, it is a site deemed marginal in hierarchical spatial orderings
by virtue of these pleasurable excesses, an ‘alternative space of modernity’ (Shields,
1992) that emphasises playful, Dionysian elements rather than ordering, regulatory,
Appollonian impulses (Rojek, 1995). These mythic qualities chime with longstanding,
negative media discourses that the resort is vulgar, ‘tacky’ and devoid of good taste,
representations suffused with class-inflected judgements (Edensor and Millington,
2013). The town is thus widely-presumed to lack sophisticated artistic and cultural
provision, multicultural diversity or high-end restaurants. Yet as we discuss, the
redesigned promenade does not conform to these lurid imaginaries of the resort as
teeming with a debased, unsophisticated working class and possessing few civic,
aesthetic or sensory qualities.
The word ‘promenade’ describe both a thing and an action:
‘Promenade: n. A leisurely walk for pleasure, particularly up and down. v. To do
this.’ (Cowan, 2005: 309).
Adopting a historical perspective, Witold Rybczynski (1995) charts the development of
processional routes, promenades and tree-lined boulevards, including the streets of 16th
century France along which royalty and courtiers strolled. Rather differently, Miguel
Torres (2016) draws attention to the Hispanic alamedas that persist throughout southern
Europe, broad paths bounded either side by roads and exemplified by Las Ramblas,
Barcelona. The promenade also features in 19th century attempts to address the
challenges of overcrowded urbanism, prevalent in Haussmann’s redesigned Paris, the
reconstruction Washington DC as part of the City Beautiful Movement, and more
broadly, within the functional reorganisation of streets according to Modernist planning
principles (Gold, 1998).
Most obviously, promenades emerged as a vital element of seaside architecture,
providing a distinct linear landscape that connects piers, pavilions, arcades, beach huts
and shelters, combined with the rambling vernacular of cockle stalls, beach shops and
chippies (Gray, 2006; Walton, 1997). Promenades are sites of nautical gaiety, part of a
landscape of seamarks, lighthouses and rescue paraphernalia (colourful buoys, life
rings and lifeboats) described by Piper and Nash (1938). Moreover, in occupying a zone
between land and sea (Gray, 2006), promenade design requires sufficient robustness to
withstand sea and wind. The layering of Victoria, Edwardian, Art-Deco and Modernist
styles ensures material heritage features linger in the present, such as the durable
Victorian wrought iron ornamentation of railings, benches and shelters (Dobraszczyk,
2016), and typically varied assemblages of design features and buildings (Gray, 2006).
Blackpool’s promenade was constructed between 1856 and 1870 after the first
railways reached the resort, and offered opportunities for leisurely walking and
breathing purer sea air. Despite the town’s early pretensions as a dignified spa town,
the Prom quickly become thronged by working class day-trippers and holiday-makers
from the industrial Northwest. Blackpool’s promenade remains Britain’s longest.
Running from Starr Gate to Bispham, it connects the Pleasure Beach, Golden Mile,
Tower and the resort’s three piers, while running parallel to numerous hotels and
boarding houses, souvenir shops, pubs, cheap restaurants, confectioners, amusement
arcades and fairground stalls.
The Victorian promenade extinguished the pre-existing sand dunes that provided
protection from tidal flooding, a critical function that was subsequently replaced by a 30-
foot-high seawall. However, this wall has progressively been subject to over-topping,
with storm surges towards the end of the 20th century causing considerable damage.
Accordingly, a £200 million, six-year project of renovation and sea defence measures
has replaced 3.2km of the old coastal defences. The Central Area Coast Protection
Scheme (Hill et al, 2006), Blackpool's largest ever civil engineering project, has
deployed biomimicry by constructing artificial headlands and gently sloping steps that
imitate sand dunes, dissipating tidal energy (Streeter, 2013). The horizontal, linear
barrier between sea and land has been replaced by a more uneven boundary. When
storms do breach these defences, seawater is confined by a stepped low wall on the
promenade that also serves as seating for holiday-makers. The scheme won the Brunel
Medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers for its innovative design and construction
techniques. As well as reducing flooding risks, it has totally redesigned the promenade,
the subject to which we now turn.
About the research
The shared social and spatial practices along the promenade that we explore are
integral to the ways in which sites are experienced and to the ongoing reproduction of
place: they generate repeated patterns of feeling and ideas of what practices are
deemed appropriate. This is not a static process, for places are constantly shifting, and
we acknowledge this by investigating how people inhabit the promenade at different
times. The research, therefore, draws on participant observation over multiple site visits
since 2009. Over an 8-year period, we have conducted 24 walks of the Promenade to
encompass different seasons and times of the day, and fluctuating visitor numbers,
according to season and the staging of events. The research, therefore, acknowledges
these rhythmic fluctuations of intensity across several years. Notes and observations
were recorded in field diaries, accompanied by systematic photographic records (1127
photos and 42 short video clips). Coding and analysis revealed three main themes that
we explore in this paper: nuanced aesthetics; interactivity, playfulness and conviviality;
and multi-sensory engagements.
Our selection of empirical material based on our observations reinforce how
place is a context for the performance of everyday, sensual and pleasurable practice
(Cresswell, 2014). This suggests that the redesigned promenade offers a specific
material context that becomes inhabited through familiar manoeuvres, modes of resting,
congregating, playing and moving. People engage with the fixtures, art installations,
gathering points, textures, gradients, and routes along and away from the promenade in
The identification of these performative regularities in this linear space required
both walking and resting. In walking, our own rhythms, manoeuvres, route-making and
pace resonated with other promenaders as we joined the collective practice of place-
making (Pink, 2015). But crucially, streets and other public spaces are not only sites of
vital movement. As David Bissell (2010) insists, we also need to take account of social
and spatial practise that involve stillness and rest. Accordingly, sites of rest offered
alternative insights into uses of the promenade, allowing us to register passing walkers
as well as those who lingered in place, which as we will argue, are vital elements in
constituting of place-making.
We also foregrounded the use of our own bodies, echoing Sheller and Urry’s call
to recentre ‘the corporeal body as an affective vehicle through which we sense place
and movement’ (2006: 216). Sarah Pink explores how such a sensory ethnography
involves the development of an ‘experience-based empathetic understandings of what
other people might be experiencing and knowing’ (2015: 65) through a reflexive
awareness of the embodied sensations that arise in encountering place. While many
contingent sensations emerge during an immersion in place - such as weather, the
noise from vehicles and the sea, and food smells - others are stimulated by bodily
engagements with designed features. All are integral to the experience of place as
distinctive, and repeated immersion on visits meant that these sensations became more
identifiable as we became attuned to the affordances of the promenade (Ingold, 2000).
Class, heritage and taste: the nuanced aesthetics of Blackpool’s promenade
Walton and Wood (2009) claim that Blackpool is characterized by a cultural landscape
that combines a mixture of the exotic, the kitsch, the challenging, the liminal, the
traditional and the familiar. Indeed, like other seaside towns, the resort is characterised
by a palimpsestic aesthetic in which Victorian ornamentations coincide with a popular
carnivalesque, art deco elements, modernist brutalism, post-modernist designs,
nostalgic flourishes and post-millennial architecture. The promenade’s redesign
prioritises this site-specificity in ways that we consider could be exemplary for other
forms of street design. Instead of presenting abstract, universal forms, recent
installations honour their setting, alluding to the resort’s vernacular forms, popular
cultural practices and environmental attributes. In addition, many sites lying adjacent to
the promenade constitute part of an unfixed, uncommodified heritage that continues to
serve visitors in time-honoured ways.
These situational contexts are evident in Bruce Williams’ sculpture, Water Wings
(2001), an 8-metre-long curved mesh screen forged from stainless steel and laser cut to
form an image. The work, lying parallel to the seafront and best viewed with the sea
behind, offers a panoramic view of a swimming child viewed from below the waterline
that appears and disappears as it is passed. The piece conjures up an immersive sense
of swimming in the sea.
Three other works connote different characteristics of the resort’s cultural history.
The enigmatic Frankenstein Project by Tony Stallard (2001), resembles a tubular,
submersible craft that has been dredged to the surface and exhibited. Portholes draw
passers-by to experience the strange interior view a whale’s skull illuminated by pulsing
blue neon, a vision that recalls the carnivalesque sideshows that once constituted an
integral part of the Golden Mile. Chris Knight’s Desire (2001) is created from two 8-
metre-tall rusting steel slabs that join to form a V-shape. Viewed from directly behind or
in front, a large heart-shaped, outlined with sharp steel spikes, emerges. The work
summons up the romantic and sexual encounters that have historically been part of a
holiday in Blackpool. The powerful emotions or broken heart that may result are
suggested by the sculpture’s harsh ‘teeth’. Romantic connotations are also presented
by the world’s largest mirrorball, created by Michael Trainor and discussed in more
detail later. Labelled They Shoot Horses Don’t They (2002) in allusion to the marathon
dance competitions in 1950s America, the work alludes to Blackpool’s vast Tower and
Empress Ballrooms that have staged romantic encounters for decades. Indeed, as one
passer-by commented, ‘It’s a bit like a Blackpool ballroom, maybe that’s why they
Figure 1: Place-based designs and heritage
These references to Blackpool’s popular culture proliferate along the promenade,
affirming a cheerful vernacular aesthetic of fairground stalls, amusement arcades,
souvenir shops and illuminations. Colourful stalls are adorned with giant plastic ice
cream cones, vibrant illuminations are affixed above the road, posters advertise tribute
acts, a plastic life size figure of Elvis Presley and a lurid children’s roundabout lie in
wait. These unlikely juxtapositions produce a vernacular surrealism, as particularly
exemplified by the box belonging to the Theatre d’Amour, a simulation of a Victorian
theatre created by celebrity designer Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen and illuminated at
night. The box hosts comedian Ken Dodd replete with tickling sticks, Coronation Street
actor Thelma Barlow and pop star Robbie Williams, provoking numerous chuckles from
passers-by. Such aggregations of popular cultural motifs, models and images constitute
a key dimension of the disorderly carnivalesque aesthetic of the British seaside.
Figure 2: Vernacular surrealism
These juxtapositions contrast with current tendencies to design space according
to coherent, pervasive themes (Gottdiener, 1997). They also appear at the entrances to
the three piers where advertisements broadcast shows featuring singers, comedians,
magicians and other popular entertainers. The designers of the promenade thus honour
Blackpool’s traditions of celebrating the vital qualities of British popular culture,
unconcerned with taming excessive, expressive visual effusions. By contrast,
elsewhere, street designers pay little heed to local expressions of popular culture. We
claim that these dynamic elements of place identity are worth celebrating (Edensor et al
These popular cultural elements are also entangled with particular working class
cultural practices, aspects that are all too frequently decried and misrecognised.
Blackpool is associated with vulgarity and excess, binge-drinking, stag and hen parties,
tastelessness and tackiness. Beverley Skeggs (2004: 9) argues that such media
depictions emerge out of particular middle class cultural values, practices and habitus
through which selves and others are represented in ‘a system of inscription, exchange,
perspective and value-laden attribution’. Similar judgements are frequently echoed by
members of the creative class engaged in the production of urban ‘designscapes’
(Julier, 2005). Such assessments cannot recognise that the vernacular styles on display
at Blackpool are not motivated by desires to display ‘good taste’ but to evoke the jollity
and amusement that visitors express when encountering them. They misrecognise the
working-class values ‘that produce different relationships, different forms of attention,
different desires and very different value practices’ (Skeggs, 2011: 507). The
overwhelming concern with manifesting status by making assertions about what
constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste constrains an ability to recognize distinctive place-
These features embody another key dimension of the promenade’s redesign: the
honouring of Blackpool’s heritage. Like the Victorian piers and Tower complex, they
have not been subject to aesthetic recoding or regulatory preservation orders, and are
not informationally signified as heritage objects. Rather, they continue to serve as a
contemporary site for entertainment and leisure. The Pleasure Beach is also part of this
uncurated heritage, forming a palimpsest of popular culture with older attractions like
the inter-war Noah’s Ark and Big Dipper co-existing with the ‘Big One’ roller-coaster of
1994. Similarly, Victorian boarding-houses, Edwardian hotels and 1930s buildings are
visible from the promenade. Though constituting a unique landscape (Walton and
Wood, 2009), these sites continue to serve as venues for gaming, eating, drinking,
strolling, dancing and playing. Despite this cultural and material heritage, Blackpool’s
2011 bid to attain UNESCO World Heritage status was unsuccessful, with Tourist and
Heritage Minister, John Penrose, choosing not to shortlist it. However, we contend that
this uncurated heritage offers a livelier relationship to the past than that of many
heritage districts where much of the material fabric is enclosed and assiduously
David Atkinson (2008: 381) claims that in contradistinction to an obsession with
grand, iconic sites, heritage is becoming pluralised and decentred from traditional,
authoritative curation as people increasingly seek ‘commonplace social, industrial and
cultural histories (in) mundane, ordinary places’. These are often sites to which they are
deeply connected, familiar settings that provoke affective, sensory and shared social
memories. As a woman in her 60s reported, ‘I love coming to Blackpool. I used to come
when I was little, I first came when I was six. It’s the nostalgia and the atmosphere’.
Promenade designers seem to understand these shared sentiments and have installed
place-specific artworks that resonate with them. Like those who work at the local
illuminations depot to produce the town’s annual two-month spectacle of light, the
designers understand the specific qualities expressed by the history of Blackpool and
the cultural practices and forms that have occupied this seaside space (Edensor and
However, despite these associations with the town’s heritage, a plenitude of
inventive features also contributes to the distinctive design aesthetic of the promenade.
Rectilinear wind shelters have supplanted their austere post-war antecedents and the
renovated Manchester Square pumping station has been furnished with six futuristic,
elegant, curved stainless steel tubes on grass embankments either side of the facility.
Festival House, which accommodates a registry office, cafe and tourist information
centre, presents a shifting structure of multiple angles and materials, was innovatively
forged out of cross-laminated timber and exterior bricks, and incorporates recycled
fragments of glass that reflect sunlight. In 2012, the energy-efficient building was
included on the long list for the Stirling Prize awarded by the Royal Institute of British
Architects for the UK’s best building. New sleek purple and white trams operate
alongside the promenade. They are complemented by the vintage trams deployed to
convey wedding parties and the brilliantly illuminated old trams designed in the shapes
of rocket and boat that periodically ply along the seafront. Thus, heritage and cutting-
edge features co-exist along the Promenade.
The role of artists in the redesign of the promenade has not been as ‘bridge
gentrifiers’ to smooth the inflow of capital nor led to the production of ‘controlled and
contrived spaces’ (Mathews, 2010: 672). Neither is there an overriding concern to use
art to primarily promote the resort as a site of cultural consumption to maximise
economic activity, effectively marginalising local identities, as at Margate (Ward, 2018).
Here, the blend of heritage, surrealism and the cutting-edge do not articulate neoliberal
strategies or primarily economic imperatives, nor is space simply aestheticized in
accordance with the sensibilities of middle class residents (Ley, 2003). Instead, it fosters
a deep sense of belonging, especially for those familiar with the place. These
installations are not merely concerned with place-branding or constructing a new place-
image, but reinforce the place identity of the town (McCarthy, 2006), soliciting social and
sensory engagements in the process.
Figure 3: Cutting edge designs
Interactivity, playfulness and conviviality
Neoliberal strategies of surveillance, control and regulation that serve the
interests of local political elites and business owners (Katz, 1998) are epitomised by the
expansion of CCTV and numerous bye-laws discourage loitering, playing and protest.
Everyday material furnishings take on additional functions (Flusty, 2001), with benches
and spikes devised to deter rough sleepers or skateboarders, and planters strategically
placed to minimise the potential for loitering crowds. Such gentrifying interventions
often target 'unruly' others, the homeless, street-traders, and younger people (Minton,
In contrast to these regulatory designs, a key dimension of the promenade’s
redesign is that in keeping with the seafront’s identity as a site for enjoyable leisure and
sociability, it promotes diverse playful and social engagements. We have already
discussed how the arresting installations divert attention away from instrumental
objectives. Accordingly, walking down the promenade is rarely a seamless,
uninterrupted journey. Such attributes, we contend, need not be confined to dedicated
sites of leisure but could be far more widely installed to instantiate a more profound
sense of belonging and move away from over-functional understandings about what
streets are for.
An extraordinary and innovative installation that profoundly references
Blackpool’s cultural heritage, is the 2200 square metre Comedy Carpet, commissioned
by Blackpool Council and situated on the promenade in front of the Tower. A
collaboration between artist Gordon Young and Why Not Associates, the carpet
comprises a compendium of Britain's best-known jokes and catchphrases from different
eras. These are transcribed onto 160,000 individually crafted granite letters in a range
of typescripts and embedded into 320 multi-coloured, concrete panels. To read this vast
compilation, visitors must walk upon the carpet and look down to read the jokes. The
phrases solicit reflection, conjuring up forgotten memories of British popular cultural
moments and celebrities, as well as considerable laughter and animated conversation.
While many jokes are familiar, their reiteration provokes an intense connection between
people, who beckon family-members and friends over to share in the amusement or
nostalgia. At most times, variously-sized gaggles of people move slowly and in all
directions across the installation, chuckling and chatting, collectively contributing to a
giddy atmosphere that intensifies and fades.
A further incentive to linger and play is provided by the aforementioned They
Shoot Horses Don’t They. At night, beams of light are projected onto its rotating form to
create a swirling storm of lights; during bright days, sunlight casts a similarly hypnotic
shimmer on the paved surface below. The installation dramatically transforms the
environment by both day and night, inviting interactive play and dancing. After dark,
children try to catch or stamp on the shifting points of light, couples waltz and family
groups gather underneath (Edensor, 2012). During the day people linger, following the
mesmerising patterns caused by sunlight. They Shoot Horses thus encourages ‘fluid,
continuous, adaptive’ qualities of play (Stevens, 2007: 200) as visitors frequently
engage in their own site-specific dance, which, as with the installations discussed
above, is entangled with the ‘the social and cultural histories of the site’ (Barbour and
Hitchmough, 2014: 5).
Besides the lively practices that congregate around these two sites at all hours of
the day, extensive participant observation reveals a host of playful engagements along
the length of the promenade: groups lark about in front of cameras to produce playful
images, youths throw and kick balls, children play games of catch, jump over benches,
clamber over sculpture, and perform gymnastics on railings. As Quentin Stevens (2007:
1) asserts, such notions of play have been neglected by urban designers, perhaps
because play ‘involves controversial expenditures of time and energy’ that are regarded
as ‘inefficient, impractical and socially unredemptive’. As such, designing streets to
encourage play has been generally ignored, with gentrification strategies dominated by
instrumental objectives of satisfying mobility, aesthetic discernment and the
consumption-oriented desires of certain middle-class people with high disposable
incomes. Artistic installations and design features within streets that provoke outbreaks
of silly behaviour, playful interaction and nostalgia should not be regarded as
unsophisticated, as the designs of Blackpool Promenade make clear. Rather, they are a
situated response devised to appeal to different set of desires that have long been
expressed and satisfied at Blackpool.
Figure 4: Play and interaction
Play is not the only form of social interaction on the promenade. Invitations to
linger on the promenade are also constituted by the multiple gathering points that
extend along its length. The rectilinear shelters are sites of rest that also serve as
venues for family picnics. The low walls, and steps down to the beach also prove
popular fixtures upon which to sit and read, text or gaze. The removal of the seawall has
generated a more porous relationship between land and sea. The numerous steps that
descend to the beach along the promenade are also popular fixtures on which to sit. On
quiet days, visitors sit alone, reading or observing the shore, or cluster in small groups,
while on busier occasions, many larger groups assemble across the steps, sun-bathing,
drinking and eating. On a busy Spring Saturday, two sisters in their 50s sit on the drink
rum in plastic cups, laughing at each other’s new sunglasses. One says, ‘I do love this
promenade, great atmosphere. We have been sat on these seats in the sun this
afternoon watching everybody go past, and we could imagine doing the same thing 100
Social science literature on walking has tended to focus on the solitary flâneur,
artist or hiker, a male figure striding away from domesticity and company (Heddon and
Turner, 2012). While there are plenty of solitary walkers along the promenade, most
pedestrians belong to couples or larger groups who chat and lark about, stop and look,
diverge from the path towards beach, shelters, seats or installations sit together.
Through design, the social and convivial practice of promenading is solicited by
numerous diversions, open borders and potential routes, inducing a more extensive
engagement with space. For many promenaders, walking is alert to surroundings; not a
head-down, purposive forward march from A to B but includes pauses and rests of
various duration within a typically loose time frame. Lounging, active and
companionable sitting are accommodated in the Promenade’s design and do not equate
Elsewhere, such unhurried practices may be conceived as frivolous,
unproductive and inimical to public order, with fixtures regarded as ‘props’ for loitering
discouraged within broader governmental agendas of surveillance, regulation,
privatization and sanitization’ (Rogaly and Rishbeth, 2017: 1). Here their material
affordances and designs are instead productive of a ‘convivial coexistence’ (Wise and
Noble, 2016) in which tolerance for difference prospers as promenaders share sitting
space and watch each other.
David Seamon (1979) recommends that streets should be designed to facilitate
face-to-face interaction, creating ‘stage settings’ that bring together different people and
encourage mingling. Failure to attend to these imperatives threatens vitality and social
interaction, characteristics epitomised in the pavement ballets described by Jane
Jacobs (1961). Such designs foster community participation and the reaffirming of
bonds as diverse people occupy what Hawkins and Ryan (2013) call ‘third places’:
socially-inclusive, relaxed and unprescriptive public spaces existing beyond workplace
and home. Such realms provide a vital role in advancing what Buonfino and Mulgan
(2009: 16) call a ‘learned grammar of sociability’ in which people enjoy sharing space
with strangers to form convivial micropublics (Amin, 2002).
This temporary communitas (Nowicka and Vertovec, 2014), evident along the
promenade on busy days as groups interactively shape space affectively, creatively and
expressively, cultivates a topophilia (Tuan, 1974). The ludic qualities we have depicted
are also vital. Here we endorse Tanya Woodyer’s (2012: 319) depiction of play as a
‘prioritising of the non-cognitive and more-than-rational’ that enhances affective
belonging and unleashes improvisational and spontaneous movement. As at
Blackpool’s Illuminations, promenaders are not preoccupied with consuming aesthetic
effects but with enjoying the company of family and friends, and experiencing
conviviality through shared fun and play (Edensor and Millington, 2013).
Cary Goodman (1979) maintains that functionalist modern planning has replaced
lively street life with ‘organized’ play, neglecting to install features with playful
affordances. By contrast, and resonating with Elaine Stratford’s (2016: 351) call for
designers to create ‘generous geographies’ that encourage urban play, the promenade’s
numerous slopes, fixtures and diversions constitutes what Frank and Stevens (2007)
term a ‘loose space’ in which activities are not prescribed and visitors may playfully
improvise how they move, rest and play. The promenade’s playful and theatrical
designs, not separated away from the rest of public space, furnish ‘an array of
resources useful for the realisation of specific experiences, ambitions and capacities’
(Duff, 2010: 882). These skilfully wrought features are integral to producing the affective
and sociable qualities that consolidate a sense of belonging.
In discussing the reduction in sensation wrought by over-regulation and the
prioritisation of efficient transit, Richard Sennett (1994, 15) argues that contemporary
urban streets have frequently become ‘a mere function of motion’; wherein speedy
progress trumps pedestrian access and for drivers, a ‘tactile sterility’ is promoted which
‘pacifies the body’ as they rapidly move without arousal, desensitising the experience of
place. This unstimulating condition is paralleled for walkers in what Trevor Boddy
(1992) calls a ‘new urban prosthetics’, featuring a system of smooth and sealed
walkways, escalators, bridges, people-conveyors and tunnels that is sensorially typified
by ‘mechanical breezes’, ‘vaguely reassuring icons’, ‘trickling fountains’, and low
murmurings. Visually, there is an exclusion of 'extraneous chaotic elements [ reducing]
visual and functional forms to a few key images' (Rojek, 1995: 62).
By contrast, the promenade has long been a multi-sensory space: sea breezes,
rain or sun assails faces; the smells of fish and chips, candy floss, sun cream, perfume
and the sea pervade the air; the rhythmic swish of the tide, screams from white-knuckle
rides, shouts of bingo callers, cries of seagulls, the buzz of chatter on busy days and
smooth rumblings of the trams; the wide open space and the extending horizon; and
visual enticements of colourful architecture and advertisements, the oft-changing North-
West skies and the grey and blue tones of the sea, tower and pier, and other visitors in
their summer wear.
The redesign has augmented these sensations, particularly supplementing the
visual mix and intensifying the tactile experience of moving along the promenade. A
variety of surfaces, textures and gradients solicit a changing somatic engagement,
slopes and steps lure bodies into transversal as well as linear movement. There are
several ways to move along the promenade – along grassy or concrete stretches, upon
low walls, and up and down inclines. Walking along the promenade thus offers a
plenitude of opportunities to sense space through the feet. Our repeated visits solicited
desires to carry out different manoeuvres and follow diverse routes. It was also evident
in the ways in which other promenaders similarly moved across, as well as along, the
space to experience these various surfaces and slopes. On a slope, adjacent to the
main path that leads to a raised grassy expanse, a mother challenged her toddler to
ascend the slope with her – ‘Are you ready to climb the mountainside?’ and she
completed the movement with exaggerated effort (Fig 4). Cyclists and runners also
move across these different realms, also experiencing the divergent textures of sand,
grass, concrete and stone.
The modes of lingering and resting that we allude to above also foster a range of
sensory experiences. One can run hands through grass, sit on a wall with legs dangling
or lounge along wooden seating. These sensory modes of situated engagement can
also be more exploratory. For instance, the large, smooth sea-pebbles clustered at the
Promenade’s north end (see fig 5) both summon up the sensations of the beach and
entice people to sit or clamber over them. Similarly, the concrete stones at the southern
end, Glamrock, designed by Peter Freeman, studded with fibre-optic light points, attract
children who climb and play with the lights.
Elsewhere, an increasing number of gentrified urban streets have been
aesthetically and socially sanitized (Sanders-McDonagh et al, 2016), and intensive
regulatory strategies police the bodies of those deemed to be out of place: the
homeless, youths or those deemed unconventional. By contrast, the promenade
inclusively offers a plenitude of diversions, resting places, potential routes, exits and
entrances to other spaces. Bodies are not strategically channelled; rather a range of
movements that diverge from mechanical linear progress are encouraged.
Figure 5: Multi-sensory qualities
Besides these mundane sensory engagements, several sculptural installations
enhance sensory appreciation of the elemental forces that swirl around seaside spaces.
The innovative Swivelling Wind shelters (2006) devised by McChesney Architects are
composed out of stainless steel and wood. They resemble the tailfin of a giant fish
which acts as a weathervane that turns the structure along a circular track and thus
shields the occupants of the shelter from the wind while signalling its direction. The 15-
metre tall High Tide Organ (2002), a sculpture suggestive of a huge musical note or
giant tentacle, is constructed out of concrete, steel, zinc and copper sheet, and
designed by Liam Curtin and John Gooding. Described as a ‘musical manifestation of
the sea’, the organ, is operated by the surges of the tide to produce harmonic sounds as
the waves push air into the eight pipes attached to the seawall below. The melodious
quality of the music thus depends upon the force of the tide, and is especially loud on
These site-specific works extend the range of the human sensorium in
responding to the dynamic energies of wind and tide that ceaselessly (re)constitute
place. In foregrounding these elemental agencies, they reveal that the dynamic coastal
landscape has been and will continue to be shaped by vast non-human forces. As
Constance Classen emphasizes, ‘we not only think about our senses, we think through
them’ (1993: 9). These sculptures, together with the diverse ways of moving and resting
on the promenade, also offer opportunities to break habitual ways of sensing,
conceiving and attending to place.
By deepening a sense of place in these ways, these installations have the
potential to engender what Jane Bennett (2001: 5) calls ‘re-enchantment’, heightening
the senses so that we ‘notice new colours, discern details previously ignored, hear
extraordinary sounds, as familiar landscapes of sense sharpen and intensify.’ According
to Jacques Rancière (2009: 13), the distribution of the sensible ‘revolves around what is
seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to
speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time’. In creating new
sensory objects and modes of sensing, these works deepen the understanding of place
by foregrounding the implacable forces of tide and wind to ‘provoke, intervene, and
disrupt the established regime of the sensible’ (Berberich et al, 2013: 318).
Learning From Blackpool
We have argued that all too often, the authoritative, over-prescriptive regulatory
imperatives that guide their design produce timid urban streets that lack diversity,
invention and place specificity. Where this latter quality is acknowledged, the tendency
is to produce separately preserved heritage districts and over-coded spaces replete with
information boards and zealously scrubbed historic buildings. An overwhelming concern
with commerce, rapid automobility, safety and surveillance dampen the potential for
lively social interactions and improvisational play. Popular culture is neglected while
reified yet homogeneous notions of ‘good design’ proliferate. An unsensuous sterility
predominates, as diverse smells, sights, sounds and textures are erased to facilitate
seamless movement and minimise distraction. Critically, though often aiming to produce
‘cosmopolitan’, and ‘vibrant’ places through a critical agglomeration of ‘brand design,
architecture, urban planning, events and exhibitions’ (Julier, 2005: 874), such gentrified
streets simply reproduce predictable, homogeneous and serial spaces that chime with
particular middle class desires and tastes, catering to dispositions that foreground a
cerebral, detached aesthetic appreciation rather than play and conviviality. Accordingly,
regeneration and design strategies, rather than imposing a template drawn from other
plans at prestigious locations, need to explore the distinctive cultural and spatial
qualities provision already existing at particular sites. Situated knowledge and expertise
need to be accorded due respect, along with the cultural practices, meanings and
values of those who visit less esteemed, provincial sites such as Blackpool.
While over the 20th century Blackpool has been subject to poor planning and
design that has left spatial vacuums, awkward frontages, redundant pedways and ugly
buildings, we contend that the renovated and redesigned promenade offers an
exemplary space from which to consider how streets might be designed more
sympathetically and imaginatively. We have asserted that the sophisticated redesign of
the promenade is remarkable in combining place-specific aesthetics, interactive spaces
and facilities at which visitors may linger or play, and a multisensory linear realm. Such
qualities, we insist, could be deployed more extensively to re-enchant urban streets,
making them more sensuous, sociable and homely.
We are emphatically not arguing that all streets should be akin to the Blackpool’s
regenerated promenade, a distinctive form of linear space that cannot be replicated
everywhere. Moreover, although there is much to celebrate about the promenade, there
are also conspicuous breaks and inconsistencies: sections of pathway are broken,
unfinished or deteriorating, promenaders can often be seen traipsing across muddy
verges, or scrambling down awkward slopes and the southernmost point of the
promenade is a dead-end, forcing visitors to double-back several hundred metres. At
South Pier, the Promenade becomes fragmented as it negotiates around an open car-
park and the large Sandcastle water-park complex. A large section of the Comedy
Carpet was unceremoniously shaved-off in 2012 to make way for widened tram track.
However, the promenade’s design has incorporated a highly place-specific range of
artworks and features, countering the clone-town appearance of much of urban Britain
and encouraging more innovative and idiosyncratic street design. Regular visitors to
Blackpool gravitate to the Promenade, a realm at which they have accumulated a host
of shared reference points, and discursive, pleasurable and practical habits. Street
design must recognise and respond to such collective routines and memories rather
than imposing abstract designs from elsewhere. Moreover, the relaxed approach to
policing confirms Ash Amin’s (2008: 8) contention that lightly regulated, non-
hierarchically organized or over-determined public spaces contain the greatest
potentialities for fostering ‘a civic culture of tolerated multiplicity and shared commons’.
Venturi et al’s (1972) Learning From Las Vegas provided an audacious stimulus to
rethinking about how streets might be transformed. In also drawing upon a very
particular street - the Las Vegas Strip - the authors asserted that modern architects,
designers and planners had hitherto neglected the vibrant appeal of popular and
commercial culture. They called for hugely popular simulated iconic sites, commercial
signage and playful architecture to be incorporated into urban design. Our argument
similarly draws upon a highly popular linear space of leisure, though one less dominated
by giant commercial concerns. Steeped in an altogether older popular cultural tradition
and aesthetic of working class seaside holidays, fairgrounds and carnival attractions,
Blackpool Promenade is characterized by smaller scale commercial outlets but also by
municipal planning and design. Like Las Vegas, Blackpool is frequently considered to
be tacky, tasteless and lowbrow, but we have contended that there is much to learn
from its redesigned promenade in understanding how the specific popular cultural
practices, social interactions and sensory engagements that have characteristically
been performed by visitors to the resort have reproduced its distinctive place-identity.
1. Check date - Lynch 1981 or 1984?
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