Both English Heritage, as the national guardians of the historic environment, and Gillespies, with their national reputation for design in conservation areas, recognise that conservation is different from preservation. The 1901 scheme was a substantial change from the design of High Row in previous times and fitted the conditions of its times. It substantially changed the environment and the setting of older buildings. In some ways, Gillespies’ designs seek to re-capture some of the simplicity that the street had in a former age.
The proposed scheme aims to provide a new chapter for the main pedestrian space, providing a modern interpretation of the historical precedents. The scheme does not set out to produce a pastiche version of the Victorian town, and is viewed as more than just a restoration project.
The proposals look to interpret the essence of what makes Darlington unique- the change in level. The grand set of steps proposed celebrate this change in level; reflecting the pre-1901 streetscape in its simplicity and boldness, whilst also reflecting the current layout with its formal terrace arrangement.
The concerns over the removal of some of the features of the town have been carefully considered, and it is felt that there are a number of reasons why the existing steps, ballustrading and railings should not be incorporated into a new scheme. These are as follows:
The original design philosophy behind the balustrading and railings was partly to act as a barrier between the pedestrian space and the busy Great North Road, but was mainly a result of the removal of the Cattle Markets from the cobbled slopes to the current Cattle Market site. Today clear segregation is less relevant as Prebend Row and West Row no longer serve as a key through route. It is even less applicable in the new proposals where much of the space will be pedestrian focused and there is no need for segregation of the space at all.
In creating more pedestrian space for the town centre, the existing balustrading and railings will actually hinder pedestrian movement and permeability within the town centre. By opening up the space through a simple set of steps it allows for greater movement around the town centre and more accessible, usable space for everyone.
Access and movement around the town centre is further hindered by the current layout. The design ethos behind the existing layout did not incorporate any access for wheel chair users or push chairs which led to the later insertion of two ramps to the lower tier. The design of the ramps had to be compromised by the existing layout so they are too narrow, too steep and do not cater well for disabled needs. The proposed set of steps will have two, longer and wider ramps situated on key pedestrian desire lines to improve access further.
The detail design of the proposed scheme will aim to minimise the use of handrails. It is likely that the proposed scheme will have handrails along the outer edge of the two ramps and handrails at key points along the length of the steps for protection and to aid the elderly and infirm. These will in no way create the kind of physical or visual barrier that exists at present.
Appendix Ten - Cabinet report 16 November 2004 Darlington Town Centre Pedestrian Heart