Kent’s Medway Towns are hoping to become a city – with Chatham at its heart

Rochester Castle. Image: Clem Rutter/Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The thing you need to know about Medway is: it’s not really a city.

Actually, part of it was, once upon a time. Rochester was a cathedral city for nearly eight centuries, with an official charter and everything. But in 2002, news emerged that city status had lapsed four years earlier when, it had merged with four other neighbouring towns to form the Medway unitary authority – and its city status winked out of existence. “Rochester loses city status by mistake,” read a typical headline. And despite several bids to national government to create the City of Medway, a collection of towns it remains. Rochester is the only place in Britain ever to lose the right to call itself a city.

Official city status is pretty silly of course – I mean, St Asaph? Really? – but there’s another way in which Medway isn’t a city. It’s formed of five separate towns – from west to east, Strood, Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham – lined up along the rivers of industrial north Kent, blending into each other so seamlessly that outsiders can move from one to the next without even noticing. Although Rochester and Chatham are bigger, better known and more historic than their neighbours, neither really qualifies for the title as the conurbation’s centre.

And so, there is no city of Medway: there are merely the Medway towns, a roughly city-sized blob of over 275,000 people, many of whom don’t think they live in a single place at all.

Productivity in the cities of the London commuter belt. Note that Medway is listed as “Chatham”: this is relevant. Image: Centre for Cities. 

The other thing to know about Medway is that, for somewhere so close to London, it’s not doing so well. As with a lot of places in the Thames estuary, its economy was historically industrial – the Royal Naval dockyards at Chatham once employed over 10,000 people.

But that industry is long gone. And for a city, of sorts, in the London commuter belt, the area has relatively low wages and productivity.

Wages in the cities of the London commuter belt. Medway is listed as “Chatham”. Image: Centre for Cities. 

The decline of the industry has left a lot of land up for redevelopment, too – first at Chatham Dockyard, and now at Rochester Riverside, too, a vast new development immediately behind the newly re-sited station.

So, it has surprisingly cheap housing, too. And it’s just 34 minutes on a high speed train from central London.

House prices in Medway (listed, again, as “Chatham”). Image: Centre for Cities. 

Now the unitary borough has come up with a plan intended to address both those problems, and attract both businesses and people to the area. “We want Chatham to be the city centre of Medway,” says Alan Jarrett, the conservative council leader.

The problem, he explains, is that “Medway not a place as we would know it: it’s just an administrative area”. Turning Chatham into the central business district – with all the commercial space, retail and night life that implies – should turn it into, well, a city, and boost the economy to boot. “We’re not doing this for egotistical reasons: it’s about how we take the area forward.”

The case for making Chatham, rather than the tourist centre of Rochester, the centre of Medway is two-fold. Firstly, it’s the most central of the five towns: two lie east, two to the west.

On the map: the Medway towns. Image: Google.

Secondly, there’s ample space for development and regeneration, and the council owns a significant chunk of land. That makes it easier for the borough to make the interventions required to create its dream city centre: improving the station, building more housing, that sort of thing.

It’s already taking active steps to make this a reality: improving public and cycling facilities, to make the town centre more welcoming; regenerating one public space, Military Square, with new trees and benches, and creating a new one at St John’s Square from scratch. Just this week, the council announced plans to take over the lease of the Pentagon Centre, a shopping centre, to generate income and “mitigate against the kinds of development that would not enhance the area”.

All this, lofty statements from the council say, will “contribute towards turning Chatham into Medway’s leading waterfront university city centre by 2035”. Lofty goals indeed. Jarrett’s explanation is more comprehensible: “We’re trying to create more of a shopping and leisure offer, and stop everything closing at 5.30”.


The council’s “active approach” to development has even seen it set up its own housing company. “If we flog it off, developers would make a big pile of profit. Why shouldn’t we be the developer ourselves?”

The merger of five distinct towns into a single unitary authority has helped bring money and attention to the area, the council leader argues: Rochester or Gillingham would not have attracted the government investment that Medway has. Creating a coherent city centre with Chatham at its heart will, he hopes, take things to the next level.

“We’ve twice applied for city status, and twice failed. The feedback we got was that we don’t have a coherent city status. Chelmsford” – the county town of Essex, officially named a city in 2012, the last time Medway’s bid failed – “is much smaller, but does have that coherent city status”. The obvious conclusion is, “We’ll never be a city until we’ve got a coherent city centre – so let’s build one.”

Does it really matter, I ask? After all, as noted official city status is a bit silly, isn’t it?

Jarrett frowns for a second, then replies, with admirable honesty: “It may not. But it will enhance civic pride I think. It’s just a feeling I’ve got.” Perhaps, one day, Medway will be a city at last.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.