The view from Hastings Pier: On the difficulty of regenerating Britain’s seaside towns

A view from a pier. Image: Joel Mills.

Stepping on to Hastings Pier provides a sublime immersion in that liminal world between land, sea and sky. Under a canopy of sulking cloud, the eau de nil, blue, and grey palettes of the English Channel can feel like being enveloped within a sea view painting. The sense of vast stretching space evokes a sense of reverence, awe and respect, not only of the sea, but lifts imagination to the world beyond our own shores.

In acknowledgement of one of the finest public driven architecture projects of our time, London based architecture firm dRMM were awarded the 2017 RIBA Stirling Prize for their stunning contemporary design of the traditional English seaside pier. It’s a design which captures the original intentional essence of piers – that of standing on the deck of a ship surrounded by sea.

Yet mere weeks after receiving this accolade came the devastating news that Hastings Pier Charity has fallen into administration. The charity which runs the pier failed to secure backing from its key stakeholders – Heritage Lottery Fund, Hastings Borough Council and East Sussex County Council – for its three-year business plan. The Heritage Lottery Fund have agreed to provide interim financial support next year, while the future of the pier is decided. The fortunes of Hastings Pier prove a poignant reminder of the vicissitudes of Britain’s seaside towns – their rise to glory in an age of great optimism and engineering, and their subsequent spiral into decline, right through to their ongoing struggles for survival, with aspirations of regeneration and renewal.  

When fire ripped its way through Hastings Pier in 2010, sending flames sky high, crowds gathered to watch the spectacle – many literally weeping - as they watched the fire crews struggle hard through the night to contain the blaze. They were unable to save the pier, which was largely destroyed.

But its historical and symbolic importance to the town was highlighted by a determination to restore the pier, and the local community was galvanised, uniting behind a five-year restoration project. Some £600,000 was raised through community shares to bolster the £11.4m of Heritage Lottery Fund and £2.5m of private funding. The pier reopened in April 2016.

The beauty of dRMM’s reinterpretation of Hastings Pier is in its elegance and simplicity. It’s devoid of all the usual clutter, with any traditional attractions such as a funfair-style carousel, stalls and cafe occupy the shore end of the pier.

Around halfway along, walls featuring a zigzag pattern lift a mezzanine deck with windows that mirror the shimmering sea, sky, and people strolling by. The platform is accessed via a sweep of raked steps that double as seating overlooking a space substantial enough to host performances – and has served an ongoing series of live gigs and film events.

Beyond, it opens out to a vast expansive deck. Peering over the far railings, barnacled remnants of the original ironwork structure have been left like defiant battle scars from fire trauma.

Piers were originally built as landing stages for mooring boats in deeper water, both to offload goods and people and create easy access to resorts from pleasure steamers. The first such pier, in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, and Brighton’s Chain Pier, became major landing points for European travelers and goods. In an age when shipping, travel and tales of faraway places captured the public’s imagination, they were quickly recognised for their walking and promenading pleasures: walking out over and above the sea itself as if on some ocean deck held enormous appeal.

The seaside architectural historian Fred Gray perceived piers as places that offered solitary, introspective pleasures alongside the noisier social activities and attractions. The pier is a “platform from which to view the horizon, allowed people to reflect upon themselves, other places and other times”. This contrast between the hurly burly and the quiet, restorative nature of the sea reflects an ongoing tension and expectations of what constitutes a good seaside town and its offer.

Delve a bit further into history, and the layers of class and taste slide distinctly into play. Still resonant today in towns like Hastings, the pier has provided a platform for these tensions to be played out. Some locals complained vehemently that the pier was empty, missing the usual seaside attractions of arcades and fairs, and felt it had been designed for the cappuccino-drinking middle classes.

The first resorts – Scarborough, Brighton, Eastbourne – were mainly frequented by affluent classes seeking the healthy benefits of the salty sea air. But as train travel took over as the main transport to coastal towns, resorts opened up to a much wider demographic. Thanks to the new holiday and work regulations in the mid-19th century, seaside towns expanded rapidly to accommodate the traditional holiday escape from the cities and industrial towns.

Piers became an increasingly fashionable part of the seaside fabric, resulting in the numbers growing – in parallel with the popularity of resorts – from around a dozen to around 80 between 1850 and 1900. Some resorts, like Brighton, even had two or three along their foreshores.

The most noted pier architect and engineer was Eugenius Birch, who designed and built the original Hastings Pier. Previously specialising in railways, he turned his attention to a series of seaside architecture commissions, to reflect the zeitgeist.

He designed and built the first screw pile pier in Margate, which allowed the deep structural stability that piers needed to withstand time and tide, and went on to build 14 around the UK, including Eastbourne, Brighton’s West Pier, and the North Pier in Blackpool.

The seaside has always been as much about the side as the sea. These piers were often crammed with side attractions: stalls, salons, reading rooms and libraries, games, and telescopes. More recently, amusements, cafes, ice cream parlours, and confectionary outlets have arrived.

John K. Walton, the doyen of British seaside historians, also distinguished this contrasting view between the reflective, romantic and sometimes solitary pleasures of resorts, with the more communal and noisy activities of seaside associated with bawdy pleasure. Away from the everyday of work and home, authority seems diluted, constraints of behaviour suspended, and pleasure impulses given free rein.

Indeed, seaside towns still remain characterised by conflicting attitudes of respectability and licentious behaviour. The tension between the genteel, twee view of the seaside, and the tacky, over-sexed, boozy weekend getaways is reflected in how particular resorts have become associated with class and taste. Think how perceptions of Southwold, Whitstable and St. Ives – all stylish and desirable destinations to middle classes – contrast with ideas of Blackpool, Clacton and Skegness as traditional working class destinations, down-at-heel in their fortunes.

The Victorian penchant for landscaping means that seaside towns often still have some of the most substantial public space, including Esplanades, oriental gardens, seafront promenades, not to forget the beach itself. Notions that the public space of the seaside brought people together from all walks of life, rubbing easily along together, proved idealistic and erased over class tensions.

Piers often had admission fees, turnstiles, and toll gates – architecture that established entrances as markers of separate delineated space, intent on keeping ‘the lower sort’ and riff-raff out. The very notion of public space at the seaside is questionable and complex. A form of a kind of ‘municipal capitalism’ encouraged by seaside town councils emerged – a mix of public and private enterprise, where investments by local councils in design worked alongside entrepreneurial business.

From the 1970s British seaside resorts’ fortunes spiraled downwards as holidaying overseas in sunnier climes became more affordable, accessible and appealing. Seaside towns were used to seasonal feast and famine, but with the decline of traditional fishing, manufacturing and local industries, the short burst of summer employment simply wasn’t enough to sustain a thriving year-round economy. Although government bodies launched a £45m programme for seaside town regeneration in 2007, in 2013, a damning report from the Centre for Social Justice identified that 7 out of the top 20 most deprived areas in Britain were coastal towns, including Blackpool, Margate, Rhyl and Clacton-on-Sea.


Like many seaside towns, Hastings became associated with poverty, rife with unemployment, drug problems, and high benefits dependency. This more rough-and-ready boozy, sometimes brawling seaside town culture has always sat alongside, and intertwined with, a thriving creative and artistic community with a more Bohemian outlook – and is part of its appeal.

Government investment into programmes such as Sea Change is also indicative of anticipation that seaside regeneration programmes look to culture and cultural assets for substantial reinvigoration. Folkestone Triennial attracts visitors out of the usual season and invites visitors to discover the town via commissioned artworks by notable artists. Margate’s appeal as a new cultural hotspot was kick-started with the arrival of the Turner Contemporary gallery and the renovation of the Dreamland amusement park, and solidified by a hub of new creative businesses.

The ambitious plans for Hastings tried to move beyond simply recreating seaside nostalgia and look to helping economic revival, by investing in projects that will make the town more attractive to visitors who will spend money. Yet when the Jerwood Gallery was built to house a contemporary art collection in the heart of The Stade, the still-working fishing quarter in 2012, it was met by mass protest. Many local commentators have cited many possible reasons for the Pier’s business failure – but one noticeable conflict is in a similar narrative around class, taste, and the all-important questions about who regeneration projects actually benefit.

With the enlivening potential that regeneration offers, there’s also a real danger that big cultural asset projects come to be seen as a fix-all, and ongoing arguments attest to the uncomfortable acknowledgement that cultural regeneration can leave behind the poorer communities most marginalised in small towns. There’s little doubt that lasting economic and social change needs a much broader base than just arts and culture to build on, and must benefit the wider communities who live in seaside towns. Rather than dampen the possibilities and vitality that new projects can inject, it needs to be a vital part of regeneration conversation and thinking.

Hastings Pier is emblematic of a regeneration project that has emerged from the still beating heart of a town caught between the weight of its past – with all its knowing, dismantled nostalgia – and the need to be future and outward looking. The rebuilt pier is still a major asset to Hastings in need of a new workable business model.  Many local people are calling for Hastings Council to invest further in the pier’s future – but given its claim that it has already invested what it can, some fear it may be returned to private enterprise.

Culture led regeneration plans need to have real benefits for local communities, and with that requires long term public and private investment.  We also need to stay bold with ideas and ideals to allow strong visions for the future. Hastings Pier pushes us to its furthest reach, encouraging us to look to the horizon, the aspirations of what might be, and beyond. Let’s hope that view and optimism don’t fade. 

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.