Say it with flowers: reopening Leamington Spa town centre

The successful post-COVID 19 reopening of town and city centres requires the creative reimagining and promotion of safe and welcoming public spaces. Royal Leamington Spa is an example of a town taking such an approach, through a creative collaboration between Warwickshire County Council, Warwick District Council, Royal Leamington Spa Town Council and BID Leamington


Leamington’s ‘butterfly’ ambassadors
Leamington’s ‘butterfly’ ambassadors personify the
approach to reopening the town in a safe, kind and
welcoming way, while maintaining a social distance.
Photo courtesy of BID Leamington.

The successful post-COVID 19 reopening of town and city centres requires the creative reimagining and promotion of safe and welcoming public spaces. Royal Leamington Spa is an example of a town taking such an approach, through a creative collaboration between Warwickshire County Council, Warwick District Council, Royal Leamington Spa Town Council and BID Leamington. This begins with temporary road layout changes backed by floral distance markers and butterfly ambassadors that respect the place brand and embrace community participation.

The challenge:

Alongside extensive national data on balancing wealth and health on the High Street, Leamington’s Business Improvement District (BID Leamingtoncollaborated in early research with the West Midlands Growth Company to rapidly understand the impact of Covid-19 on Leamington’s retail and leisure sector. The survey findings were informed by the initial experiences of a wide range of mostly independent retail and leisure sector businesses from Leamington. 

The findings from early April 2020, indicated that 85% of the town centre’s businesses had seen a fall in revenue of 80%-100%. At that time, 88% were temporarily closed and 84% had furloughed staff. It was recognised that a strategic recovery approach would be essential involving a mixture of extended financial support and strategic services (e.g. personnel, digital, marketing) to enable adaptation and transformation when the time comes to reopen.

The solution:

The reopening of town centres in a way that is compliant with the latest government guidance on social distancing, requires a reimagining of public spaces to create safe and welcoming town centres. Royal Leamington Spa is an example of a town taking such an approach. Located in Warwickshire, it has a mix of green space, regency architecture and a retail offer centred around its Parade.

The solution in Leamington Spa to reopen a safe and welcoming town centre has been a creative collaboration between Warwickshire County Council, Warwick District Council, Royal Leamington Spa Town Council and BID Leamington.   

The County Council has been supporting the safe reopening and recovery of town centres county-wide, including Leamington, by implementing temporary changes to road layouts and pedestrian thoroughfares. Schemes have been developed with the aim of creating safe space for social distancing so that businesses can operate and the public can confidently return to town centres.

In Leamington this involved the closure to traffic for 600m of its principal street, the Parade, along with intersecting side streets. On-street parking has been suspended on these roads with bluebadge provision moved to adjacent streets. Marshals are stationed to provide access to closed roads for deliveries and collections and bus stops have been relocated to outside the ‘pedestrianised’ area. A cycle lane has been created on an already pedestrianised island along one of the feeder streets into the town centre.

The District Council has worked closely with BID Leamington to support businesses with their reopening plans, alongside the town centre access changes. This has included identifying ‘gateways’ to warmly announce the town centre as a distinct zone where customers can expect to encounter various changes. Additional creative signage and free parking in the District Council’s off-street car parks has also added to the shopping experience as the town centre reopens. New town centre ambassadors helped advise visitors during the early days of reopening.

The relationship with BID Leamington has enabled a creative response in reopening a safe and welcoming town centre, based on nearly a decade of collaborative working, networking and understanding across diverse sectors and communities. As the local Business Improvement District, BID Leamington works with businesses and the wider community to enhance the town centre trading environment in a wide variety of ways. The BID is a ‘not for profit’ business led partnership, operating as a limited company and is funded by local businesses.

As Stephanie Kerr, Executive Director of the BID, explains in this video presentation on ‘floral tactical urbanism’ for the Institute of Place Management’s COVID-19 on recovery planning series of national webinars, it is important to be creative and learn as part of an evolving response to COVID-19. This began with using floral street markers that conveyed messages about safe distancing in an imaginative way reflecting community sentiment, adapting to business needs and not discarding existing place branding and marketing values.

The approach in Royal Leamington Spa will doubtless continue to evolve as the partnership between the county, district and town councils, working with the BID, supports transition and then transformation. Already this has seen local schools adapting the floral distancing markers to help minimise anxiety for pupils. In doing so, the balance will remain on making the town centre both safe and welcoming. The ethos is that community participation should be an irresistible part of this. There is an opportunity to try low risk and often temporary installations or experiments, whilst focusing on what works, using quick feedback loops from the community and businesses. 

BID Leamington is also adapting its popular parking angels, to put winged ambassadors on the town’s street in the form of butterflies to pollinate the learning. With a 2m wingspan and a creative touch, the butterflies personify the approach to reopen Leamington in a safe, kind and welcoming way. They will also help to monitor and understand changing community sentiment and signpost support to reinforce the role of the town centre as a community hub. In doing so, the approach will continue to embrace creativity whilst acknowledging the vulnerability that exists in the town’s communities.

Warwickshire Police have been playing a key role alongside other agencies in ensuring a consistent approach across towns and liaising with businesses as the government road map for reopening progresses. Going forward, the police will continue to play a key part in ensuring town centres such as Leamington are safe places for people to return to as visitors, business owners or employees. It is envisaged that such extended partnership working will remain post-COVID so that town centres continue to be vibrant, enjoyable and safe places to visit.

An important part of the learning from this work has been reflections on the value and changing nature of collaboration and shared learning. The ‘how’ of facilitating town centre change. Feedback from amongst the various partners and stakeholders suggests that communication and flexibility are important ingredients to fostering relationships. As well as embracing virtual technology, new weekly strategic meetings between key stakeholders have been a valuable addition. Additionally, some long-established processes have been modified to provide much greater individual autonomy and flexibility across teams. This fast pace of adaptation means that areas such as staff support, listening to new voices and meeting facilitation, as appropriate, can be important in enabling change.

The impact:

This ongoing work has been funded from contributions from the local authorities as part of their COVID-19 recovery responses working with BID Leamington. Some elements are eligible for the Government’s Reopening High Streets Safely Fund

How is the new approach being sustained?:

Discussion and updates relating to this and other case studies in this series relating to COVID-19 recovery planning, will be shared on LinkedIn as part of the ‘Talk of the Town’ group managed by the People & Places Partnership.

Lessons learned:

Lessons learned from the approach outlines in this case study will be shared as part of an updated case study as part of the ‘success stories’ section of the People & Places’ talk of the town web site. 

Contact: 

Philip Clarke
Policy & Projects Manager
Development Services
Warwick District Council
Philip.Clarke@warwickdc.gov.uk
01926 456518

Rachel Baconnet
Team Leader - Town Centres & Tourism
Infrastructure & Regeneration
Warwickshire County Council
rachelbaconnet@warwickshire.gov.uk
01926 412818

Stephanie Kerr
Executive Director
BID Leamington
stephanie@bidleamington.com
01926 470634

Links to relevant documents:

There is downloadable checklist for managing town centre streets and public spaces in 2020 prepared to help guide councils, town partnerships and key stakeholders wishing to similarly work together in re-opening town centres.