AB Heritage’s Leanne Tindle explores how historic character can be used in new developments to create a unique local identity to positively influence how residents, workers and visitors experience the built environment around them. Repurposing historic building stock can play an important role in supporting both a low carbon agenda and local economies.


A great deal of the modern townscape we see across the UK today has been influenced in both subtle and, sometimes, more obvious ways by the past character of an area. This reflection of an area’s historic character in the modern landscape is vital for numerous reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it helps to create a unique local and regional identity, which can positively influence how residents, workers and visitors experience the built environment around them.

Taking cues from an area’s built heritage stock, then using this to complement the aims of modern development while creating designs that link between the old and the new, is a fantastic way to breathe new life into an area. Such consideration can offer the necessary vision developers need to create dynamic and attractive places that provide all the modern comforts of contemporary life, with the added benefits of a characterful space.

Past Issues

Many areas in the UK have incurred some degree of change to their historic building stock. This is due to a range of reasons, for example: natural or accidental damage (such as fires, flood or decay); the impacts of war; overly extensive ‘slum’ clearance; and inappropriate design. Perhaps such building stock could have been better used to serve the needs of towns today if they had survived.

If you exclude natural disaster and the complexity of war damage, and instead focus on the various changes that could have been controlled by designers, planners and developers, it is clear that the positive reflection of an area’s history within later development has not always, been front and centre in peoples’ minds.

There are many examples of change associated with the post-war modernisation of inner towns and cities in the UK. Well-known examples include the developments at the Birmingham Bull Ring and at Elephant & Castle in London. Similar ‘modernisation’ drives also occurred in and around Sunderland from the 1960s. These developments resulted in a reduction of buildings that may have had the ability to contribute to a stronger aesthetic that would ultimately have better reflected the history and traditions of the city than their replacements.

Using Sunderland as an example, this article highlights how the existing heritage and historic building stock of towns can be better harnessed to provide strong design signals that resonate into the future, ensuring the local population not only feel a connection but a sense of ownership and pride in the area in which they live and work. 

A Brief History of Modern Sunderland

Sunderland City Centre was once a thriving place of industry, with its landscape dominated by industrial production. Both sides of the River Wear were littered with factories, shipyards, collieries and coal staithes. Much of the heritage that remains today was built during the 19th century when industry and trade thrived in Sunderland. The most well-known examples surviving from this era are the Wearside Bridges, with the original Monkwearmouth Railway Bridge having been the largest hog-back iron girder bridge in the world at the time of its construction in 1879 – a great achievement for Victorian era Sunderland. The fact that this structure continues to serve the population of Sunderland and the wider region over 140 years later is a testimony to the quality of the structure and the foresight of the builders. 

Industrial Wearside in 1949 – Co-curate 2021

Those who worked, and lived, amongst the various industries in Sunderland were largely housed in neat rows of terraces dotted around Wearside, the resulting ‘Sunderland Cottage’ is a distinct and popular reminder of this period. Sunderland suffered significantly during both WWI and WWII. Sunderland was the seventh most bombed city in the country during WWII. This coupled with the decline of heavy industry during the second half of the 20th century, it is no surprise that some places in the city would be quite unrecognisable to those who lived in the area during the peak of its industrial dominance.

There have also been more recent changes in the main streets of city centre. For example, Fawcett Street and High Street East and West, which have been occupied for centuries, have gradually become underutilised and underoccupied. It could be said that this is typical of the general decline of the High Street as people move towards more online shopping.

The ‘Best of the Best’ that was lost

The following section describes a couple of examples of buildings that have been lost in Sunderland over the course of the second half of the 20th century because of various planning and development decisions.

One of the finest buildings of Sunderland’s industrial past was the Town Hall, which sat prominently on Fawcett Street. Built in the neo-classical style that was highly popular during this period, the Town Hall was built as a large, grand structure that showcased the wealth of the area in the 19th century.

Sunderland’s Old Town Hall (northeastlore, 2021)

However, in the latter half of the 20th century, the civic functions of the Town Hall outgrew the building, and a new Civic Centre was built further to the south to replace it. This change resulted in the demolition of Sunderland’s Old Town Hall in the 1970s, as there was no other use found for the building at the time. While occupancy of buildings is certainly a major issue in the present day, this monumental and high-quality design building was one Sunderland’s more attractive historic structures and if it had been saved it could have played an important role in the future redevelopment of the area.

Similarly, the ornate Victorian shopping arcade that lay on the junction between High Street West and St Thomas Street was also demolished during post-war modernisation of the city. Built in 1874, the Arcade represented a shift from the outdoor markets to an indoor setting. Although the Arcade suffered extensive bomb damage during WWII, it not only survived but thrived throughout the 1950s. However, during the 1960s modernisation of Sunderland, the shopping focus shifted further west across the town. Therefore, the decision was taken to close and eventually demolish the Arcade, removing an area that has survived in other towns and cities, such as the nearby Newcastle, as an attractive area that the bolsters the surrounding building stock.

The Arcade (northeastlore, 2021)

These two buildings are representative of many other lost heritage assets that were once valuable elements of Sunderland’s townscape. Had they survived to this day they would have undoubtedly, with considered reuse, become treasured and tangible reminders of Sunderland’s history. However, all is not lost, and as the following examples show, there are several schemes both complete and ongoing that ensure the historic buildings of the past are being used proactively to help revive the fortunes of Sunderland.

How Historic Buildings can be used to help future development

Heritage can be an important driver in ensuring strong future development this is demonstrated by Historic England in several studies including their 2018 study: Heritage and the Economy. This report highlights how the existing heritage of an area should be a resource that through effective regeneration, can be used to help support the local economy and offer additional benefits including employment and tourism. A further study conducted in 2020 consolidated this and further highlighted the economic value of heritage. The study found that in 2019, heritage added £36.6 billion in gross value added to the economy, 60.3% of which was contributed by construction, including architectural and engineering activities.

Heritage tourism is another huge contributor to the economy and greatly benefits regions. For example, heritage brought 11 million tourists to the north east of England in 2019 which resulted in a contribution of £363 million to the north east’s economy, providing some indication of how well-preserved heritage resources can support a local economy. This is intrinsically linked to the potential to grow as there are a wealth of untapped resources still awaiting regeneration in Sunderland and the surrounding area.  

Mowbray Park and Winter Gardens

An instance in which this approach has been successfully adopted in Sunderland is Mowbray Park, located in the heart of Sunderland city centre. In 2000, the park reopened after a £4 million Heritage Lottery grant restored it back to its former glory.

The Grade II Listed Mowbray Park (initially known as the People’s Park) is one of the oldest parks in the north east of England. It opened in 1857 with the addendum of the Winter Gardens (Plate 4) in 1879. The park and gardens were constructed to represent the Victorian ideals of improvement, built with the intention of locals being able to get more fresh air and exercise. This was especially important after the Cholera epidemic of the 1840s which at the time was considered a result of the cramped and unsanitary conditions of much of the housing in Sunderland. The addition of the Winter Gardens in 1879 were based on Caxton’s design for Crystal Palace in London and housed a museum on the first floor, and an antiquities and gallery on the ground floor. The Winter Gardens were irrevocably damaged by an air raid during the WWII and consequently demolished.

As part of the 2000 restoration, the Winter Gardens were rebuilt, and Sunderland Museum was renovated (Photo 1). This cultural hub is not only a continuation of the values and principles which once went into the creation of Mowbray Park and the original Winter Gardens but also provides economic benefits, which are derived from the draw of tourism to Sunderland and the creation of jobs; both of which provide economic benefits to the city and maintain a local sense of pride and connection to the heritage of the area.

The Winter Gardens (northeastlore 2021)
Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens

Sunderland Heritage Action Zone

In 2017, Historic England granted Sunderland Heritage Action Zone status, acknowledging the importance of Sunderland’s Historic High Streets. This marked the beginning of a five-year project to repair and regenerate key areas within the city.

Through this scheme, Historic England target key buildings and areas deemed to offer the greatest potential for sustainable re-use and could in the future, encourage increased investment in the area. An example of this regeneration is 170-175 High Street West, a row of buildings dating to the late 18th century, which were originally houses and later commercial premises. Historic England has acknowledged these buildings as an element of Sunderland’s celebrated history, which now nearly restored, will continue to contribute to the local economy by rediscovering new purposes and increasing a renewed sense of pride in the important heritage of the city. No. 173 High Street is of particular significance as it was part of the early foundation of what later became the Binn’s Shopping empire, housing Binn’s Haberdashery in the early 19th century. Binn’s grew to prominence during this period and became one of the most popular and well-known shops on the high street, operating in Sunderland city centre until 1993. Retaining this building symbolises a recognition and celebration of its contribution to both the High Street and contemporary shopping.  

17-175 High Street West Nearing Completed Restoration

The regeneration of these buildings is important for multiple reasons. The economic gain which can be harnessed from heritage is evident in the figures stated above in the Historic England studies, whether it be through tourism or local investment. Not only does this bring important buildings back into viable use but creates a renewed sense of place and pride in the local community, improving the look of an area and retaining the historic character which the people of Sunderland will connect with. It also reflects a new and vibrant area of Sunderland, encouraging further growth.

The Fire Station and Peacock Pub

Originally built in 1907, the Fire Station underwent a series of regeneration works in 2017 with the help of a £2.5 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant. The Fire Station is part of the Music, Arts and Culture Quarter in the heart of Sunderland. Due to its success and popularity brought about through its regeneration, the site (Photo 5), is currently being extended to create a large entertainment venue. Not only is this building now serving the community and visitors to the city, it is also preserving one of Sunderland’s finest historic buildings. It has been transformed into an asset which provides both an income and deeper sense of local and national culture.

The Fire Station Undergoing Restoration
The Peacock Pub

By restoring historic buildings, finding viable uses for them, and reintroducing them back into the economy as sustainable assets serving the local community and visitors; a huge amount of effort is going into improving the existing heritage and townscape of Sunderland. The completed, and ongoing schemes above, demonstrate how utilising the existing heritage can create new and attractive places for people to work and visit, creating links between historic buildings and modern development.

Looking Towards the Future

In a article written for the Guardian in February 2021, Oliver Wainwright discusses the bold plans which have been set out in Stockton-on-Tees, for the replacement of the high street with a giant park rather than to ‘plaster over the cracks’ of what has become the dilapidated, tired high street (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/feb/11/is-this-the-future-for-britain-stockton-on-tees-park-high-street). This interesting vision is a bold example of getting rid of what will no longer contribute to a sustainable local economy, and instead focusing on assets which can be utilised for economic and community gain. In the case of Stockton-on-Tees, the clue for regeneration works is in the name, with the proposed park focusing on the River Tees, an asset that embodies the areas heritage, and will be used to compliment a new and vibrant landscape. The development would create a new appreciable connection with the area’s heritage while at the same time providing health, social and economic benefits to the local community and visitors, stimulating growth and encouraging investment.

This is the overarching aim of all redevelopment and restoration schemes that Sunderland is part of. Ultimately, to encourage growth, there must first be investment that will draw people to the area and heritage, as has been demonstrated by Historic England’s work, plays a key role in this.

Currently, underway is the Riverside Sunderland Master Plan which is focusing on the regeneration of Sunderland’s Riverside and revitalizing areas which were traditionally abundant with activity but have since fell into disuse and disrepair. In doing so, the Masterplan is combining 21st century goals of creating a place which considers issues like biodiversity and sustainability amongst its key principles, while maintaining the existing unique, natural, and cultural landscape. A key focus of the Masterplan is to strengthen the connection between the north and south side of the river by increasing pedestrian and cyclist access through the creation of two new bridges. In addition to this, the restoration of the disused areas which have suffered since the decline of industry will provide new and vibrant places to live alongside re-establishing the traditionally bustling nature of the river side.

The development plans for Sunderland’s Riverside will provide new levels of accessibility and appreciation of the existing heritage of the city. Most notably, the proposed cyclist and pedestrian footbridge which will span the Wear connecting the Sheepfolds area to the former Vaux Brewery site will provide new appreciable views towards the Wearmouth and Monkwearmouth bridges, as well as Galley’s Gill. It will also provide a greater level of accessibility between the north and south sides of the Wear. In addition to this, other heritage assets such as the former North Eastern Railways Stables remain on the north bank of the Wear acting as a reminder of the once industrial dominance of the areas in which they are positioned and will provide links to our past within a newly regenerated, modern Sunderland.

As we move forward into a post-pandemic world, utilising the existing resources available within our towns and cities will be vital to recovering both economically and socially. There are still a multitude of historic areas in Sunderland (and throughout the country) with untapped value, awaiting regeneration and repurposing. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is to appreciate what we have and find new ways to enjoy it. When we apply this to our heritage, which many of us have continued to foster an interest in over the last year, we will secure our way to economic recovery while enriching our local and national identity.

Images: Provided with our thanks and courtesy of Northeastlore and Co-Curate

Leanne Tindle is Assistant Heritage Consultant for AB Heritage, a professional heritage consultancy with its head office located in Newcastle, AB Heritage offers a range of heritage assessments and archaeological surveys to help clients manage historic environments as part of successful developments across the UK. www.abheritage.co.uk