A new town square for Dorchester

Co-created design is an approach to placemaking that focuses first on how to design and place before considering what that place will look like. It puts process before outcome. In late 2019, a multi-disciplinary team led by Feria Urbanism and including UBU Design (landscape architects) and Støriie (digital marketing agency) won the contract to redesign Cornhill, the historic centre of Dorchester. We felt that this restoration project must take into account all of the potential uses of this site, reference the original town pump function and become a space that enables a rich mix of social and cultural activity.

We want to create multi-faceted space that could simply be about “encounter” – a piece of architecture that enables social fabric. This could be a site for public events, such as turning on the Christmas lights, performances from the local choir, or the start of the Easter parade. It should also facilitate new uses, such as live demonstrations by local cultural venues or outdoor theatre in the round. We want to design a space that will enable the community.

In March 2020, we began our engagement by undertaking one to one interviews with individuals and local user groups. This built a picture of how people use the square and the varied seasonal activities that happen there. We learned how people view this site and how they felt it could be better used. We spent a lot of time on site and in the archives, researching Cornhill’s history and observing how people currently (both pre- and post-lockdown) move through the space, use the shops and the businesses. We observed Cornhill at different times of the day, evening and night.

This research gave us a sense of its current use. On a daily basis it became clear that people would like to have more seating in this area as it is a natural place to meet, sit out and catch up. We also noted that it became busier at certain times of day, notably at lunchtimes, after school and on Saturdays.

In October 2020, we made a series of interventions using foam building blocks (see video) that allow us to try out new configurations at 1:1 scale on site. These interventions were due to be a collaboration with the public. However, due to Covid-19 restrictions, rather than an organised event, our team worked on site with the blocks informally, creating conversations with members as each configuration unfolded. As the day went on, people started to appropriate the blocks, creating their own seating. Then as after school home time approached, we had parents arrive and children use the blocks to play on.

Through our research process, we learned that the new town square needed to be playful and playable. It needs to facilitate outdoor public events. It needs to encourage new forms of usage, provide social space and comfortable seating. All of these activities connected to our research and Cornhill’s original function as the town pump, the source of water.

With this in mind, we came up with a scheme that would bring back a functioning water supply, create new areas of seating and activity. These initial ideas and sketches were published in the Dorset Echo. We had a lot of very helpful feedback from readers which enabled us to progress the design process. People told us they wanted a softer, more elegant design, they wanted materials that are warmers and better reference local history and culture. There was overwhelming support for reinstating the water pump and providing free water.

In early 2021, we are now working with our partners at UBU Design on a set of refined proposals. We are creating a series of designs that combine what we have learned from the public, from our observations of the site and from our research.