The challenges put forward by the post-war plan to rebuild Exeter offer interesting parallels to the ones we face today.
In its 2000 year history Exeter has demonstrated an incredible capacity to adapt in the face of significant challenges and deliver innovative solutions to the needs of its citizens. Examples of innovations include its advanced Roman Bath House and medieval water system that brought fresh water from springs into the city centre. In 1949 the old Princesshay would become the first pedestrianised shopping street in the UK, following the vision laid out in Thomas Sharp’s Exeter Phoenix plan.
One of the biggest challenges to face Exeter came one May morning in 1942. When the Blitz destroyed almost 2,000 buildings and left thousands more with significant damage the face of the city was changed forever. In the wake of the destruction it saw an opportunity to redefine and renew itself in a way that would solve some long-standing problems.
Exeter Phoenix was the name of the plan for rebuilding the city, submitted by Town Planner Thomas Sharp in 1945. It was commissioned by Exeter City Council and published in book form in 1946 by the Architectural Press, London. Sharp believed that “the watchword for the future should be not restoration, but renewal” and aside from reconstruction his plan sought to reduce congestion and provide citizens with more green spaces.
Although many of Sharp’s ideas were controversial, and included demolishing landmark buildings like The Royal Albert Memorial Museum to make way for a new road system, his vision was ultimately focussed on improving the well-being of Exeter’s Citizens.
There are lessons to be learnt from the flaws in Sharp’s plans but the vision of Exeter as a city that cares for the well-being of its citizens has carried through to the present.
Today Exeter still faces the challenge of congestion, but there is now no space to build new roads so we need to find smarter solutions. There’s also the new challenge of reducing the city’s energy consumption by adopting renewable resources, from which it’s ideally situated to benefit.
In the same spirit as the post-war years it’s now possible for Exeter to redefine itself again to ensure its future well-being, but it’s only possible by working together.
Image credit: Book Jacket designed by influential poster and exhibition designer F. H. K. Henrion