The Precinct: past, present and future
Before the construction of the shopping precinct, this area was originally part of Smithford Street, which can be found in records dating back to at least the 1300s. It ran diagonally across what is now Upper Precinct, from Broadgate down towards Fleet Street and Spon Street, and was once home to the medieval Bull Inn. By the late 1800s the street had become a popular shopping area.
Tram lines were introduced to the street in March 1905, when two extensions from Broadgate to Earlsdon and Allesley Road via Smithford Street and Spon Street were opened. The area suffered heavy damage during the Blitz and was radically redesigned by Donald Gibson.
During excavations for the current public realm project, the cobbled surface of Smithford Street was uncovered, still in situ. A mosaic laid in the entrance of the White Lion Inn on Smithford Street was also unearthed. It was carefully restored and can be seen within one of the planters on the northern side of the precinct.
The central theme of Gibson’s plan was a precinct of shops to which there would only be motor access to the rear for service vehicles. The idea was to bring back the comfortable and more spacious days when wandering from shop to shop was not done at the mercy of vehicles. The traffic-free shopping precinct was the first of its kind in Europe and the world’s first large scale shopping precinct.
Many worried though that his ideas would sweep away too much of the old city, but his plans encompassed old details amongst the open spaces and uncluttered views of his new vision. For example, the precinct was designed to be aligned with the cathedral spire of St. Michael’s, a moment of inspiration that would later be copied in other cities worldwide.
Gibson achieved many firsts as the City Architect. Apart from the first pedestrian precinct there was the first rooftop parking, the first post-war civic theatre, the circular retail market and experimental building methods. Planners and architects from all around the world came to see what was happening in Coventry.
The public realm has undergone a transformation in readiness for its City of Culture year, and a number of projects have been undertaken throughout the city.
The centrepiece of this is the Upper Precinct shopping area, with a fountain as its focal point, the design of which draws upon Coventry’s history as a centre for watchmaking and weaving. The fountain is also now home to the much-loved Naiad sculpture, by celebrated local artist George Wagstaffe.
One of the objectives for the work, set down by Cllr Jim O’Boyle, Cabinet Member for Jobs and Regeneration, was to focus on the best of the old and the best of the new. His objective was to celebrate architect Donald Gibson’s seminal post-war plans for a pedestrianised shopping area. This was done by softening some of the area’s later additions and maintaining the Festival of Britain design elements, in the spirit of the city which since its birth has continued to adapt and change. The regeneration of the city centre, a legacy for the people of the city as it celebrated being UK City of Culture 2021, was completed by Coventry City Council whilst working through a global pandemic.