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Breaking Boundaries - The Ashford Ring Road

Location: Ashford, Kent, UK

Artists:John Atkin, Nayan Kulkarni, John Maine, Simeon Nelson, Michael Pinsky


Talk about Ashford in Kent to anyone who knows the town centre, and there’s one thing that’s always mentioned – the ring road. For the nervous driver, it was a one way four lane nightmare involving lane changing, complex junctions and (very often) a feeling of being swept up, spun around and spat out, usually in the wrong place. For the pedestrian and anyone wanting to visit the town centre, it was a huge barrier, both physical and perceptual. And in terms of urban design and development, it was a stranglehold on any well planned and designed expansion of the town centre for the last 30 years. It’s been variously described as a “concrete collar”, a “notorious boy racer track”, a “straitjacket” and more prosaically “the controversial A292”.

So it’s greatly to the credit of the organisations and individuals involved in “Ashford’s Future", a public-private partnership aiming to steer the huge planned growth of Ashford in a sustainable and sensitive way, in particular Ashford Borough Council and Kent County Council, that a bold decision has been taken to get rid of this four lane highway. It is being replaced with a series of high quality, two-way streets with a pedestrian-friendly public realm, proper junctions and reduced speed limits. What is particularly exciting is the innovative nature of the project, and the design principles it has espoused.

Genesis of the ring road project

The ring road decision was taken in the context of Ashford’s planned growth, as outlined in the government’s Sustainable Communities Plan of 2003. Ashford’s current population of 55,000 is expected to double in the next 25 years, with an extra 31,000 homes and 28,000 jobs to be provided by 2031. The ring road project is a key step in a “mend before extend” policy which has been adopted for the town, aiming to revitalise the town centre, restore connections to its surrounding neighbourhoods and improve the public realm, before new build and development steps up. It will also allow easy extension of the town centre to the south and frees up a number of development sites.

Two key influences on the ring road project were brought to bear early on in the process. Design team members Whitelaw Turkington (landscape architects) suggested the scheme should adopt the design philosophy of the “Shared Space” concept – an approach to design of the public realm where the traditional division of road and pavement is blurred, resulting in one space shared by pedestrians and drivers moving slowly, creating a safer, more integrated space for all. And after consulting with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), the government's advisor on architecture, urban design and public space, the idea of bringing artists into the scheme to work alongside engineers and landscape architects was also enthusiastically embraced.

This was the first time that Kent County Council (KCC) had been involved with artists on a highways scheme of such scale, and through a process of research and providing as much information as possible to key stakeholders such as Council Members, KCC was able to move forward with the project in this way. Ashford Borough Council had already been active in working with artists in the public realm in the context of masterplanning and early design of the town’s development. David Cotterrell had recently completed a period as artist in residence on the town masterplanning team.

Kent County Council engaged RKL Consultants as public art consultants in November 2005, and their development of the brief led to the title “Breaking Boundaries” - the name given to the programme of artist commissioning. It refers to both the physical breaking of the ring road as a boundary, and the notion of breaking through the boundaries of traditional highways design disciplines. The name has since been adopted to embrace the wider ring road project, and is particularly appropriate given the importance of the Shared Space philosophy as a vital element within the scheme.

The project has been funded from a number of sources, including Kent and Ashford Councils, the Department of Communities and Local Government, the Channel Corridor Partnership, the EU Interreg Programme and a number of developers. The project also won an Arts Plus award, through the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) and Arts Council England. It has also recently won a highly commended National Award for Landscape Design from The Landscape Institute.

Bringing artists onto the design team

The client had appointed two consultancies for the ring road project to work within the design team – Jacobs to provide highway services and Whitelaw Turkington to provide landscape architecture services. These teams had developed early concept designs but no detailed work had been carried out before the artists came into the scheme. The client was keen to promote the idea of an innovative Integrated Design Team (IDT) where artists could take an equal role with the rest of the designers.

Art Consultants RKL – Andrew Knight and Graham Roberts – were appointed through tender and competitive interview to help shape the brief for artist involvement, to work to integrate artists into the team and support both artists and client. They were also commissioned to create a public art strategy for Ashford itself. The lead client from Kent County Council (KCC), Richard Stubbings, is clear that KCC Highways department had little experience of artist commissioning, particularly on this scale, and it was vital to have expert advice on the scheme. RKL extended the client’s original idea for one lead artist on the project to create three main appointments – two artists to work with the design consultants, one on each section of the ring road, and an artist to work on an overall approach to lighting as a key element of the experience of a public space.

Following a presentation by RKL of several artists’ work to the design team members, John Atkin was appointed to work with Whitelaw Turkington on the section of the road from Church Road to New Street. John Maine was appointed to work with Jacobs on a second phase of the project, on the section stretching from New Street to North Street. These appointments, out of necessity, were turned round very quickly in January 2006.

Nayan Kulkarni was appointed in March 2006 through competitive interview, to carry out the work on a lighting strategy, intended to influence Ashford Town Centre as a whole and the reconfigured ring road in particular.

The original brief to RKL also asked the consultants to consider temporary works as part of the commissioning programme. Again, RKL extended the brief to this, appointing Michael Pinsky through competitive interview as a lead artist/curator. Pinsky developed an ambitious programme called The Lost 'O', comprising works by a number of UK and international artists, and exploring the notion of temporary works to include performance elements. The intention was for the programme to mark the demise of the ring road and coincide with the progress of the Tour de France through Ashford.

It is interesting to note that most of the artists mentioned the importance of the Shared Space design philosophy as a major factor in attracting them to the scheme. The notion of a socially aware road project was a real draw.

The artist Simeon Nelson was also brought onto the scheme and into the IDT. He had already been working in Ashford town centre with Whitelaw Turkington on Bank Street. This was a pilot project which had come out of the Town Centre Public Realm Strategy adopted by Ashford Borough Council shortly before the inception of the ring road project. His work “Flume”, referring to the underlying movement of water through and around the town, was extended beyond the original site and incorporated into Breaking Boundaries.

Working process

The artists’ briefs were quite open, with no strictly prescribed way of working. Work developed through attendance and discussion at design meetings, individual research and design, studio visits and smaller workshop-style meetings where particular elements were shaped.

The artists had widely varying backgrounds and experience, particularly of public realm projects and this was overlaid with the recent experience of Simeon Nelson, who had already been working in the town with Whitelaw Turkington. The artists also worked at different rates, and had been brought on at slightly different points in the process, which meant that progress of designs did not always coincide.

The nature of the scheme meant that some areas of design intersected and overlapped - in some instances, this resulted in the tricky task of incorporating the work of three different artists plus landscape architects, all at different stages of their design, into one hopefully coherent space. A few key players, when interviewed, wondered with hindsight if there hadn’t been too many artists on the scheme. Whitelaw Turkington played a useful role as mediator between artists, taking a position on how works should fit together, and facilitating negotiation and eventually compromise to make the site work, and all now agree that any difficulties with “too many cooks” have been satisfactorily resolved.


Differences in experience and approach of individual artists have been manifested in the outcomes of the various appointments. John Atkin, with Whitelaw Turkington, has heavily influenced the feel of the street through the necessary furniture and objects one encounters there. He designed a range of works such as benches, tree grilles and bollards linked to cultural and historical influences of the town and also contributed to an overall design solution to changing levels, through a series of terraces.

John Maine, with Jacobs, has been more concerned with the experience of the street and public space. However, because of funding constraints, this section of the ring road has not yet been progressed and the design itself not advanced beyond early concepts.

Nayan Kulkarni worked across the entire design team with a brief to link into the other artists’ works but also to focus down from an overall lighting strategy to detailed design of individual lighting elements. In another, completely different way of working, he took control of the detailed design phase of the lighting project and worked as lead lighting consultant, with the lighting design company Pinneger sub-contracted to him. His work has resulted in a unified approach to lighting across the ring road with designs for a bespoke family of lighting columns, specified according to the nature of the streets and spaces.

Simeon Nelson was working to a much tighter conceptual brief than the other artists, one that coincided very well with the concerns of his practice, and his work has now been extended from its original site down Bank Street along Elwick road, crossing the ring road with potential for it to extend eventually down to the River Stour - a natural progression for a work which traces the unseen drainage of storm water. The work acts additionally as a waymarking feature between the heart of the town and the railway station.

What did the artists bring to the scheme?

This was already a very different highways scheme for the client and design team to work on, given its high strategic importance and the involvement of the Shared Space philosophy. It was interesting to note what they felt involving artists had brought to the ring road project. It was quite clear that the notions of identity and locality and the need for distinctiveness were important reasons for bringing artists in, and certainly the designs have achieved this. The feeling is that the project has created a “street which is definitely Ashford”.

In terms of slightly less tangible contributions, the team felt that the artists had also brought in an “extra bit of patina” to the scheme, more texture and feeling than a straightforward road project. In terms of the actual working process, one design team member felt very definitely that the artists had brought a different way of thinking, made the scheme a more creative process, and also more of a challenge.

A sometimes rocky road

No project ever runs smoothly, and when a new design philosophy is being tried out in tandem with a first experience of working with artists, it is inevitable that difficulties might arise, and that with hindsight, players might have tried to work in a different way. Breaking Boundaries has made it successfully to the end of its first phase, but all will admit that it hasn’t been a quick and easy project.

The key players on the scheme had a number of illuminating comments about some aspects of it. It was “not the simplest project I’ve ever worked on” noted the landscape architect, with classic understatement. The client enthusiastically described it as a “real journey of discovery”, and to John Atkin, who had not worked with such a diverse team before, nor had to deal with the minutiae of designing for the highways, some aspects were a “complete and utter revelation”. Clearly, there were a great many challenges within the project, but all of those involved felt that they had been able to make a positive outcome.

Many of the difficulties or issues which have arisen seem to have come from having a number of different artists and a big design team working on a very diverse scheme. The need for a very strong project director on a scheme with so many different strands was very clear, as it is extremely important to keep the job going and on target, without getting involved in too many intricate design decisions or discussions.

The design team and artists also had vastly different experience in terms of working as an integrated team and in the public realm. Some participants felt it would be very useful to get a full understanding of everyone’s experience early in project, as processes or decisions made as second nature to an experienced engineer might be completely mystifying to an artist used to working in a different way.

Speculative designs

One aspect which was highlighted by Paul Winton at Whitelaw Turkington was the development of speculative designs which eventually have to be discarded. This is something that an artist might be used to doing a number of times before deciding to try a particular track, but in a programme which has to deal with the realities of fixed costs and timetables, it can’t happen very often. Whilst this, it was admitted, might stifle some ideas and new areas of exploration, it is vital that commercial infrastructure projects keep moving on and finish on time.

One participant suggested that there could be a “maestro” to have the final say on aesthetic issues, when a number of artists and designers are on the same team, as there will be inevitable conflicts with a number of different creative individuals.

Temporary works

The temporary programme of work brought a number of its own issues and difficulties to the scheme, not least the disquiet caused by some of the media reporting. When contemporary, topical work around contentious issues like road schemes is commissioned, it is almost inevitable that the artwork itself is likely to be contentious. As one of the aims of the temporary project was to raise the profile of the overall project, the commissioner needed to be prepared for some of the profile-raising to include critical as well as positive reviews and reporting. However, in this aspect the project certainly did its job - as one passer-by was quoted in Blueprint: “The project has done more for Ashford in four days than has happened in 10 years.”

What next?

As already noted, the first phase of work is in progress, but funding has yet to be secured for the second phase, when John Maine will become more involved. Some associated development sites have begun design work, and more artists have been appointed to work on these associated schemes, including Tanya Axford, Cath Campbell, and most recently Neville Gabie who is working with South Kent College.

© Copyright Hazel Colquhoun, 2008