In an effort to bring its plans for the transformation of Folkestone town centre to life, the district council has created an immersive VR experience of a flying carpet ride above the proposed redevelopment.
We sent reporter Rhys Griffiths along to take flight over his hometown and see for himself what could be in store for the future…
I may know Folkestone like the back of my hand, but I can’t say that I have ever seen it from a seagull’s-eye view before. But that is exactly the perspective promised by the council’s VR ‘flypast’ experience.
Today’s ‘flight’ readies for take-off at the Quarterhouse in Tontine Street, where local schoolchildren have been brought in to ride the magic carpet and give their feedback on the vision to transform the town centre. It’s certainly a lot more exciting than your average dry and dreary public consultation meeting.
Once all the youngsters have had their chance to soar above the streets of the town, it’s my turn to take a seat on the flying carpet. Slipping on the VR headset, the real-world surroundings around me melt away and suddenly I appear to be seated with a view out of a window onto the south side of Bouverie Square – presumably somewhere roughly over Burger King.
Before you know it, my fellow passengers and I are swept out of the building and we’re gaining height above the town. Our flight path takes us alongside the old Saga building in Middelburg Square and onwards towards what is currently the town’s central bus station in Bouverie Square.
This is to be the centrepiece of the planned revamp of the town centre. Folkestone and Hythe District Council (FHDC) has successfully bid for almost £20 million in levelling-up cash from central government, and it plans to use it to reconfigure the route from Folkestone Central railway station, change the road layout of Middelburg Square to accommodation bus stops, and then turn the existing bus station into a public park.
As we swoop towards the bus station, the scene in front of us transforms before our eyes. The concrete expanse of Bouverie Square, where currently buses pull in and out alongside the bulk of the Bouverie Place shopping centre, is suddenly green with trees and criss-crossed with pathways.
We fly onwards along Shellons Street, which is currently dominated by the one-way road system which is a legacy of the town’s long-closed ferry port. Foresters Way, which currently carries traffic down towards the harbour, dissolves before our eyes – replaced with a stretch of green park and a new link between Guildhall Street North and the town centre.
Suddenly we lurch right down Guildhall Street itself, before turning again up Sandgate Road. Not only is the VR experience immersive – you really do feel like you are soaring above the streets below – but the rendering of the town centre is eerily accurate, right down to the graffiti and the ample provision of vape shops.
We proceed at quite some pace past Folca, what was once the Debenhams department store, before veering right towards the proposed park in Bouverie Square.
Here we drop down much closer to the ground, and can see examples of how the transformed space could be used for public events or a children’s play area. If done well, this would be a very pleasing way of using what is currently a bit of a barren space, dominated by the comings and goings of the buses.
With one rather sudden lurch, which you definitely feel in your stomach, the flying carpet swings round to give one final look over the redeveloped space. Then it’s goggles off and we’re back in the auditorium of the Quarterhouse, your correspondent’s legs a little wobbly as he stands up and steps away from the ride.
Simon Mabey from Digital Urban, creators of the virtual reality tour, says this “playful immersive technology is such a great way for people to get involved” in the consultation process, and it’s hard to argue with that.
These kinds of engagement events are often rather grey, with information boards that deliver all the info but fail to really capture the imagination. It’s hard to imagine anyone could take this VR flight and say the same thing – it really does give you a fresh perspective on the plans for the town centre.
All in all, it’s fair to say I leave impressed with the vision for Bouverie Square. Relocating the bus stops to the roads around Middelburg Square means returning what was once a garden square to its original purpose, and I think it will be positive to create a new focal point for this part of the town. Reconfiguring the road layouts should also make it much easier for people to get around on foot, where currently it feels like all the priority is given to traffic.
If you’d like to see it for yourself, the council is staging its final consultation event – complete with VR flying carpet ride – today at Bouverie House Business Centre in Bouverie Place between 11am and 4pm.