Hat Gardens 1-year on: Luton town centre's first pocket park success story

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As Hat Gardens marks its first anniversary, we take a look back at the last 12 months and explore the positive impression this new space has had on our town.

In 2021, the ‘Open Lea’ project began its journey to reveal the hidden River Lea and create Hat Gardens, Luton town centre’s first pocket park. The £1.9 million project, led by Luton Council transformed a derelict old car park on Bute Street into a valuable community asset, and it’s been a thriving little spot ever since.

Breathing new life into the town centre

The project rejuvenated the area by bringing back to the surface previously culverted sections of the River Lea, constructing new head walls, retaining walls, and creating stepped seating and a planted terrace. The goal was to inject greenery and a breath of fresh air into the town centre. Hat Gardens is the first in a series of pocket parks to be completed in the Luton town centre.

Hat Gardens May 2024Hat Gardens May 2024
Hat Gardens May 2024

A vibrant community hub is born

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The park officially opened in May 2023 with a lively launch festival featuring live music, entertainment and food stalls. Since then, it has become a vibrant community hub, hosting over 30 diverse events. From morning yoga sessions to mini-concerts and outdoor cinema screenings, the park has demonstrated its versatility and strong appeal to local residents, town centre workers and visitors to Luton.

Residents were also delighted to see the park home to the locally famous pink flamingos. These iconic symbols returned to Luton, bringing back fond memories for those who used to visit The Arndale shopping centre during the 70s-90s, before it became The Mall.

The power of green space in urban regeneration

Hat Gardens site before developmentHat Gardens site before development
Hat Gardens site before development

The pocket park has had a significant positive impact on the community, fostering a renewed sense of engagement and enthusiasm for the town centre. Since its opening, footfall in the town centre has experienced an upward shift, with 17 out of 20 weeks seeing an increase compared to the previous year, a contrast to the downward trend experienced earlier in the year.

A brief resident survey also revealed that 77% of respondents felt more positive about the town centre after visiting an event in the park. The space has quickly become a treasured addition, with residents sharing their experiences on social media. One resident remarked, "Hat Gardens are a wonderful addition to Luton. I attended a few events and loved them!" Another added, "Such a lovely new spot in town. We cannot wait for summer movie days!"

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But it’s not just the residents of Luton who were impressed. In November 2023, Hat Gardens won the ‘Project of the Year’ (under £10m) award at the National Building Construction Awards, recognising Luton-based construction company and project contractor Ryebridge.

Continuous improvements

Since the park's opening, Luton Council have enhanced the area by commissioning a local artist to create a flamingo-themed mural on an electric box. In collaboration with Step Forward Luton, they have also installed informative panels, detailing the project's journey, the site’s past, and offer information about the river and local wildlife.

A bright future ahead

Robin Porter, Chief Executive of Luton Council, said: "It's been a pleasure to see Hat Gardens become a cherished community space, enjoyed by countless residents and visitors. As we celebrate its first anniversary, we not only recognise the progress made in rejuvenating our town centre but also look forward to the further improvements underway, guided by our Town Centre Masterplan."

Other developments in progress include the recently approved planning for the re-development of the site of the Bute Street Shoppers car park, with proposals for new homes, a multi-purpose performance and community area, a food court, and commercial space.

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Combined with an array of events planned for 2024, we're committed to offering a more diverse range of activities, benefiting local businesses and allowing residents to enjoy a more vibrant town centre."

Luton Council recently announced an exciting line-up of free, family-friendly events for the 'Summer in Town' 2024 programme, set to take place in Hat Gardens and Market Hill. This year's action-packed summer schedule includes captivating street performances, engaging workshops, outdoor film screenings, storytelling sessions, and more.

"The success of Hat Gardens has shown what's possible for Luton's town centre. With more exciting plans ahead, we're committed to creating the vibrant, welcoming, and engaging town centre our residents have asked for, which will benefit locals, visitors, and businesses alike," Robin Porter affirmed.

To find out more about Luton town centre’s masterplan, visit the Luton Council website.