Decline and regeneration

24th March 2000 at 00:00
Cardiff offers many opportunities for case study work at KS3 and GCSE. Mike Morrish looks at its changing fortunes over the past century, illustrating the dynamic nature of urban environments.

When the Queen officially opens the Cardiff Bay Barrage next week she will mark a significant milestone in the reinvention of the city. The 1.1 kilometre dam across the estuaries of the Taff and Ely rivers is a vital element in the regeneration of Cardiff's docklands. This process began 15 years ago and has transformed the depressed industrial area into Europe's largest waterfront development. But the changes at Cardiff Bay are indicative of a much broader renewal of the Welsh capital city. While its growth was inextricably linked to the coal trade, Cardiff now boasts an impressive range of modern industries and services that are bringing a new prosperity to South Wales. From a geographical point of view, Cardiff's experience is representative of trends that are evident in many British cities.

Growth of a major city Cardiff has a long and varied history. There are traces of human occupation dating back 20,000 years in the area, and the Romans built a fort beside the River of Taff in AD75 to control the Welsh tribesmen. However, the settlement was abandoned for 600 years from the time the Romans left until after the Norman invasion. In 1903 a Norman knight, Robert FitzHamon, built a castle on the site of the Roman fort. Over the next two centuries Cardiff grew in local importance as a port, market and administrative centre. But the Black Death and Welsh uprisings triggered a stagnation and relative decline that lasted until the 18th century. The 1801 census recorded a population of just 1,870, less than it had been 500 years earlier.

To the north, Merthyr Tydfil, in the Taff Valley, had become the largest town in Wales and the centre of the chief iron and coal-producing region of Britain. Merthyr gave Cardiff the trade which led to its initial expansion. In 1789 the Glamorgan Canal opened the Bute West Dock on reclaimed marshland to the south of the town. Recognition of the quality of "steam" coals from the Welsh valleys led to coal replacing iron as the port's main export.

During the remainder of the 19th century further docks were constructed and coal was transported to all corners of the British empire. Coal shipments rose from 200,000 tons in 1840 to 3,000,000 tons in 1870 and a peak of 10,500,000 tons in 1913.

The city's population also increased dramatically, rising from 11,500 in 1841 to 164,000 at the turn of the century. Cardiff was the coal capital of the world, with the global price being struck at the Coal Exchange in Mount Stuart Square. Enormous fortunes were made by coal exporters, shipbrokers and financiers. It was said that before the First World War, the exclusive suburb of Penarth had the greatest concentration of millionaires in the world. Profits from the coal trade provided funds for the building of a magnificent Edwardian civic centre at Cathays Park.

Period of decline The inter-war period was one of gradual decline, made worse by the effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s, which rendered much of the workforce in the South Wales valleys redundant. By the 1970s, much of Cardiff Docks had become run down and derelict. During the 1970s and 1980s Cardiff's manufacturing workforce halved, so that it now constitutes only 15 per cent of the city's employment. The closure of many manufacturing firms caused severe unemployment problems: the most severe blow came in 1978 when the East Moors steelworks, adjacent to the docks, was shut down with the loss of 4,000 jobs.

Return to prosperity Since the late 1970s the city has looked to service industries to provide new jobs and has also succeeded in attracting some high-tech firms. Today Cardiff dominates the county of South Glamorgan.

Although it is a small county in area (South Glamorgan was an afterthought in the local government reorganisation of 1974) it contains a population of 415,000. Of that total, 300,000 live in Cardiff and the rest live in the Vale of Glamorgan, with its two main coastal towns of Barry and Penarth. The population of South Glamorgan as a whole is growing slowly but there is a gradual shift of people from the urban area of Cardiff to the countryside of the adjoining vale. This counter-urbanisation is putting pressure on the rural environment of the Vale of Glamorgan, which also contains distinguished stretches of heritage coastline.

Cardiff represents an affluent area in a much larger area of industrial decline, the valleys of the South Wales coalfield. Road and rail routes from the valleys converge on Cardiff, making it the administrative and service centre for the entire region, meeting the needs of one million people. Commuters travelling to the city each day number 30,000, their journey times rarely exceeding an hour. Cardiff is also a major tourist, sporting and cultural centre and receives two million visitors a year. Ten European destinations are now served by scheduled services from Cardiff International Airport and more than 1,200,000 passengers a year pass through the recently expanded passenger terminal.

Mike Morrish is head of geography at The Haberdashers' Aske's School, Hertfordshire


The regeneration of Cardiff Bay began in 1985 when South Glamorgan Council, supported by Cardiff City Council, decided to build its new county headquarters at Atlantic Wharf alongside the Bute East Dock.

Two years later the regeneration was extended from just under 100 acres to 2,700 acres (one sixth of Cardiff's total area) by the formation of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation. This is the second largest urban development project in the UK after London Docklands. Its mission statement is "to put Cardiff on the international map as a superlative maritime city which will stand comparison with any such city in the world". After 13 years' work Cardiff Bay Development Agency will now take over the Corporation's reponsibilities. Within three years the regeneration programme should be complete.

Crucial to the overall plan was the construction of a barrage across the mouth of Cardiff Bay, for which permission was granted by Parliament in 1990. The Cardiff Bay Barrage was completed in December 1998 at a cost of pound;190 million. It seals off the bay from the 40-foot tides of the Severn Estuary, so that the mudflats previously exposed at low tide are permanently covered by a 500-acre freshwater lake, fed by the Rivers Taff and Ely. This has created an eight-mile constant-level water frontage, which allows an integrated development of housing, sporting, leisure and cultural facilities, offices and industrial estates.

Achievements so far are impressive. By 1998, pound;880 million of private investment and pound;500 million of public funds had been attracted by the corporation. Around 11,500 jobs have been established in the area, out of a long-term target of 30,000. More than 2,000 homes have been built, representing one third of the targeted 6,000 households which will add 20,000 people to the total population.

The Inner Harbour lies at the heart of the bay, focused on the imposing Victorian redbrick pierhead building. Close by are the prestigious office developments of Capital Waterside, which is also home to the new Welsh National Assembly headquarters.

There is the Atlantic Wharf Leisure Village, the Mermaid Quay Complex (based loosely on London's Covent Garden) and the St David's Hotel, Wales' first five-star hotel. Currently more than 1.5 million visitors come to the waterfront each year, drawn by attractions including Techniquest (a science discovery centre), an arts centre in a former Norwegian seamen's church, Harry Ramsden's fish and chip restaurant and the Sports Cafe.

Visitor numbers will swell once the Wales Millennium Centre is built to house music, opera and other arts events and facilities.

The waterfront is being linked to Cardiff's city centre by the construction of Bute Avenue, an elegant tree-lined boulevard which will be finished by the end of this year. A maritime community is being developed at Penarth Haven: this will mainly create homes, along with a small amount of office space and light industry, including a boatyard. Portway Marina Village with homes, 300 moorings and community shopping is already completed.



THE central business district is a particularly rewarding area for study. This zone is clearly defined in Cardiff by virtue of both natural and built boundaries. To the west lies the River Taff, with a single bridge providing access to the city centre close to the castle.

To the east and south, major railway routes similarly restrict access to a few roads and to the north the extensive Bute Park and civic centre at Cathays Park prevent further expansion. These features can be discerned easily from map evidence. Ordnance Survey sheets are probably best for the development of map interpretation skills, but perhaps more useful are the simpler maps produced for tourists. These identify and name important land uses associated with the central business district: modern, enclosed shopping centres dating from 1980 onwards, the traditional covered market and Victorian shopping arcades, the theatre concert hall and sports facilities such as the new rugby stadium and national ice rink.

Other expected features include large hotels, the central library, superstores, multistorey car parks and the recently refurbished main railway station. Detailed map analysis is perfectly feasible at KS3 when based on the tourist maps, and can give rise to valuable discussion about the functions of the district.

Having carried out field work in central Cardiff over a period of 15 years, I have a collection of slides that allow students to be taken on a "virtual" town trail through the central business district, accompanied by question sheets. But since Cardiff's central area is so compact, a single visit would allow any teacher to assemble a representative set of pictures.

The tourist information centres maps and brochures relating to attractions in and around Cardiff can be contrasted with the booklets advertising the nearby South Wales valleys, which are being energetically promoted as tourist destinations capitalising on the region's industrial heritage.

Taking a broader view of Cardiff in its regional context gives scope for a wide range of humanities work. The successive periods of settlement in Roman, medieval and Victorian times provide considerable potential for historical studies. The development of iron working and coal mining in the valleys is linked to a fascinating social history of the tight-knit industrial communities and the entrepreneurs who ruled them.

By plotting on a map the dates of opening and closure of the iron and steel works, it is possible to trace the rise and fall of manufacturing on the coalfield between the mid-18th and late-19th centuries.

From a geographical viewpoint, the work of the Welsh Development Agency in stimulating reindustrialisation of the valleys can be investigated through promotional literature and maps locating modern factory estates.


Cardiff County Counciltel: 029 20 872000website:

Welsh Development Agencytel: 01443 845500




1. Victorian covered market, opened 1891 in the High Street; 2. City Hall , opened 1906; 3. Award-winning NCM building 4. Cardiff International Hotel in 1992; 5. Public art at Cardiff Bay; 6. New offices at Atlantic Wharf in 1980 7. Scott Harbour offices in Cardiff Bay; 8. Capitol Shopping Centre, city centre, early 1990s; 9. Atlantic Wharf Leisure Village; 10. Derelict site of East Moors steelworks (closed 1978); 11. Adventurers Quay apartment development; 12. Penarth Marina in the 1980s; 13. New offices in the centre, 1991; 14. Scott Harbour; 15. St David's Hotel, Cardiff Bay; 16. National Assembly for Wales building; 17. Adventurers Quay; 18. Pierhead Building (built 1886) at Cardiff Bay.


1798 Glamorganshire Ship Canal opened, linking Merthyr Tydfyl and Cardiff

1820 Total tonnage handled - 50,000

1839 Bute West Dock opened (13.5 acres)

total tonnage handled - 350,000

1841 Taff Vale Railway opened, superseding canal transport from Merthyr

1850 Total tonnage handled - 900,000

1855-1859 Bute East Dock opened (46.5 acres)

1860 Total tonnage handled - 2,250,000

1870 Total tonnage handled - 3,000,000

1874 Roath Basin opened (12 acres)

1877 New coaling cranes installed in all docks 1875-80

1880 Total tonnage handled - 4,000,000

1890 Total tonnage handled - 10,000,000

1907 Queen Alexandra dock opened

Total tonnage handled - 11,900,000

1913 Total tonnage handled - 13,700,000 (Coal tonnage - 10,500,000)

1919 Total tonnage handled - 8,500,000 (Coal tonnage - 6,500,000)

1938 Total tonnage handled - 6,800,000 (Coal tonnage - 5,200,000)

1948 Total tonnage handled - 3,400,000

1958 Total tonnage handled 2,000,000 (Coal tonnage - 400,000)

1963 British Transport Docks Board clears coal sidings and modernises docks

1964 Bute West Dock closed and subsequently filled in

1974 Total tonnage handled - 4,000,000

1978 East Moors steelworks closed (750,000 tonnes lost)

1983 Docks privatised and controlled by Associated British Ports Total tonnage handled 2,000,000

Trade is now in timber, fruit and vegetables, oil, chemicals, grain, scrap steel, slag

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