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Giles Semper

Giles Semper on the new wave of revitalisation

By Giles Semper

Executive Director, GO! Southampton

As it bids to become UK City of Culture 2025, Southampton is beginning a new chapter in its diverse history.

Combining a 17-year career in regeneration with a passion for European cities, the Executive Director of GO! Southampton (the Business Improvement District for the city centre) is devoted to creating a new narrative for the city.

Making a decision to work for the betterment of communities during a period living in India, Giles Semper has a profound understanding of placemaking, which started at the grassroots in London and finds him now shaping the future of Southampton.

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In an increasingly online world, how are city centres evolving?

I think cities will find a new way forward. People will always want a place to congregate, but it’s going to take different forms from that with which we're familiar. We make a mistake sometimes in thinking that city centres are only about commerce. In fact, a lot of other uses are live and well, including civic functions, colleges and universities, leisure and the concept you see in Europe with people promenading and just enjoying seeing each other in public spaces. I can't predict what the future is going to look like, but I remain confident that city centres will develop to what people need from them.

What is it that you love most about Southampton?

I find it an incredibly real place, a place that is very honest, unpretentious, friendly, hospitable and full of a lot of very genuine, straightforward people. Having lived in London, which is almost swamped by gentrification, hyperinflation of the property market, boutique coffee shops on every corner, I really like Southampton because it retains a lot of its original character and personality. Its realness is very invigorating to me.

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"I think cities will find a new way forward. People will always want a place to congregate, but it’s going to take different forms from that with which we're familiar."

How would you describe Southampton to someone unfamiliar with the city?

I would call it the gateway to the world. It’s a port with incredible historical lineage. When you look at the city walls and you think that the Mayflower was literally bobbing outside that gate waiting to head to the New World is just an incredible thought. That sense of arrival and departure is absolutely crucial in understanding Southampton.


Giles Semper

The Old Bond Store is part of the city’s original character, why do you think now is the right time for one of Southampton’s heritage buildings to be reinvented in this way?

One aspect is about the building itself. Many historic buildings were seen as surplus to requirements, as unfashionable and difficult to work with. Now people really respond to historic buildings that are brought back to life, with character and value that you just can’t buy and are almost impossible to recreate.

The Old Bond Store is also radical in its function; providing a new forum for professional business to develop and for entrepreneurs to speak to each other. That, to me, is a hugely encouraging sign for the city – in that there is a market for this service and that people are backing Southampton as a place for professional business.

What is your vision for the city?

For it to have a reputation as a place where something interesting is always going on. I think a lot of that could be released if the people of Southampton are allowed to use the city centre as a canvas for their creative aspirations. That’s what I’d love to see; an incredibly vibrant happening place.

"People really respond to historic buildings that are brought back to life, it’s character and value that you just can't buy, it's almost impossible to recreate."

Giles Semper, GO! Southampton

Which destination do you aspire to?

I am completely obsessed with Rotterdam; I just love it. What they’ve managed to achieve: quality in design architecture, removing vehicles from public spaces and making them delightful places to be, a brilliant and rich cultural life and the revitalisation of the waterfront. They’re becoming a world leader in climate change adaptation with an understanding of the threat that could bring to a reclaimed low-lying destination.

What are the biggest challenges in urban regeneration?

I think Southampton can be quite risk averse. There’s definitely a resistance to fresh new thinking. I believe Southampton needs to have the confidence to allow itself to be revitalised and to allow individual creatives to express themselves in the public realm.

What I’m also feeling at the moment is a real upsurge in interest from talented individuals to contribute to the future of the city, and the Old Bond Store is facilitating part of that discussion. The challenge for me is how you move that on to actual action.