It’s time to unleash the shackles of past thinking in the planning and development of our city and town centres, argues Nick Belsten, hgh Executive Director
For all the talk of a ‘renaissance’ of UK cities after the pandemic, it’s clear that what has worked before isn’t going to work now. It’s no longer enough to talk of ‘anchor’ retail stores and to install mainstream restaurant brands, assuming that hoards of shoppers will descend on a new ‘boulevard’ or concept store. If our behaviour has changed in terms of our working, leisure and shopping habits, then surely the ideas that fuel the planning and development process need a rethink?
I believe it’s time for occupiers, landlords, fund managers and developers to unshackle from the thinking of the past – which simply no longer applies – and listen to different, often younger, groups of people, as catalysts of change.
Citizens not shoppers
Analysis by the High Street Task Force shows that towns with a varied high street offer and unique attractions have fared better than those defined mostly by retail. Major cities also face challenges of new transport infrastructure, such as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, the rise of the suburbs and homeworking, in addition to ongoing housing need. These changes arguably call for dramatically different strategies to drive not only footfall, but retaining the quality of neighbourhoods that have been allegedly ‘hollowed out’.
Test and Learn
When involved in major urban regeneration schemes, as planning specialists we understand the focus on the needs of occupiers, leaseholders and investors. However, arguably now more than ever, the real art of placemaking is seeding the ground for sustainable communities, not just creating glossy destinations. That means going beyond the ‘usual’ tags and assumptions – and instead take a longer look at what’s changed. However, beyond the requisite environmental considerations and architects’ sketches, lies a different kind of creativity – a ‘Test and Learn’ approach that addresses the current risk of failure. We shouldn’t be scared of trying out new ideas and failing.
I see two ‘catalysts’ or areas of opportunity: building curiosity and creative communities.
Marek Kowalkiewicz, Professor at Queensland University of Technology, writing for MIT Sloan’s Management School makes the case for ‘aimless curiosity’ in business, stressing the difference between ‘pointless’ and ‘aimless’. Building aimless curiosity – discovering the unexpected – into our cities creates the catalyst for different experiences, drawn from local character, heritage or new ideas that enable a more diverse use of space. For example, developer Dominvs Groups ‘Gaia’s Garden’, a community-led collaboration with both City of London planners and a group of over 200 young people, not only demonstrates the developer’s social value, it opens up an area of London that was previously inaccessible.
From attracting smaller scale workshops and studios to establishing strong links with the Capital’s digital and creative industries, combining workplace, culture and Meantime use can be a powerful mix. Lend Leases’ East Bank development in Stratford, London, includes major names in ballet, theatre and performing arts and offers a different meaning to ‘anchor’ brands where retail appears to be incidental, rather than core, to the development. Similarly, hgh’s work for client Urban Space Management’s Trinity Buoy Wharf has been devised to accommodate creative businesses that in turn attract similar occupants.
Really Local Group’s work in Lewisham and Reading has focussed on a combination of community initiatives and accessible culture, encouraging local people to have a say about what is installed.
Beyond the ‘usual’
Sparking new ideas should happen not just in the so-called ‘Cinderella’ towns and cities, but also in more affluent areas and commercial districts. The real opportunity, I believe, is to generate genuinely different planning strategies that go beyond the ‘usual’ and the mediocre, now and in the future.