Do our city centres have a bright future?

In this article, urban regeneration expert, Adrian Griffiths, examines the evolution of UK City Centres from their trading heyday to a period of gradual decline and how they can fight back.

Many people worry about what the future holds for our Urban City Centres, fearing they may be in decline. What can be done to sustain their future? How can they be adapted to meet the needs of today’s consumers?

When trying to answer these questions, it is worth understanding how our centres have evolved over time and have responded to the various challenges that have occurred along the way.

From their trading heyday to gradual decline

Over many years, our town and city centres have evolved as trading centres. Growing on the back of demand, on a building by building basis, our towns often have many architectural styles and a vibrancy that is unique to each location. Not only did people live and trade within these centres, but, at weekends, people would come into town to socialise and be seen. Travelling fairs and circuses were a regular event, enhancing the urban experience.

The dominance of the high street began to change with the arrival of the first department store in the 1850s, with Le Bon Marche opening in Paris. Whilst these stores are excellent as an anchor within a city centre, one can argue they represented the first major threat to the High Street, as they stripped communities of independent retailers whose services were re-located into one managed building.

Further threats followed with the arrival of the motor car, which helped to pave the way for suburbanisation as people started to move to live and trade outside city centres. This new mode of living led to the arrival of the supermarket followed by the hypermarket, based on the American model of “pile it high and sell it cheap”, leading to the loss from the high street of many independent food retailers.

‘Out of town’ shopping based on department store-anchored fashion-led retail, following the American model, arrived in the UK in 1976 with the opening of Brent Cross. During this period, we also saw the introduction of the ‘retail park’, initially aimed at the DIY and bulky goods market, but evolving to cater for high street retailers who were looking for cost-efficient space.

If these threats to our city centres were not dangerous enough, we next saw the arrival of designer outlet centres, a hugely successful out-of-town retail format selling end-of-line quality brands, only to be followed by the arrival of online retailing which, for a while, looked like this could deliver the final blow to our town and city centres.  

However, this has not proved to be the case, and our High Streets are fighting back. How can this be, in the face of such stiff competition? What is it about our town and city centres that is ensuring their continued longevity and evolution?

Our City Centres fight back!

The changing face of retail

We know there is generally too much retail space and too many retail units. However, whilst national retailers probably require fewer stores, they want bigger and better-located stores, often in a building that architecturally responds to, and promotes, their brand. This means more varied architectural solutions are becoming important, which helps break the “Cloned City” conundrum.

Also, for some time now, we have seen the gradual decline in importance of the department store. In many instances, these ‘generalist’ department stores that sell too many product categories are being ‘out-retailed’ by ‘specialist’ retailers who just operate in one product category, and who typically carry a wider product selection in their specialist category. Some department stores have stopped trading, or have down-sized, which means there are increasing opportunities for independent brands to move back to the high street. 

Local food stores

Consumers' approach to food shopping has also significantly changed since the 2008 recession. The trend is moving away from a big weekly shop and towards selecting and buying food on the day you want to eat it, as well as home delivery. This has led some supermarkets to downsize and expand their local shop offer.

Food and beverage

Then we come to the issue of socialising. The ever-increasing presence of social media has not dented people’s desire to meet face-to-face. The growth of food and beverage as a sector has been staggering over the last 10 years, with some 25% of space within new retail developments being allocated to F&B. There are many examples of where out dated shopping centres have been converted to leisure destinations.

Entertainment and atmosphere

In terms of film, you can stream any kind of film content legally or illegally, any time you want, but the demand for new cinema space is on the increase. A huge number of new cinemas are being built, and cinema attendance is rising fast. The bottom line is that people want a ‘cinematic experience’, they want atmosphere, and they want to be seen and socialise within an environment which has a sense of place.

Residential

Then there are the other complementary uses. The trend for suburbanisation is being balanced by those who want to live back in the heart of our centres, taking advantage of the culture they offer. This includes not only first-time buyers but also the ageing, often cash-rich, population, who have had their fill of tending the garden and are looking to live near their children in an inclusive community. Students, tourism, hotels and office accommodation are also on the increase adding to the rounded offer that our centres provide.

The future is bright

For all these reasons, I am confident that our centres have the resilience to continue to adapt, and it is this ability which makes our centres so special. Architecturally, they possess a unique sense of place with a variety of architectural styles. The streets are a quality public realm, and the tenant mix is more random, with activity from the cafés and restaurants spilling out into the public spaces. There is landscape, public art, culture and the natural policing provided from the every-day working activity of a ‘real place’.

However, there is much we can learn from our shopping and designer outlet centres that can be applied to our city centres. Ease of access, appropriate parking, cycling provision and public transport are all fundamental and should be embedded. We must also respect the effort that is put into the management and marketing of such schemes as Bicester Village that has made them so successful. Pop-up retail, farmers' markets, exhibitions, fairs etc. do not just happen - they are planned, and are a fundamental element for any managed city centre.

Our urban centres have a huge advantage over traditional shopping centres in that they are more flexible, and can adapt on a piecemeal basis. Yes, our town and cities do come with the challenge of complex land ownership, but this issue has been around for centuries and our centres continue to evolve.

Our town and city centres will continue to be our social hubs, and on that basis will always have a place in our hearts. They will continue to go from strength to strength, and for that reason alone I know where I would be investing my money.

For all these reasons I am confident our centres have the resilience to continue to adapt and it is this ability that makes our centres so special.
About the Author

Adrian Griffiths (BA (Hons) Dip Arch RIBA MA Urban Design FRSA)

Board Director, UK

Adrian joined Chapman Taylor in 1986 and was promoted to the Main Board in 1998. As an architect and urban design specialist, he is recognised internationally for his expertise in the masterplanning of major complex mixed-use developments which are key drivers in the regeneration of our town and city centres.

Adrian is conscious of the fact that the developments we build today create the societies of tomorrow, recognising the responsibility the profession has in influencing the quality of people’s lives. He regularly speaks at conferences and prepares papers which promote the benefits of mixed-use developments as a sustainable model for the long term. Adrian leads the Concept Design Team in the UK.

Areas of expertise:

Urban design /  Masterplanning /  Mixed use / Retail / Leisure

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