Rebalancing the diversity in urban centres lies at the heart of the recent House of Commons’ Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) inquiry into the future of England’s high streets and town centres. One recommendation is to convert vacant and under-utilised land and building stock into residential use. Not a particularly new idea, but one worthy of further discussion.
For decades our towns and cities have been subject to decentralisation. Arguably, housing was first to go, through widespread suburban development and subsequent sprawl, taking place a century ago. Further urban change occurred through the restructuring of the urban economic base towards light, footloose industries, and improved distribution networks. Decentralised employment, low density office and science parks, and continued residential suburbanisation also precipitated the well-known waves of retail decentralisation. This new pattern of working and spending fundamentally altered the retail landscape, with some cities and towns continuing to thrive, but others less so. This polarisation has, of course, been exacerbated by more recent economic factors and behavioural change.
Residential-led mixed-use development may offer an opportunity to bring residents, workers, shoppers and leisure users back into centres. A residential-led scheme may provide the financial viability needed to fund renewal. Encouraging more people to live in an accessible central location can provide a lifestyle that is less car-dependent. This should, in turn, contribute to a reduction in pollution and congestion in our urban centres, reinforcing the attraction of urban centre living. The resultant agglomeration effects should lead to more leisure, cultural and entertainment provision, more services and encourage employers ‘back to centre’. The shift-up in diversity could see the establishment of the vibrant day and night economies that urban planners have long been chasing. A virtuous circle.
Before we rush to knock down redundant shops and building residential blocks a word of caution. The impetus here needs to be the creation of quality mixed-use environments that can become the communities of the future (and resilient ones at that). We know the essential ingredients – attractive design and quality build, affordability, housing units to cater to a range of needs, access to shops and services, attractive and safe public realm, and accessibility. If planned well and delivered strategically, new development will have a strong sense of place that, crucially, integrates into the existing centre and strengthens the inter-connections between buildings and the natural environment and creates sustainable neighbourhoods.
There is an increasing number of good international examples of this, including the Canadian city of Vancouver. Here, a policy called ‘Living First’ introduced in the 1980s and 1990s saw a presumption in favour of well-designed residential neighbourhoods introduced into the city’s commercial downtown core. Affordability was a key factor. Over thirty years the city was transformed into a liveable mixed-use area with high quality housing supported by abundant public amenities, funded through planning gain. These transformations, in turn, encouraged the development of neighbourhood-focused retail and other supporting commercial services. In the UK, Land Securities’ mixed retail and residential development at Buchanan Quarters fits so seamlessly into the Glasgow prime retailing zone that you can easily miss it contains residential space.
Repopulating our towns and centres could help address the urban decline occurring in our town and city centres as large shop units become vacant and redundant. No one single development model will work for every centre. It needs to be location-specific and guided by a vision shared by all stakeholders. Listening to the local community, clear leadership and the need to work together in partnership were the key messages that emerged from the High Streets Expert Panel appointed to advise the HCLG Committee. Sensible advice that holds equally true for residential-led, as well as, commercial-led high street development.