How do we encourage people to live in town and city centres?

Policymakers now appear to perceive town centre living as intrinsically linked to resilient town centres and the panacea for the troubles experienced by urban centres in the wake of the pandemic.  Subsequently, an ongoing inquiry by the Scottish Parliament’s Economy and Fair Work Committee into the future of Scottish town centres and retail is seeking to find ways households can be encouraged to live in town centres. Urban centre living may offer part of the solution, as argued in an earlier blog, but it is not the easy or quick fix some seem to think it will be.

It will take time to develop the attributes that make a successful neighbourhood district. Just look at the timescale involved in delivering the acclaimed well-designed residential neighbourhood in downtown Vancouver.  The “Living First’ policy Vancouver adopted in the early 90s, and held as an exemplar of good planning, took over 30 years to achieve its goals.

So, how can this be replicated in Scottish town and city centres?

Urban centres typically have established transportation links but they lack the other essential ingredients that make them attractive places to live.  For one thing, they need well-designed housing that includes a mix of housing types and tenures that caters for different household needs and affordability. Only through a mixed approach to housing provision can we hope to build the diverse and inclusive residential communities modern society craves.

Yet, our research into five case study city centres – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Liverpool and Hull – found that this has not happened despite the growth in the number of residential units over the study period[1]. City centre housing developments typically fall into one of two camps: 1) as apartments, often provided for owner occupation and frequently high-end housing; 2) in the form of student accommodation.  The provision of family accommodation or housing that appeals to older residents tend to be missing.

Build-to-rent can provide a variety of much needed affordable accommodation, and this sector has slowly being building in Scottish cities. The trick now is to convince investors to increase the scale of investment and extend their activities to other centres. However, this may require support from government to de-risk build-to-rent development in smaller housing markets. 

Another finding in our research is that public and social value services have not kept up with the pace of growth in residential accommodation.  This trend, contrary to the goal of creating  20 minute neighbourhoods, has been exacerbated by resource-starved local authorities increasingly centralising and cutting back public services.  If city or town centre living is to be promoting then these neighbourhoods need to improve their local amenities, public services, green public realm and social infrastructure as well as housing.  The supply of family accommodation, if to be included as a goal by policy-makers, also needs to provide adequate open space for children to safely play.

If this was not enough, planning for transformation needs to acknowledge that some town centres are not particularly attractive places. They look tired, dirty and unkempt.  Often the public realm is lacking and landlords are unmotivated to maintain or refurbish their ageing properties.  A recent example of a positive difference achieved was in Kilmarnock town centre when a decaying empty parade of shops on King Street was demolished and replaced with open green space.  Smaller changes, such as the re-painting of building exteriors or the targeted restoration of heritage frontages or the repaving of an uneven street or square, or even the provision of seating for local residents to stop and chat, can transform an area and reverse the creeping effects of urban decline.

A further consideration, highlighted in discussions with investors and property practitioners involved in retail repurposing, is that not all land uses make good residential neighbours and thought needs to be given to the location of housing. This possibly represents the greatest challenge as competing uses somehow need to be balanced in a manner without compromising the active use of ground floors.  Such a balanced approach requires sensitive and detailed planning, and to reflect the needs of tourists and other visitors as well as the needs of residents.

So in conclusion, repurposing redundant commercial buildings into housing may represent an opportunity to “kill two birds with one stone” but these changes will take time to achieve, and require careful planning, management and resourcing. Private-sector developers, investors and lenders also need to be onboard and take a longer time horizon in their investment decision-making.  

The recent fall in retail property values helps as it has lowered the viability threshold and made repurposing more attractive. However, policy-makers should be prepared to provide financial support, perhaps as grants or tax credits (a system that has successful encouraged the development of rental accommodation in the US) to incentivise the repurposing of awkward spaces that are more costly and risky to redevelopment into quality residential accommodation. Only by bring together these key ingredients can we hope to create the attractive neighbourhood districts that encourage people to want to live in our city or town centres.

– Allison M Orr

[1] Orr, A M, Stewart, J L, Jackson, C and White, J T (2022) Not quite the ‘death of the high street’: Rising vacancy rates and the shift in land use richness and diversity in UK city centres, SSSN Id 4034014 .

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