The Future of Vacant Shopping Malls and High Street

Last month Thomas Heatherwick and his design studio launched their vision for Nottingham City Centre and its derelict Broadmarsh shopping centre site. A bold and visionary masterplan to recreate the city centre as a wildlife-rich green space, it was commissioned by Nottingham’s Greater Broad Marsh Advisory Group, following the collapse of Intu Properties as they were redeveloping the 1970s shopping mall. In a surprise turn of events, responsibility for the partially demolished shopping centre reverted to the freeholder, Nottingham City Council, and the masterplan is the product of consultation and independent design advice to address the challenge the city now faces.

Our emerging research findings suggest the proposed transformation suitably embraces the changes in society.  We have been investigating how urban retailing centres have been adapting to changing market conditions over the last 20 years and, by linking administrative, property and occupier datasets with interview data, we have been able to investigate how property use and ownership have changed in Nottingham and four other UK retailing centres: Liverpool, Hull, Glasgow and Edinburgh[1].

Change lies are the heart of our urban high streets and shopping malls. They are not dying, as foretold by doom-ladened predictions. We have found that our cities have become increasingly diverse, albeit not at the necessary speed. Initial retail adaptations involved changes to coffee shops/cafe, typically national and international chains such as Costa and Starbucks and restaurants, likes Byron Burger and Pizza Express. Take Liverpool for instance. Here, the number of coffees/cafes and restaurants soared by 330% and 258% between 2000 and 2017, and explains why one property manager interviewed voiced his concern that this market in our cities has now become saturated. More recently, there has been a rise in independent restaurant operators who have replaced the collapsed chain restaurants that expanded too rapidly.

Furthermore, service orientated retailing has grown. Health, beauty and personal services, such as hairdressers and tattooists, rose in Liverpool (68%), Nottingham (79%) and Hull (95%) over our study period. In Nottingham, tobacconists and vaping stores also rose by 400%, betting shops doubled from 6 to 12, and fast-food outlets expanded by 42%. Trends typically mirrored in the other cities we studied.  All have been relatively easy adaptations to fill the void left by the contracting comparison retailing sector. The number of fashion and clothing outlets in Nottingham, as an example, dropped by 16% between 2010 and 2017 alone.

Surprisingly, our analysis does not show much increase in experience-orientated entertainment and leisure uses (i.e. cinemas, bowling alleys etc) between 2000 and 2017. It has taken the more recent surge in department and large variety store closures to force landlords to become more adventurous. Examples include the addition of an Everyman cinema as part of the Metquarter’s (Liverpool) transformation into a mixed use, entertainment centre; and reimagining of the former House of Fraser (Hull) into a food hall. Post-pandemic, our renewed hunger for socialising has fuelled further expansion in competitive socialising and entertainment uses, such as indoor golf and axe throwing. The dramatic fall in market rents and availability of large spaces now making these viable as city centre uses.

Thomas Heatherwick’s plan reflects the trends identified by our research.  A walkable green public realm, while a highly-desirable goal, is not the most inspiring feature of his proposal. It is the shared vision to guide the future transformation of the city centre in itself, a plan that embraces the views of local residents, that makes this different. All our retailing centres have been ravaged by the pandemic and failings of retailers to compete with online retailing so they also should have masterplans to guide their recovery. The Use Class Order introduced in September 2020 might offer flexibility to encourage high street change in England but co-ordination is needed to avoid unintended negative effects on the remaining retail clusters. Hence, a community-focused masterplan is something necessary for all our cities to co-ordinate their renewal.

Residential now lies at the heart of many city centre strategies, and conversion of redundant retail storage and offices above ground floor into student accommodation (e.g. The Frontage, Nottingham) and apartments (e.g. 11-17 Parker Street, Liverpool) is increasingly common. In Nottingham’s principal retailing area we estimate residential units rose by 156% over our study period, a trend even higher in Liverpool and Hull which has been facilitated by the permitted office-to-residential development rights granted in England in 2014. Yet, delivering quality housing remains tricky. Successful international examples illustrate that residential developments need to be well designed, built to a high quality, cater for a range of household needs, and have access to suitable shops and services[2]. Despite residential units in Liverpool increasing by 58% from 2010 to 2017, we estimate public and social value services (such as doctors, dentists, libraries, community centres etc) fell by 22%. A weakness that needs to be addressed if retailing centres are to be recreated into liveable and sustainable neighbourhood districts. The masterplanning of our retailing town and city centres is not only needed to guide future change but embrace and effectively deliver the strategy priorities set by policy-makers.


[1]      Orr, A M, Stewart, J, and Gardner, A (2021) Adaptation in Real Estate Use, Ownership and Practice: Findings from Work Packages A and C, REPAIR ESRC-Funded Project Working Paper 1, University of Glasgow, Glasgow.

[2]     See https://housingevidence.ac.uk/publications/high-rise-residential-development/ for urban design work REPAIR team member, James White, have been involved with and is shortlisted for the RTPI Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence 2021.

– Allison M Orr

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