Invest in great urban design or pack up and go home

urban design in Camden TownWhat happens when urban design gets precedence over uniformity
As town and city centres deal with the perfect storm of on-line shopping, retailer failures and changing shopping and leisure patterns it’s hardly the time to be talking about investing in public realm and urban design.  Or is it, asks Dougal Paver.

If you’re pension is heavily exposed to retail real estate now might be the time for a little gentle re-balancing.

As the bankruptcies pile up with depressing regularity the UK High Street’s health has never been in sharper focus – and with investors being asked to bear a burden of the re-balancing costs through foregone rents and reduced on-going payments via the negotiated CVA process, it’s not a great time to be a retail landlord.

The implications for our town and city centres are obvious.  When the shutters comes down never to re-open again blight soon follows.

It’s not doom everywhere, of course.  Brands are responding to the on-line challenge by downsizing their store portfolio to focus on the best performing major cities and county towns.  The more upmarket or niche retailers are limiting their exposure even further, using the major regional cities as brand showcases whilst investing heavily in their on-line presence.  So, as with all disruptive change, there are winners and losers.

But for our secondary towns and cities, the challenge remains very real.  People use places like Sunderland and Huddersfield very differently from nearby Newcastle or Leeds.  In the latter, with their scale, cultural assets, retail and dining choice and handsome architecture and public squares people go for a day out, planning shopping, dining and cultural activities in advance.  The bigger cities offer a rounded experience  and a physical environment that builds-in dwell-time.  And when people dwell awhile, they spend.

In places like Huddersfield or Sunderland, however, research shows that city centre visits are more transactional.  Shoppers have a particular item in mind, pop in to town to collect it then are off home again.  There’s little additional discretionary spend when compared to the major cities and the relative absence of money circulating reinforces the place’s more limited offer.  When a spiral of closures and decline kicks in – as it is now – then clawing your way back out of that is a challenge indeed.

But it can be done – by building in to a secondary location’s offer some of the things its bigger neighbour offers.  Good quality, well-maintained public realm with squares and spaces for al fresco dining and new cultural offers are obvious draws.  But why not be more creative?  What about working with landlords to encourage creative independent retailers to set up in a cluster, with till-share rental packages and rates relief?  Let the halo effect of their individuality and public appeal help transform neighbouring streets.  And what about scrapping car parking charges in all public spaces to send a commanding signal that this town wants your business?

The whole issue of ‘experience’ is worthy of greater focus.  Non-food stores are morphing in to ‘brand experiences’, showrooms and service centres whilst consumers are placing greater value on the overall ‘day out’ experience – particularly in relation to authentic food and drink offers.  It can’t be a coincidence that some of the most high profile  ‘clone town’ restaurant chains are struggling, whilst independents on places like Bold Street in Liverpool and Manchester’s Northern Quarter are thriving.

So, if town centre management is your thing, then ensuring your town offers the right environment, design quality and authenticity has got to be a big part of your focus.  Otherwise continued decline seems inevitable.