Tomorrow’s City Centre

Tomorrow’s City Centre      

A project in partnership with Blake Morgan                


On November 20th 2020, Blake Morgan and the Southern Policy Centre launched their research report exploring the future of the central South’s city centres. We were joined by Andrew Carter from the Centre for Cities and over 100 participants from across the region – representing councils, businesses and the community. Our report and the lively discussion at its launch demonstrated there is a real appetite for continuing a broad and inclusive dialogue about the future of our city centres.

Re-imaging our city centres: one year on

In November 2020 SPC and Blake Morgan launched a report exploring the future of our city centres. For some time now we have seen changes in retail driven by on-line shopping. That fuelled a policy debate about the future of the ‘High Street.’ The pandemic accelerated that trend and brought new worries: more people working at home, fewer (or no) customers for cinemas, theatres and restaurants, people deserting public transport.

Our report suggested that the pandemic appears to have driven changes in behaviour which may now be with us long beyond the eventual release of restrictions. It also seems to have reinforced changes in society’s values which have emerged in recent years. Most notable are a growing concern for nature and our environment, alongside a focus on individual and community health and wellbeing. We concluded that all these factors are changing how we think about the role and purpose of our city centres.

The pandemic is not yet over, and much has continued to change in our economy and communities in the 14 months since SPC’s city centre report. In early January 2022 we took the opportunity to revisit the topic, bringing together four speakers and an audience of around 60 people from across the businesses, organisations and institutions of the central South to discuss how city centres continue to change.

The participants in our discussion were generally positive about the future of our city centres. As places they continue to evolve in response to change, with creative new ideas about how we should be using space. Philippa Klaschka from architects Stride Treglown gave several great examples of how her practice is re-designing urban places to provide space for nature where communities can come together and creating flexibility for the community. The key to re-imagining our city centres, Philippa argued, is changing how we think about space.

Retail is also responding to changing circumstances, we heard from Cat Mitton of Governance-Geek, an experienced city centre manager. She gave several examples of how department stores are re-purposing space for a range of uses, from health to leisure or independent retail. Lockdown had been an opportunity for independent businesses who were more fleet-footed, and there is a notable trend towards businesses responding to the demand for re-use and recycling. But there remain challenges: co-ordinating fragmented landownership or reforming the Business Rates system, for example.

Two of our speakers explored how technology could help improve our city centres, capturing and sharing data which could help inform decision making and individual choice. Chris Cooper, Director of KnowNow, showed how people came to trust data collected ‘with a purpose,’ and how those data could improve their experience of the city centre. Paul Copping, who is part of the team developing the ‘Intelligent Merchant City’ at Fawley Waterside, described the importance of digital infrastructure to this new place. These data would not only be used to support residents and businesses, but will also shape the character of the development.

Participants in the seminar shared the sense that city centres were responding well to the trends and changes which the pandemic highlighted. We heard examples from all the cities our original study looked at of new ideas and fresh initiatives being pursued: whether to create new, flexible business space, leisure and visitor attractions, bring green space into the centre or improve the quality of the local environment.

Many contributors saw a positive future for the city centre. They were keen to ensure each of our cities remained distinctive, with a clear identity for their centre which drew from local history and the nature of the community to make them unique places. They wanted to ensure they did not become closed spaces but remained open to all, welcoming and offering something to young people and families. They should not just become places for economic transactions, they are also places for people to live, to visit and to spend time in.

Whilst some of the media had been reporting a post-covid ‘flight from cities’ that did not seem to be happening in the central South. The population of our cities is changing, with notable shifts in the age profile and a forecast growth in the number of students. But their centres remain important residential as well as commercial centres. We should, participants agreed, continue to try new ideas and experiment with how these places are designed and used.

SPC’s November 2020 report suggested we need to think about ‘curating’ our city centres: a dynamic process of shaping a flexible vision for the future to create places responsive to change and resilient to shocks. One of the biggest challenges we discussed at this seminar was the question of governance: how do we bring together they many organisations who can play a part in curating city centres, and what is the best way of ensuring a community voice is part of that discussion?

Local councils, representatives of the community, should, some argued, be at the centre of governance, but it was important that the task of curation did not become caught up in short-term political cycles. Businesses, the voluntary sector and community organisations all had a role of play alongside the local council, as do the so-called anchor institutions – hospitals, universities – who wield significant economic and political influence.

Participants also recognised the business of curation required the skills and capacity in many of our city-wide organisations. But there was an acceptance that we could find most of those skills within the local community who know and understand their place, and that the city is collectively responsible for curation – it is not a task we can ‘out-source’ to external advisors.

So there are grounds for optimism: the future of our city centres is, for many of our participants, bright. That’s because of the creativity and flexibility we see in how business, retail and other aspects of city centre life are evolving. The challenge is how we manage that and so curate these places without harming the very creativity which makes the future so positive.

Simon Eden


Southern Policy Centre

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