As we re-imagine our urban experience post-pandemic, here’s six principles for vibrant, inclusive and sustainable city centres in the future.
In recent years, our city centres have in many ways been a success-story. They’ve seen amazing new cultural offers, retail led-regeneration, people moving back to live in the middle of town.
City centres also face structural challenges. Online shopping is hitting physical retail hard; climate change means city centres can be hotter and more prone to flooding; high property prices are just too much for many; while flexible working means fewer people popping out to get a haircut or buy a sandwich at lunchtime.
The micro economies of those city centres where few people live have been particularly hard hit
Covid has exposed and exacerbated some of these frailties, particularly for those city centres with a 9–5 office monoculture. The micro economies of those city centres where few people live have been particularly hard hit during the lockdowns.
As we emerge from the pandemic, there is the opportunity to reset, to build for a better future. At Cardiff University we held an event on ‘Rethinking the City Centre’ to consider how we might make city centres vibrant, sustainable, and inclusive.
This was the first in a series of events, jointly run by the School of Geography and Planning and the Welsh School of Architecture, looking at the City in 2040. We want to use the future creatively to explore what our cities might face, how they might be better, and then bring that back to inform research and practice today.
Challenges Facing City Centres
Discussants at the event ‘Rethinking City Centres’ explored first some of the challenges faced in urban centres today: affordability of housing, struggling shops, and disconnects between people, technology and place.
We’re already at a tipping point in so many cities in terms of affordability
People are being priced out of city centres. They can’t afford to live there, so are moving to suburbs and satellite towns. And some existing communities find that the city centre vision is so hipster, so gentrified, so full of pavement cafes, that it doesn’t have spaces, places, and facilities for them. We see city centres being hollowed out, with shopping and offices over-dominant and expensive homes in prime districts lying empty for much of the year. (A study by Alison Wallace, University of York, found 38% of new build properties in London’s Westminster were bought by overseas buyers).
For Dr Mhairi McVicar, Reader in Architecture and Project Lead of Community Gateway at Cardiff University “We’re already at a tipping point in so many cities in terms of affordability…We have an utterly broken housing system in the UK, which is often about private development coming in and extracting profit very quickly and then leaving again.”
“The crisis of retail has been accelerated by the pandemic…City centres and high streets are struggling”, according to Judith Everett, Executive Director for Purpose, Sustainability & Stakeholders, The Crown Estate. Discussants talked of the importance of retaining vibrant streetscapes and of retail henceforth being much more about ‘experience’ than ‘stuff’.
Big development projects take so long, that by the time they are finished, the world has changed
Lev Kushner, Founding Partner, Department of Here, talked about disconnects in the city centre: the disconnect between the rapid rates at which technology and culture change, and the much slower rates of change with infrastructure and buildings. Big development projects take so long, that by the time they are finished, the world has changed. He also pointed to a disconnect between ‘convenience and community.’ “When you can get just about anything in the world delivered to your couch, that’s a recipe for peak laziness. That means not meeting and bumping into people, not sharing ideas and creating community.”
Ultimately, Kushner feels that “people are going to continue to want to be near to each other”, that in the end, we want to satisfy our basic physical and psychological needs. The question remains, however, where will we satisfy those needs? In suburbs, in satellite towns, in rural areas, or in the city centre?
Six Elements of a Future City Centre
While respecting that every urban context is different, I took away from the discussion six principles to guide the city centre of the future.
1. Green. All agreed that should be more green space, less traffic, less pollution and more biodiversity. City Centres will be net zero. We might explore growing food in our town centres, on rooftops, closer to where people need it. A greener centre would bring opportunities for more healthy, active and sustainable living. And smarter buildings, less traffic, and reducing the need to travel would not only improve wellbeing, but also respond to the climate emergency.
For Judith Everett, “if we can reduce traffic on the street, improve air quality and biodiversity, we can also make it more pleasant experience for people who live, work and shop in the centre.”
2. Flexible. The building, streets, and infrastructure of the future will be highly adaptive. We need to make places work much harder, to cater to more needs, at more times of the day and night. We’ll see repurposing of buildings, multi-use spaces that arepart-office, part-distribution centre, part- education facility. We’ll see spaces cater for different age groups, pre-school nurseriesalongside senior living alongside life-long learning. Digital technology will help support this flexibility and these multiple uses.
Lev Kushner reminds us: “We just can’t tear buildings down, and spring them up again, to keep pace with our with our rapid technological and cultural change. These highly fluid environments will put a premium on the ability to programme and activate spaces, that’s where value will be.”
Not just mixed use, but mixed users
3. Inclusive. City centres should be opportunity-rich, accessible, affordable and welcoming for different types of people, of all ages. A more diverse population should have the opportunity and to enjoy and participate fully in the city. The ethos should be:‘Not just mixed use, but mixed users.’
Mhairi McVicar wants to see “..the city centre planned and developed for those who live, work, meet, and create in it. That means not only decentralization of power to include the community voice and community design, but also of the resources and support structures to enable participatory transformation.”
4. Emergent. The successful city centre will be the result of ‘co-creation, not over-curation’. It will be inconvenient and messy in places. Cultural institutions, offices and shops will no longer be prisoners of their buildings. They will reach out, onto forecourts, parklets and reclaimed road-space and interact with the urban realm and the people there in new and unexpected ways.
“How do we plan for and support the messier aspects of life, ecology, joy and connectedness?” McVicar asks. “How do we provide access to affordable, messy space? And how we give people capacity and tools to be involved?”
Co-creation, not over-curation
5. Authentic. Who wants to visit a clone-town, identikit, city centre? To be attractive, cities will need to show their personalityand difference. And that personality should be built on an understanding of what’s there. Planners and developers should take time to understand the things that build and bind communities, to respect and enhance the — often hidden — assets already there.
For Judith Everett: “Place-making means drawing on what’s already there, valuing what is already there in co-creation…while drawing from what’s exciting in other communities and bringing that back into the city centre, not thinking we have all the answers. “
6. Inspiring. The city centre will be more than shops and offices. It will be about experience and about human interaction. This will be supported by new digital tools. We’ll see a better blending of the physical and the virtual, with virtual-reality cues and digital infrastructure helping to programme different human interactions. The city centre should not be about more ‘stuff’ but about more ‘joy’.
Not just come and buy this thing, but come and do this thing
Lev Kushner concluded: ”Ultimately developers, retailers, city governments want to attract us, they chase people. And people want people. Experience is increasingly important. Not just come and buy this thing, but come and do this thing”.
So, the city centre of the future should be green, flexible, inclusive, emergent, authentic and inspiring. To guide us to this future, we need to continually ask ourselves the question: for whom and for what are we reshaping a new city centre?