Can mixed-use neighbourhoods revitalise UK city centres?

Rethinking the city centre mix

March 29, 2019

Once a trip to the city centre was all about shopping but as e-commerce continues to grow and retailers reassess their use of space, city centres are offering a more diverse mix of amenities that better cater for modern urban lifestyles.

With more traditional retailers such as House of Fraser and Maplin closing stores, it’s opening the doors for fresh concepts from local restaurants to pop-ups from online retailers. And it’s not just about retail: city centres are becoming increasingly mixed use with homes, offices, hotels and cafes enabling local residents to live, work, relax and socialise within the same area.

Simon Peacock, JLL UK lead director in the South West, believes the ongoing shift in the UK’s urban planning presents an opportunity to get the city centre mix right for future generations.

“Retail space is going to get smaller and it’s going to get surrounded by other uses,” he says. “The mixed-use approach is becoming increasingly popular, signifying the end of an era where urban areas were zoned according to use.”

New mixed-use neighbourhoods

City centres across the UK are being reshaped by a growing number of mixed-use neighbourhoods. In Manchester, Circle Square is combining offices, residential, and leisure and green space to create a modern, community based urban environment. In Leeds, Wellington Place, is a high-end office development that incorporates cafes and bars for people to linger and socialise beyond working hours.

Successful schemes, says Peacock, are reliant on footfall – and it’s vital to look at how to bring more people into cities. A growing range of recreational activities from indoor crazy golf to 4D cinemas can give locals and out-of-towners a reason to regularly visit and create a vibrant destination.

Getting the look and feel of a development right is also key. Bristol’s Wapping Wharf project is creating a new waterfront community offering harbourside flats, boutique stores and contemporary places to eat and drink using an array of modern materials such as old shipping containers to fashion a cool, creative image that attracts locals as well as tourists.

“In the past it was retail, that would attract people into an area. But now it’s all about attracting the kind of quality independent restaurants, cafes and bars that are sought-after and which add value to communities because these are the places people want to visit,” says Peacock.

The government has signalled it recognises the need to make the high street more diverse and is considering relaxing planning laws to allow shops to change to other uses such as offices and residential under permitted development rights.

Design is key

Retail will nevertheless continue to feature in many future developments – albeit alongside an evolving range of facilities and amenities.

Jeff Pearey, JLL UK lead director for Yorkshire and the North East believes Leeds, for example, will continue to have a strong retail offer but says further investment is needed to create neighbourhoods that stand out and public spaces that cleverly link them together. “It’s about creating good quality spaces where people want to spend time,” he says.

“At the moment the signs are good. Leeds has produced its draft Our Spaces Strategy, which looks at how squares, green spaces and cycleways can help make the city more attractive and within the local chamber of commerce a group has been recently formed looking at how the waterfront area in the city can be improved.”

University campuses, with their large student populations, or new schools can also be an important part of the modern city centre.

“If you bring educational providers closer to the centre, students feel more integrated, and that can have huge benefits because cities want to retain the graduate talent they produce and that is far easier if you create an environment where they want to live and work,” says Pearey.

Equally, a new generation of senior living developments offering high-end amenities are also targeting city centre locations, providing a steady stream of affluent retirees who are looking for day-time activities.

However, creating thriving neighbourhoods is just part of city centre redevelopment. Good transport options are also key. In Bristol, Temple Meads train station is due to be redeveloped, while the launch of the MetroBus represents much-needed transport investment to connect more parts of the city. Both Leeds and Glasgow are set to receive a boost from the overhaul of station areas.

“Transport improvements are a big deal both within and between cities to meet the needs of growing populations and make them attractive places to live and work,” says Peacock. “Improving connectivity, would open up more opportunities for local communities and economies and ensure that the urban hubs springing up in UK cities continue to flourish.”

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