Solving the place making conundrum

How people engage with the physical environment is changing and town centres need to respond to ensure they are relevant.  ‘The death of the High Street’ and ‘retail armageddon’ are all phrases hitting the headlines in the national press but the truth is more complex. To quote retailing guru, Steve Dennis, when looking at the physical shopping environment retail is not dead, boring retail is. The challenge for town and city centres is to ensure that they are serving the needs of their catchment which requires a vision that looks beyond retail.

GCW believes people are being drawn to two distinct categories of town:

  • Local, convenient places where people live and work.
  • Experiential destinations where the reason to visit incorporates much more than shopping including tourism, leisure or entertainment. They range from affluent coastal towns such as Southwold to major retailing centres such as Stratford’s Westfield. 

The towns that fall outside these two types of location could be described as the squeezed middle and they have historically been retail destinations. The impact of urbanisation, declining car ownership, increased use of the internet and retail insolvencies are making them less attractive and they need to find their sense of place.

GCW director Duncan Kite argues that for the squeezed towns in the middle, ironically, much of the solution lies in the past.

“Retail hasn’t always been the dominant town centre use. Homes, pubs, restaurants, medical services, education, offices and local authority services all formed the blend of uses that attracted people to use their town centre. As retail became the most valuable use these alternative occupiers were moved to edge or out of town locations. The structural changes that have occurred in retail create opportunities to attract these uses back to the town centre. Done well this can create vibrant mixed use locations with a real sense of community” he says.

Kite argues that to be successful it goes beyond just adding traditional uses back into the town centre. Public realm, culture, and flexible, shared space all form part of a robust solution.

“It might sound simple but it needs bold and creative decisions and a recognition that there is no one-size fits all. A more vibrant town centre is good for retailers as a broader offering will increase use” he adds.

GCW director Simon Morris argues that the solutions need to come from a variety of stakeholders including local authorities and large landowners and the property industry needs to be the enabler.

“Too many advisors think about the job they do or the market they have traditionally served rather than the needs of a town and the people who live there. Leading landlords need to understand they often don’t own a shopping centre, they own the slice of a town centre that by virtue of a single ownership could be the key opportunity to shape the future direction of the place as a whole” he says.

“GCW is framing its advice to landlords and local authorities in a new way. The most successful town centres have a vision and a real plan to deliver this. We can be the agitators of ideas and take a creative approach. We need to put people and place at the centre of what we do and we are actively encouraging clients to do that too. Local people need to fall in love with their town centres again.”

Input from GCW’s established Alternative Sectors team is now fed into all major projects. With established understanding of gyms, hotels, medical and all residential uses, the team offers insight into the plethora of non-retailer occupiers and how they help to create a sense of community purpose.

GCW director David Gooch points out that some towns who are getting it right can be seen as examples of the benefits of focussing on a place-making plan.

When GCW advised on the mixed-use town centre regeneration of Feltham combining a shopping centre and supermarket with retail outlets, homes, offices and community facilities in 2006, it was ahead of its time. It is still evolving and illustrates that making a town relevant to people who live there will drive success. Gooch points to Altrincham as a good example of a town at risk of being squeezed out. Consumers had stopped shopping there but an innovative market development followed by a cinema became a catalyst to revive its fortunes.

GCW’s recent instruction to sell Edmonton Green shopping centre is a strong example of the new thinking. The sale was promoted as an opportunity to deliver change in a London borough, to embrace a diverse multi-cultural community and to use that to enhance the town centre by adding in more sustainable residential development. In one of GCW’s newest projects in Barking, client Benson Elliot’s redevelopment of Vicarage Fields shopping centre and its immediate vicinity including retail, restaurants, a cinema, a new primary school and health centre will be a catalyst for change. The project has just won a green light with a council resolution to allow the CPO of key parts of land.

Successful town centre projects often benefit from positive local authority involvement. Simon Morris argues that councils must grasp the nettle for their town centre but that the level and role of involvement will vary. It can be about changing policy, providing capital, buying property in, or just agitating and enabling others to act.