Opinions.

Opinion: Simon Horner

Everyone can agree that focusing the regeneration of UK towns and cities on retail is a thing of the past. These days, the pressure on housing supply and short-fall in development means that residential-led mixed use regeneration seems to be the way forward for our town centres.

Yet how do we ensure that these residential development appeal to a wide demographic? If we want vibrant town centres, we need to accommodate the full spectrum of occupiers, whatever their age or socio-economic profile. For me, one of the greatest challenges we face in shaping the town centres of the future is providing space for cohesive communities, rather than silos of specific social groups which lead to further segregation.

Our residential sector focuses on divides. Firstly, we have the economic divide of social housing, to first-time buyers, private rented and private sale. Yet that is broken down even further with a generational divide, with specific schemes for the student market, through to retirement living and care homes.

Certain locations appeal to certain groups of people because of their physical and geographical characteristics. Yet as we confront challenging times for our town centres, I suspect the ones that will fair best will be those where multi-generational living can thrive.

The promotion of mono-uses leads to sterile localities which lack cohesion and accentuate socio-economic divides. For instance, there has been a lot of press about residential schemes where social housing residents don’t have access to the gardens enjoyed by those who have bought their own flat. There are lessons to be learnt not only about the ethics of segregation but how detrimental it is to the health of our town centres.

Finding ways of allowing different groups of people to live side by side will be beneficial to everyone and is an idea that is gaining traction.

In the US, residential projects focused on multi-generational living has become increasingly popular. Developers are designing schemes which cater for the needs of residents from the cradle to the grave.

Elsewhere, models include co-housing schemes where residents live in separate buildings but come together in communal spaces to socialise and interact. There are even examples of multiple generations sharing the same space. In Holland, a nursing home is offering free accommodation to students in exchange for socialising with older residents.

The multi-generational living market is evolving rapidly. We need to think more innovatively and find ways of making it work within UK towns and cities. That will require not only delivering new developments but repurposing existing buildings to accommodate a range of social groups.

It may be that grants will need to be provided to help make some of these schemes viable and to bring old urban spaces back into use. Particularly in areas where residential values fall below the £300 per sq ft mark, the public sector will need to intervene and support projects which will bring long term social and economic benefits.

If the industry is able to make this model work, it could go a long way to addressing the challenges faced by our tow centres. With a vibrant mix of residents guaranteeing footfall throughout the week, all other forms of development suddenly become more sustainable.

In July, Nationwide won approval for its £50m redevelopment of the former Oakfield Campus in Swindon. The building society plans to build a multi-generational community incorporating 239 new homes. All eyes will be on how the development progresses.

Pre-industrial revolution, we lived together in cohesive multi-generational communities. There is now an opportunity to turn back time and rediscover all the benefits true societal integration has to bring.