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The heart of the matter: Peter Jones, David Hillier, and Daphne Comfort look at some of the elements, and particularly the retail elements, in current town and city centre regeneration projects and examine some of the issues raised by these projects. (feature).

The last three to four years have witnessed growing interest in the regeneration of town and city centres throughout the UK. This clearly reflects the Labour Government's political commitment to urban regeneration and urban renaissance. Here the policy focus has been on `creating the quality of life and vitality that makes urban living desirable'. There is also a growing belief that town/city centre regeneration holds the key to wider urban and sub-regional regeneration.

While many stakeholders have important roles to play in the process, retail development is often seen as being crucial in the regeneration of town and city centres, in that it provides the essential stimulus for new investment from other major stakeholders. Growing commercial interest in town and city centre regeneration certainly reflects the 1996 revisions to PPG6: Town Centres and Retail Developments, which placed severe restrictions on new out-of-town retail development, which in turn encouraged developers and investors to seek productive outlets for capital in town and city centres.

This article examines some of the elements, particularly the retail elements, in current town and city centre regeneration projects, and discusses some of the issues raised by these projects.

Regeneration plans and projects

Town and city centre regeneration projects--at various stages in the `development pipeline'--are widespread throughout much of the UK's urban hierarchy, for example in large cities such as Birmingham, Sheffield, and Liverpool, through medium-sized cities such as Leicester, Aberdeen, and Bradford, to smaller places such as Preston, Barnsley, Huddersfield, and Chesterfield, and down to Whitehaven, Boston, and Bury St Edmunds. Some town and city centre regeneration projects have been comprehensively planned as part of wider and seemingly very ambitious urban regeneration company (URC) strategic plans or as major town- and city-wide plans, but others are smaller, more self-contained schemes.

Liverpool Vision, established in 1999 as the UK's first URC, has the goal of bringing together key public and private sector agencies to focus their resources and energies to spearhead the regeneration of Liverpool city centre over a ten-year period. The mission is for the city centre to be recognised as a physically and economically attractive magnet for commercial investment, residential expansion, and the enhancement of the leisure and tourist industries. A detailed economic, social, and physical appraisal and a stakeholder consultation exercise provided the foundations for a strategy that focuses upon seven key `Action Areas' and which embraces five `Supporting Themes' (see the box, below right).

The Pier Head, for example, is to be transformed `into a world class environment that reinforces its function as a key City Centre Gateway and visitor destination' at a cost of 163 million [pounds sterling]. The 330 million [pounds sterling] proposals for the `Retail Core' are designed to deliver a `step-change' in the quality of the city's retail offer. Here the accent will be on the creation of a well planned, dynamic, and vibrant shopping experience, the regeneration of the existing retail core, the redefinition of the city's traditional market, and the linking of the extended retail core with the city's waterfront. The overall goal is the creation of a world-class city centre. Plans for the regeneration of Sheffield's city centre by the URC Sheffield One are equally ambitious. Sheffield One has been `tasked with spearheading the regeneration of Sheffield City Centre in a way that will benefit the whole city and the wider sub-region'. The URC has developed a master plan designed to guide the regeneration of the city centre over a 10-15 year period. While this plan recognises that there is no single policy or project that will provide a panacea for the city centre's problems, four strategic objectives are seen as central to the transformation of the city:

* building a new high-technology-based economy in the city;

* creating a vibrant city as a centre for learning, culture, retail, and living;

* improving accessibility to the city centre by all modes of transport; and

* celebrating the public realm by bringing high-quality public spaces to all parts of the city centre and celebrating the city's green heritage.

The overall vision is of a functionally cohesive central area where individual projects and programmes reinforce and support each other and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the individual parts. There is also a commitment to ensure that the benefits of city centre regeneration reach out to the most deprived communities within the city and beyond to the sub-region.

Retailing is at the heart of Sheffield One's vision. The URC believes that the regeneration of the city centre will not succeed unless the existing retail core can be revitalised and given a strong new focus. At the same time there is a clear recognition that Sheffield's retail offer has not been keeping pace with other leading northern city centres such as Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle.

Here, as in Liverpool, the argument is that a `step-change' is required to create the confidence to attract leading developers, investors, and occupiers back into the city centre. The plan is to create a new high-quality retail quarter with a much enlarged John Lewis Partnership department store at its hub. This new 65,000 square feet of retail floorspace is designed to knit together and strengthen the city's existing retail areas, and it will link to new leisure, residential, and cultural developments around the City Hall and the Peace Gardens.

While new retail development is clearly seen as providing the stimulus for regeneration, the current strategic plan includes many other types of development. A flagship project is the creation of a new high-technology science district centred on an e-campus in the Sheaf Valley. This will provide some 80,000 square metres of business accommodation custom-built for high-technology businesses and e-commerce in the city centre, so providing a focus for inward investment by established high-technology companies seeking UK city centre locations.

There is also to be a `stepping stone' approach to providing a broad portfolio of business accommodation at range of prices to help a broad spectrum of businesses to grow and stay in Sheffield, and there are plans to provide high-quality office accommodation and modern upmarket residential accommodation in the heart of the city and a commitment to further develop the city's cultural industries quarter.

Improving access to, and ease of movement within, the city centre are also seen as crucial within the overall regeneration strategy. Here the focus is to be on the creation of a high-quality, safe, and pedestrian-dominated city centre, the diversion of traffic away from the city centre, a refocusing of the public transport system to respond to changing patterns of activity and passenger needs, and improvements to the legibility of the city centre to all users through the provision of better signage.

The comprehensive, strategic URC approach to town and city centre regeneration is not just confined to large cities. In 2002 URCs were established in Swindon and Corby, both with a strong town centre focus.

Swindon is widely regarded as a prosperous town, housing many of the South West region's major inward investors and having a low unemployment rate. However, much of this investment has taken place on greenfield sites on the edge of the town. The town centre is now seen as lacking the facilities to attract the staff that the town, as a whole, needs if it is to survive and prosper. The URC will, it is hoped, stimulate and accelerate the regeneration of the town centre. The accent is to be on encouraging investment in a sustainable town centre that will attract new businesses, tourists, and residents, and on improving the range and quality of the facilities within the town centre.

In Corby the URC believes that the regeneration of the town centre is the key to the regeneration of the town as a whole. Birmingham City Council established its City Centre Strategy in 1987 and since then has been working with a range of private sector partners in what is described as Europe's largest city centre regeneration project. The most recent pieces in this regeneration jigsaw include Martineau Place, the New Bull Ring, and Brindley Place.

The redevelopment of Martineau Place involved the refurbishment, redevelopment, and extension of the original property that was itself constructed barely 30 years ago. The scheme, completed in 2001, has 29 retail units offering some 16,500 square metres of floorspace and 11 floors of office space. The overall design sought to replicate the style of the early 20th century department stores and to be a landmark within the city centre.

Brindley Place is a large canal-side mixed-use development with a wide range of shops, bars, and restaurants, four major office buildings, the Sea Life Centre, a health club, a theatre, some 140 town houses and apartments, and a multi-storey car park.

The New Bull Ring, due for completion in late 2003, includes a three-level 110,000 square metre shopping centre, an indoor market, a major new public open space designed to enhance the setting of St Martin's Church, a refurbished bus station, and safe and secure parking for 3,000 cars.

Many other towns and cities have also embarked on wide ranging mixed-use central area regeneration projects. In Preston, for example, the draft masterplan for the city centre Tithebarn regeneration project outlines a vision to create between 3,000 and 5,000 new jobs in the city centre. This project is to include a new high-technology centre and library, a revitalised market, a large new department store, a new fitness centre and cinema, new bars and restaurants, a new bus station, and improved pedestrian and vehicular access. Aberdeen's City Centre Partnership was launched in 1991, and its strategic aims covered a range of development, environment, transportation, and promotion agendas. Since then it has completed over 300 improvement projects, designed to transform the city centre.

In many towns individual self-contained shopping centre development schemes have been the sole element in regeneration projects. Towards the lower end of the urban hierarchy some so-called town centre regeneration schemes are in reality little more than environmental improvement projects.

In Millom in Cumbria, for example, the Market Square refurbishment scheme included environmental works, building refurbishments, and artwork at a cost of 0.25 million [pounds sterling].

Issues raised

`Sustainable regeneration' is a common theme in many, if not all, town and city centre projects, but it will, by definition, be some time before any definitive and comprehensive evaluation of these projects can be made. However, a number of issues merit attention and discussion.

The consumer demand for, and the ability to attract, new high-quality retail investment is seen as the key element in the town and city centre regeneration process. While a range of quality shopping opportunities has traditionally been widely recognised as one of the defining characteristics of successful town and city centres, it is unwise to assume that new retail investment and development per se will guarantee the success of the regeneration process.

First, new developments must possess both the quality as well as the `critical `mass' to attract new customers. New developments may impact on existing retail provision within the town or city centre, and if this leads to a substantial loss of trade from existing retailers then the overall beneficial effects of any new investment will be reduced accordingly.

Secondly, critical mass is also important when it is hoped that retail investment will provide the trigger for wider commercial and residential investment. It will be more difficult for small retail developments to provide that trigger, but where larger retail schemes are planned then detailed planning and development briefs must consider how the new retail offer will mutually complement commercial and residential developments.

Thirdly, new developments should not be viewed in isolation from the town centre as a whole. If new developments and newly created open spaces immediately around them are little more than islands in a run-down urban sea, there may be little change in overall perceptions of the image of the town or city centre and it may prove difficult to attract new consumers and hence additional expenditure.

Fourthly, there is also the issue of the maintenance and management of both private and public spaces within town and city centres. While successful shopping centre owners and successful retailers, for example, will continually re-invest in upgrading and refurbishing their centres and their retail outlets, others will have more limited resources for this process, and this will also affect the image of the town and city centre.

The management and maintenance of public spaces within regenerated town and city centres also raises practical issues. A lack of sustained long-term funding has been a problem for the majority of town centre management (TCM) schemes: relatively small financial contributions from the retail community have often left a shortfall that has, in turn, threatened the long-term viability of what have often been modest TCM schemes. Many town and city centre regeneration plans are much more ambitious than most TCM schemes, and unless the private sector is prepared to fund the continuing maintenance and management of the newly created public spaces, the burden seems certain to fall heavily on local authorities.

If local authorities are unable to fund continuing works, then such spaces may be left to fall into the decay and decline that has all too often characterised many previous urban environmental improvement schemes--and this, too, will have an all too damaging impact on the overall image of a town or city centre.

More generally, the focus on new retail investment as the crucial element in town and city centre regeneration should also be seen in the light of changes in the OK's retail hierarchy. For most of the 20th century town and city centres were at the apex of urban, sub-regional, and regional hierarchies, but from the 1970s onwards the growth and increasing diversification of out-of-town shopping has provided a growing challenge to these traditional hierarchies.

The out-of-town exodus can be traced back to the development of food superstores from the late 1960s onwards, and despite seemingly restrictive planning regulations this process continued largely unchecked until the 1996 government revisions to PPG6, which placed severe restrictions on new out-of-town retail development. A wide range of out-of-town developments--including large free-standing food superstores, retail warehouses and retail parks, outlet centres, and regional shopping centres such as Bluewater, the Trafford Centre, and Braehead--collectively now have a massive, and often very visible, physical presence in the retail landscape and a powerful presence in the nation's shopping and consumption psyche.

Town and city centre shopping is certainly no longer sacrosanct for that section of the population born since the 1960s, and new high-quality retail developments will have to confront such shopping behaviour patterns if such developments are to succeed. Where major out-of-town shopping centres are also linked to new multi-leisure complexes--as at Cheshire Oaks, adjacent to junction 10 on the M53 in the north west of England, for example--then the combined attraction of a highly accessible major `one stop shop' retail, leisure, and entertainment venue may well outweigh the attractions of regenerated town and city centres.

At the same time, recent messages from the Treasury regarding some relaxation in the severity of PPG6 may only serve to reignite the flames of out-of-town retail development, and this in turn will make retailed town and city centre regeneration all the more difficult.

Leisure and entertainment is seen as a significant component in a number of town and city centre regeneration projects. Traditionally, leisure property has been seen as a fragile market, but the 1990s witnessed significant changes in leisure yields as investors jumped on a leisure development bandwagon. However, a focus on leisure-fed regeneration may be something of a two-edged sword. While many `day-time' leisure and entertainment facilities may well enhance the overall appeal of town and city centres, some `night-time' attractions may be seen by some sections of the population as being virtually synonymous with a range of undesirable activities. Such attractions might include a heavy concentration of `superpubs', music venues, late-night restaurants and conventional nightclubs, and, in a growing number of towns and cities, lap-dancing clubs.

At best, facilities of this nature might be seen as promoting a `youth culture' and late-night anti-social behaviour, neither of which appeals to older consumers or to city centre residents. At worst these activities might be seen to lead to the promotion of what some sections of the population might perceive as an alcohol- and drug-centred culture, with damaging effects on the overall image of the town or city centre.

The need to improve access into, and within, town and city centres is also a crucial issue, and the focus on what, for example, Liverpool Vision describes as a `balanced movement strategy' may prove to be partly elusive. The regeneration projects outlined earlier seek to attract more people into, or back into, towns and cities, and if they are to succeed in this goal then the centres need to be accessible and welcoming. Many of the more affluent consumers that regenerated town and city centres seek to attract have become almost exclusively `motor car dependent', prizing the speed of access to, and secure parking in, out-of-town shopping facilities. At a time when urban road congestion appears to be getting worse, the ability to provide uncongested road links directly to town and city centres may prove difficult.

At the same time, existing urban layouts may make the development of such routes incompatible with the creation of comprehensive city centre-wide pedestrianisation schemes or pedestrian-priority areas. Improvements to public transport gateways have been built into a number of the larger town and city centre regeneration plans, but the ability to attract new consumers and visitors in this way will also depend heavily on the public's perceptions of the quality and reliability of public transport provision.

Investment stimulus?

The regeneration of town and city centres is attracting increasing political and commercial attention within the UK. New retail development is increasingly, if somewhat ambitiously, being seen as providing the stimulus for investment that will lead to a range of commercial and residential development, that in turn will promote sustainable town and city centre regeneration. Even more ambitious is the belief that the regeneration of a town or city centre will stimulate regeneration throughout that town or city and into the surrounding area. The jury will be out on both these issues for some time, but local authorities, politicians, developers, and investors will certainly, want to keep a watching brief on current town and city centre regeneration projects and plans.
Liverpool Vision

`Action Areas'                            `Supporting Themes'

Castle Street/Live Work District           Capital of Culture
Commercial District                        Movement
Cultural Quarter/Lime Street Station       Public realm
Hope Street Quarter                        Community engagement
Pier Head                                  Re-inforcing communities
Retail Core                                Business development
Rope Walk

Peter Jones and Daphne Comfort both work in the Business School at the University of Gloucestershire, and David Hillier is Head of Geography at the University of Glamorgan.
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Author:Jones, Peter; Hillier, David; Comfort, Daphne
Publication:Town and Country Planning
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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