The Future of Town and City centres: A New Urban Renaissance?

The Future of Town and City centres: A New Urban Renaissance?

Rob Richardson

Urban centres have re-emerged as key sites of policy intervention. National and local governments across the UK are responding to changing patterns of office and retail use, and the need to deliver more housing in existing towns and cities. The UK Government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has a ‘long-term plan for towns’, to this end.

Reshaping places for the long term is complex, however. Conflict over policy concepts such as 15-minute neighbourhoods and low emission zones demonstrates the contested visions involved. Such disagreement isn’t helped by disjointed policy, such as one-off funding allocations and inconsistent infrastructure decision-making – like the scrapping of HS2. Delivering the long-term change needed to revitalise town and city centres requires a more strategic approach. We can look to New Labour’s ‘urban renaissance’ agenda, which advocated a holistic way to regenerate places, as one source of inspiration.

A design-led urban renaissance

Urban design – the collaborative and multi-disciplinary process of shaping the physical setting for life, or ‘making places’ – became a key part of UK Government policy following the Urban Task Force at the turn of the millennium. Chaired by Lord Richard Rodgers, with the aim of reversing urban decay in city centres, the Urban Task Force targeted an ‘urban renaissance’ based on a “commitment to excellence in urban design”. 

This involved promoting new development in central areas rather than the suburbs, therefore mixing retail, leisure, and housing. Other key components included emphasising local character, prioritising high quality public realm, and improving pedestrian accessibility. Although the ‘urban renaissance’ agenda received criticism for facilitating inner-city gentrification and contributing to social exclusion in some places, it was highly influential across the UK, particularly in raising the profile of urban design. The design quality of the built environment has since become a key component of planning policy across the UK. 

The devolved nations have each taken a unique approach. Scotland’s fourth National Planning Framework positions design quality and local living as key components of a sustainable and healthy ‘placemaking’ policy agenda, for example. Recent planning and urban design policy in England has been shaped by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which was established to drive up housing design quality to reduce local objections to new development. The Office for Place was subsequently tasked with championing place quality more widely. Likewise, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own distinctive policy on urban design and placemaking.

Yet, much new urban development in the UK does not live up to the expectations of national policy. The quality of new-build housing is often especially problematic, particularly when delivered by the largest private housebuilders. Outcomes are often driven by developers’ standardised business models and the imperative of delivering quantity over quality, resulting in poorly connected and bland developments that ‘could be found anywhere’

Improving design quality is crucial to making the UK’s towns and cities successful places where people want to live and spend time. The redevelopment of Liverpool’s city centre through the highly successful ‘Liverpool One’ public-private partnership – which combines mixed uses with an interconnected street and public realm network – demonstrates the long-term impact of a holistic regeneration strategy focused on design.

Although not without its faults, the urban renaissance agenda was effective in positioning design in this way, as a ‘long-term investment’ requiring a ‘joined up approach’.

The way people use urban centres is changing

Town and city centres are responding to retail activity continuing to shift online, and the impact of the more recent cost of living crisis. Office use has likewise changed as homeworking has become more common following the pandemic.

Urban centres therefore need to offer more varied reasons for people to dwell. Research suggests that places are combining increasingly mixed land and building uses and leisure activities, improved pedestrian and public transport accessibility, and high quality public realm. This is reminiscent of many key recommendations made by the Urban Task Force in 1999. 

For example, two major indoor shopping centres in Glasgow– Buchanan Galleries and the St Enoch Centre– are planned for partial demolition to create mixed use districts. Likewise, Nottingham’s Broadmarsh Centre is being partially demolished for the ‘Broad Marsh Green Heart’ project, to create a major new pedestrianised green space in the city centre. On a smaller scale, Stockton-on-Tees’ Castlegate shopping centre is to be replaced by a waterfront park, and the Artizan centre in Dumbarton in the west of Scotland is planned for partial demolition using ‘levelling-up’ funding.

Across the UK, government interest in such place-based initiatives has grown. The Scottish Government’s town centre action plan is accompanied by a place-based investment programme to support local regeneration initiatives. Meanwhile, the Welsh Government’s ‘transforming towns’ initiative includes a dedicated £15.2 million placemaking fund, to support local authorities with design-centred projects including green infrastructure and active travel routes.

Likewise, DLUHC recently awarded £20 million in endowment style funds to 55 towns across the UK, alongside other ‘levelling up’ funding and initiatives. Albeit with a neoliberal twist of patchwork funding arrangements and competitive bidding, this echoes the targeted area-based initiatives which were consistently deployed to regenerate deprived areas during the 1990s and early 2000s. 

Disjointed policy

Other UK Government interventions, including the ‘plan for drivers’ and ‘pragmatic’ approach to net zero are less consistent with place-based regeneration initiatives. Many of the ‘difficult conversations’ around related policy, such as low emission zones, have focused on initial short-term ‘costs’ of changes to reach net zero. This neglects the longer-term co-benefits, including the wide-ranging positive impacts for town and city centres of greater pedestrian accessibility. Similarly, DLUHC’s consultation on extending permitted development rights to facilitate the conversion of offices to housing risks prioritising small increases to housing delivery over the longer-term impact on places

Short-term and disjointed policy like this will not secure the vibrant future which struggling towns and cities need. A recent survey by More in Common and Power to Change suggests the UK Government’s current approach is not working. 32% of 2,000 people polled reported that their local high street was getting worse, while only 23% felt theirs was improving.

Policy should prioritise interventions to create successful and sustainable places for the long term. Evidence shows that walkable places with strong pedestrian and public transport connections lead to improved health outcomes by encouraging active travel and improving air quality, while local living can support a vibrant economy and create substantial ‘place value’.  These are not new ideas – Jane Jacobs wrote about many of them in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. They have permanence because they make places better.

Designing the future of town and city centres

Places are much more than the sum of their individual streets and buildings. Interventions to support the evolution of town and city centres should therefore treat places holistically. Urban design should be a key component of coordinated policy which encompasses both the built environment and people’s experiences. 

Examples of recent development in the UK which are often-cited for their design quality, such as the large-scale regeneration sites at King’s Cross and Battersea in London, can be expensive and exclusive. Yet, major redevelopments in places such as Nottingham and Stockton now offer hope that urban design is becoming a key component in the revitalisation of urban centres more widely. Likewise, national strategies for supporting town centres in the devolved nations show promise, including those by the Scottish and Welsh Governments. 

Creating high quality, well-designed places through coordinated long-term policy is key to ensuring that town and city centres remain successful and adaptable for the future. People will not spend time – or money – in poor quality environments. 

This would also support wide-ranging policy goals for people and planet. It would improve people’s daily lives, their health, and support local economies while reducing carbon emissions. Or, in other words – deliver key elements of a new urban renaissance.