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The opening of the Bradford Broadway last week was a pivotal moment for the city. The 10 year old ‘Bradford hole’ has been filled in by 70 new restaurants, cafes and shops in the city – valuable amenities for the city’s residents, which also support jobs in retail and catering. But it reopens the debate around our city centres and our high streets. What is it that drives successful city centres? Can retail, culture, housing or the public realm be routes to their regeneration? Why do people want to work and live there? And what different roles do they play in different cities?
Some of the answers to these questions emerged from our recent report, Urban Demographics: Why people live where they do. We looked at the demographic profile of 59 cities across England and Wales, and then we asked 268 city centre residents in four case study cities (Brighton, Manchester, Sheffield and Swindon) why they live where they do (see chart below). And they primarily said that they live there to be close to restaurants, leisure and cultural facilities – local shops, public transport, and the workplace were important, too. Interestingly, the quality of the built or natural environment – frequently on the agenda for city centre strategies – is low down the agenda for city centre residents.
Source: YouGov, 2015, 1725 residents from four city regions.
So what does this tell us about how to encourage people into city centres? At first, the answer seems easy. Provide the shops, the bars, the restaurants and the theatres, and the people will come. And when the people come, economic growth will come too. Right?
Well, no, not really. In practice, only investing in retail and leisure in city centres is unlikely to have a long term positive effects. And that’s because behind the survey results, the return to city centre living in large cities has actually been driven by people following jobs and universities, while city centre amenities emerge as more of a by-product of population growth.
Sheffield is an interesting example to illustrate this. A vibrant city centre in a university town, its city centre population more than doubled between 2001 and 2011. But this hasn’t attracted new working residents in – the equivalent of three quarters of this growth was accounted for by students, quite a contrast from Manchester, where employed residents made up more than half of its growth. And despite growing student numbers and a strong amenity pull – more than a third of respondents said being close to restaurants, leisure and cultural facilities is a main reason why they live there – the number of jobs in the city centre has actually declined between 1998 and 2011, by 22 per cent.
Yet city centre regeneration projects do not tend to reflect these trends. Initiatives such as the Mayor’s Regeneration Fund in London, set up in 2011, which has invested £70 million towards small town centre projects scattered across the city; Hull’s Public Realm Investment Strategy, which invests in public realm throughout the city centre; and Sheffield’s Successful Centres programme, which invests in small interventions such as new shopfronts, street improvements and new public spaces, are all of value on a local scale. But schemes such as these tend to overestimate their individual contribution to the long-term success of a city centre, and tend to be loosely related, if at all, to the economic strategy for the city centre and the wider area it sits within.
A successful city centre is more likely to come about as a result of the long-term, incremental contribution of a range of factors and initiatives. In Manchester, the significant role that the city centre plays in the city’s overall economic geography is a result of a number of things: a highly skilled workforce; a built environment that can support high knowledge business growth; an industrial cluster of financial and other high knowledge activities has arisen over several years; and a shared vision for the role that it plays within the city region, which drives investment towards a single goal.
So in Bradford, a single shopping centre is unlikely to be a silver bullet. But this, alongside the renovated City Park, the plans to renovate the Bradford Odeon, the location of the university on the fringes of the city centre, the trend of firms such as Provident to locate closer to the city centre and an improving unemployment record will all cumulatively have a role to play. For cities looking to follow a path of city centre growth, this is crucial. A shared understanding across the city of what the city centre does and could offer in the future is absolutely key – and the realisation of those goals will hinge on their ability to harness the tools on offer in order to encourage city centre investment, improve skills, create new jobs and make their city centres and their cities better places to live and work.
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