Centres of attention

Reinvestment in Europe’s city centres is the key to maintaining a competitive edge, says Greg Clark

Utrecht in The Netherlands is among seven cities analysed in the Urban Land Institute report, Investing in City Centres – What Creates the Upwards Cycle?

City centres are a key element of Europe’s competitive advantage in an increasingly globalised world, where its cities cannot easily match those in other continents for scale or power.

Europe’s historic DNA, its cultural and developmental treasures, is housed in the city centres of more than 100 cities. These centres are magnets of tourism and leisure, and they also foster the creation of knowledge and the expansion of culture.

However, they must not only perform the role of museums, they need to be active business and trade hubs, as well as centres of communication, administration and government. Continuous reinvestment is therefore required in both infrastructure and in sites and land parcels. This requires both a common agenda for city centre investment and high calibre investment and development projects in individual locations.

Urban Land Institute (ULI) recently reviewed how selected city centres in Europe are addressing the challenges of reinvestment after the economic and financial crisis. These included Utrecht, Barcelona, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, London, Paris and Warsaw. The examples of good European practice taken from some of the world’s most successful cities have demonstrated how it is possible to create an upward cycle through investment in city centres. They provide ten key insights:

1. City centres are either a competitive asset or a liability if they are not well managed. Attractiveness of city centre investment is always relative to other locations. Cities must work to create an attractive environment for investors.

2. Complex land uses and ownerships require a shared big picture! A common vision and agenda between public and private sector and essential because trust is the core attribute of a good investment climate.

3. Strong coordination vehicles help to defend projects against political change and competition, and to engage ‘free-loaders’ in contributing to the asset that they benefit from.

4. City centre redevelopment projects have multiple phases that require careful sequencing and patience. Phased communication and delivery are required.

5. City centres provide identity to whole cities, and often nations. Distinctive identity should be at the core of redevelopment projects. City centres should not look the same. It is essential to honour and augment the local features and heritage of a city.

6. Clear roles for city, metropolitan and national scales must be agreed. All three arenas are closely tied and can affect the success of one another.

7. Excellent infrastructure is essential in maximising the benefits of any city centre investment and unlocking its potential.

8. Public and open space should be incorporated into every city centre development in order to ensure high quality of life and environmental attractiveness.

9. Utilise creative investment models such as business improvement districts, tax increment financing and other public-private partnerships.

10. City centres are for people! Make the life of the city centre the focus on redevelopment by creating an environment for people to enjoy the centre on all days if the week and all times of day.

City centres are arguably the most complex investment locations in the world. Their densities, complicated and over-lapping land-uses, and diverse ownership patterns make them hubs of activity and innovation, but also management and investment challenges. City centres are the core nodes of metropolitan investment markets and infrastructure platforms, and successful city centres can and do affect positive change at the regional and national levels.

This is increasingly true in Europe where the historic nature of so many city centres provides a rich cultural endowment, as well as a major reinvestment challenge. Although the private sector is attracted to city centres’ natural attributes, investors can be discouraged by preservation and conservation regulations, changes in leadership, confusion over public-private partnership structures, perceived national and city bureaucracy, and a lack of accessibility and accountability from the public sector.

Europe’s leading cities, however, have found a variety of ways to overcome these challenges through a variety of innovative investment and partnership models, supported by leadership and strong visions.


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