Imagining the town centres of the future

Tales of woe about the decline of our town centres have filled our newspapers and blogs in recent times. Depressing scenarios of high streets lined with vacant shop windows where only charity shops, pawnbrokers and coffee shop chains still manage to thrive.  Gloomy images of deserted pubs and empty streets instead of busy market towns with character, culture and a buzz of activity. Will our town centres become abandoned and ghost-town like as people turn to online shopping and large out-of-town supermarkets?  Is the slow, steady death of town centres inevitable or could town centres have an altogether different future?

Coming from a background in urban and community development in an international context, I’ve visited numerous towns in wealthy as well as very poor areas of the world.  Naturally, the towns I’ve seen vary immensely in their functions, culture and general design but the best towns always seem to have a diverse range of shops, well cared for public spaces, easy access and cultural institutions as well as public services. Is this too much to ask of British town centres?

Being new to the theories and issues around British town regeneration, it was a thought-provoking experience to attend the recent Scottish Town Centre Symposium on behalf of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES).  The symposium, chaired by leading architect, Malcolm Fraser, interviewed in New Start this month, and facilitated by Neil McInroy, chief executive of CLES, brought together key representatives from a range of sectors to inform and engage in the Scottish Government’s National Review of Town Centres.  The symposium fizzed with enthusiasm and ideas which will be taken forward to the next stages of the National Review.

The symposium inspired me to think about how I could imagine the towns of the future to be.  I think that it’s time to take a step back, let go of the pessimistic predictions and reinvent the definition of a town centre.  Town centres need a new vision, a new purpose and a new identity which reflects our changing lifestyles.  Everyone knows that the internet revolution means we socialise in different ways, buy our food online, work from home, take online courses and generally lead more individualistic lives.  But this need not be a threat for town centres but an opportunity, a reason to stop pursuing the same models and instead, rethink the role of the town centres of the future.

It seems clear to me that town centres must find a balance between function and enjoyment to become places for living, socialising, working, shopping and learning.  Integrating affordable housing into town centres could help to increase footfall and social diversity, creating town centre festivals could promote a town’s unique cultural heritage and build community pride.  Increasing facilities for cycling and walking could drive new social behaviour, increasing accessibility options rather than fuelling the war of pedestrianisation versus car parking.

Introducing free town centre wifi could encourage businesses to hold meetings in town centre venues, allow people who work remotely to work in town centres and encourage people to linger longer in pubs, coffee shops, parks and squares. School buildings could be integrated into other town centre buildings, with sports centres used for P.E. lessons and public libraries, museums and art galleries offering spaces for teaching and learning.  Empty shops must be reclaimed and opened up as spaces for entrepreneurs and community initiatives to flourish.

Diversity and integration of functions, people and spaces may be the key to bringing town centres back to life.  Town centres must become places which serve the needs of all social groups; elderly people, school children, families, young people and working professionals and they must be places to bring these groups together, integrating different functions into the same spaces. Ultimately, I think that we need a new vision which puts people back in the heart of our town centres.


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11 years ago

We don’t all socialise in different ways, buy our food online, work from home, take online courses and generally lead more individualistic lives. Offices, factories, call centres, warehouses are still full of people working, supermarkets are still full of people buying food. We are not all researchers working from home and or at internet cafes.We should base our policy on the evidence of what the majority of people are doing, not the experience of our own individual lives and out friends.

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