I have great respect for Mary Portas, she has a good eye for retail, understands fashion and style. But maybe she doesn’t have a grasp on successful town planning, and liveability. To give up on the notion of successful, vibrant Town Centres and High Streets is to give up on the sociability of mankind. 2008 was the year that a significant tipping point was reached whereby more people lived in towns and cities than in rural locations. For the overwhelming majority this is a lifestyle choice. One of the reasons that mankind has moved out of caves and developed a sophisticated society is because, on the whole, we get on with each other. Towns and cities give us easy access to being able to “get on”, access to employment, culture, services, shopping and in well planned places, well maintained and useable green space.
There are annual World’s Most Liveable City indices that are researched and published annually by the likes of Mercers, the Economist. Monocle Magazine and Business Week. The top towns and cities all have urban centres that have something for everyone at their heart. Take Melbourne, which comes out number one in the Economist list. Melbourne is a city with wonderful suburbs, access to the ocean and to wilderness yet everyone comes into the city centre to experience everything that is great about being human. The investment in uplifting architecture and public space in places like Federation Square, coupled with the nurturing of independent retail cheek to jowl with multiples, linked by pocket parks and beautifully maintained parks, full of serendipity for all ages and tastes make this a truly liveable city. Add to that the world’s largest tram system and a recent heavy investment in cycling facilities and hard not to love Melbourne’s city centre.
Closer to home, and with a population akin to that of Hull and Humber is Copenhagen. For my family (and according to Monocle magazine), Copenhagen comes very close to the top of most inspirational urban centres. When Copenhagen won Monocles Worlds Most Liveable City Award in 2008 they rightly made great play of their triumph. Copenhagen’s City Council has clearly had liveability (which to me means happiness) right at the forefront of their minds. With streets full of serendipity where you can find quirky start up businesses next to chain stores, Copenhagen has ensured it hasn’t drifted towards the “Clone Town” status bestowed upon most British towns and cities. Copenhagen has employed urban designers like Jens Gehl to ensure that the city is a joy to walk around and that cars are relegated to fourth place behind walking, cycling (what a great cycling infrastructure they have established) and public transport. Whilst Copenhagen has some fine modern architecture they have correctly realised that iconic buildings aren’t the be all and end all to a city’s attraction. They have realised that projects that add to liveability can be public spaces. Copenhagen now has a fine beach Amager Strand, a 1 ½ km long beach built from scratch. Amager Strand is a piece of public design unparalleled in the UK where greed over land values seems to have prevailed over the past decades leading to the building of crap “Buy to Let” property developments getting priority of great public infrastructure. Copenhagen has also been brave in dealing with Health and Safety issues. The much loved floating timber lidos at Brygge and Fisketorvet is a piece of placemaking that the city uses pictures of to promote itself to the international development community and uses to attract inward investment.
Vancouver is a city that boasts a wonderful natural setting but it doesn’t rely on its natural beauty for liveability. Its commitment to the “green agenda” and the serendipity of being able to find independent cafes, second-hand vinyl record stores and vintage clothes stores right next to the big brands gives the city an ambience that British cities have lost to the land value greed exerted by pension fund landlords and short sighted councils. Vancouver also clearly understands that modern thrusting, city centre living in high rise architecture can we attractive to families if space standards are decent, if there are 3 and 4 bed room apartments on offer, if the spaces in between are designed with family life in mind, and if there are neighbourhood schools. Outside of London and perhaps Edinburgh it’s difficult to identify a British large city where a city loving family can bring up a brood and enjoy sport, leisure and education without having to head out from the centre.
The template for the future of the failing town centres that Mary Portas seems to want to see bulldozed is there in towns and cities across Europe. The cornerstone of good town centre planning is common sense. Most of us want places that give us everything we need to fulfil our lives. Give us a town centre where we can live in an affordable home, walk, cycle or take easy public transport to employment, be able to go to the cinema, theatre, gallery, nightclub or gig, kick a ball in a park with our mates or our kids, read a book under a magnolia tree, maybe grow a bit of veg on an allotment, watch a bit of sport, while away the time at a cafe or a bar, shop at a cool independent stores and all those clever retail chains that make our multiple retailers the envy of the world. We have to develop places that people want to see and be seen in. Most of us love people watching, get a buzz from other human beings.
What is more, town centres that bring all of this together are sustainable in the true sense of the word. A town centre that becomes the focal point of a community can hit the three cornerstones of sustainability: economic, social and environmental sustainability.
But we can’t always wait for government to deliver this on a plate for us. There are examples of creative communities getting together and attempting to reuse empty spaces such as the Shed project on Gateshead High St where creative business have taken a large, former bed retailer (The Bed Shed!) and working with the council brought vibrancy back to this area of a town that was sinking fast. We have to “have a go” ourselves at making small shops work. We have to frequent galleries ,and cafe’s and we have to understand that drifting towards an American model of suburbanisation is plain wrong (ask most American planning scholars who are doing their utmost to reverse the errors of the past decades) We should learn from the mistakes of the US.
To give up on our town centres is to give up on life.