Retail is in crisis. Princes Street has sadly lost three major lynchpins this week alone, including the 183-year-old Jenners, and the future of commercial centres across Scotland looks perilous. But there are hopefully ways to avoid a ‘collapse’ – ways to stop our cities from hollowing out. We must prevent the rise of ‘doughnut cities’. Part of this (especially with Princes Street) will be a reassessment of the economic worth of these spaces – but we also need to get to the heart of why retail across the country is struggling.
Notwithstanding the impact of internet shopping, the problem is the historic design of our major metropolises, which were built in ‘rings’ – commercial at the centre, surrounded by a residential commuter band, then the green belt. This structure groups retail next to retail and homes next to homes. It also encourages public transport to focus on commuter routes in and out of the city, straddling the rings, rather than laterally between areas. All of this leaves our city centres vulnerable to shocks like Covid.
A major part of the solution to helping the recovery is bold and flexible planning policy. It is more than just bringing people back to retail, it is about abandoning the antiquated ring set-up and shedding our preconceptions about ‘residential’ or ‘commercial’ areas. Instead, city planners must embrace the so-called ‘mosaic cities’ – with each section of the city including a robust mix of uses all within walking distance of each other.
This means homes next to co-working spaces and a city park. It means university accommodation, social housing and private flats nestled in and amongst retail outlets, offices and green streets – with each section of the city connected to others by a fast and reliable public transport network. Retail alone can no longer be relied upon to ‘bring the noise’. It’s the turn of something else to save our cities: liveability.
Changing the fabric of our cities won’t be simple, or swift, but the pandemic has given us a unique opportunity. Empty offices and retail units across our city centres are crying out for conversion to residential use – injecting people right into previously commercial-only zones. Residents trapped at home have been appreciating local green space like never before – so let’s introduce new city pocket parks and pedestrianised green streets. Employers have been shown that massive office blocks in city centres aren’t necessary for productivity, so smaller co-working spaces can spring up closer to homes – spread out across the city.
People want to live in convenient, affordable houses within reach of friends and family – walking distance from key shops, amenities and workplaces. Our city planners can achieve this, and will achieve this, but there needs to be a degree commitment from all – residents, developers and politicians alike – to look to a new way of living and working. We’ve shown in the past year that we can adapt. Far from being the end of the city, this pandemic and the retail crisis can be an opportunity to usher in a new era of the city: healthier, cleaner and more human. In a nutshell – better planned and more resilient.
As publsihed in The Scotsman and Planning Resource.
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Retail, Town Centre, Mosaic Cities, Liveability, Co-working, Communities