High street regeneration: What can we learn from other cities?

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The Nazareth Church on Berlin-Wedding’s Leopold Square with new seating area and ornamental fountains
The Nazareth Church on Berlin-Wedding’s Leopold Square with new seating area and ornamental fountains (source: Julian Schliwinski used under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Data recently released by the footfall-counter Springboard highlights how the number of shoppers in the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) town centres was down by a third (32.7%) when compared to April 2019, despite the easing of lockdown in April. Data for Northern Ireland’s ‘wholesale and retail trade; repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles; accommodation and food’ service sectors (which includes businesses such as retail and hospitality commonly found on our high streets) shows that the value of output was 5.4% lower in the last quarter of 2020 than during the same period in 2019.  That drop, however, is lower than the UK average at that time, which was 12.3%.

Combined with the issue of restricted access to our high streets’ non-essential shops, town centres have been struggling for the last decade with rising competition from online retail and out of town shopping centres. What can we learn from other jurisdictions who have faced similar problems? Here are five case studies from around the world, showing different strategies for transforming city centres:

1. Toronto, Canada: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”

Where online shopping is threatening high street retail, work is underway to make brick-and-mortar shops more competitive in the online space. An example of where this has been happening successfully is in Toronto, Canada.

Since 2016, the Ontario Association of Business Improvement Areas (OBIAA) has been offering one-to-one digital training to small and medium-sized business owners. The OBIAA’s ‘Digital Main Street’ campaign is aimed at increasing the online presence of brick-and-mortar shops. In 2020 alone, the campaign supported over 5,500 businesses by helping them remain operational during the challenging lockdowns of the pandemic.

The OBIAA’s Progress Report shows that 70% of business owners who took part in the scheme said they felt better equipped to weather the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic than without the help of the Digital Main Street training. By helping companies build attractive and accessible websites and online stores, the scheme allowed business owners to continue serving customers during the pandemic. In turn, that enabled shop owners to pay landlords rent for their premises, despite having to remain closed. In the long-term, the scheme is helping high street shops remain viable in an extremely challenging context, in which, amongst other things, consumers’ shopping habits continue to evolve and change.

2. Manchester, UK: Use community-driven strategies for social sustainability

Our high streets are not just places of commerce. We go into town to meet friends, find entertainment and build our communities. One district in Manchester, Withington Village, has created a High Street Regeneration Plan in collaboration with Manchester City Council and the Institute of Place Management (IPM). The Plan was born out of community action and engagement, and was passed with over 90% public approval in March 2021.

The Withington High Street Regeneration Group was able to harness the energy of previous community-led schemes, which included a grass-roots campaign to save the local baths and gym and a village-wide graffiti project that transformed shutters of shut shops into works of art. To support local businesses, Friday-night markets hosting local businesses drew residents into the town centre for after-work entertainment. As a result, there was a significant increase in the Friday-night footfall at these events, and fundraising at the markets supported the graffiti art project.

The example of Withington Village highlights the importance of community buy-in and involvement in high street regeneration. How could communities in Northern Ireland adopt and adapt the Withington approach contribute, so that it supports much needed future-planning for high streets in, for example, Belfast, Lisburn, Londonderry/Derry?

3. Berlin, Germany: Give public spaces a spruce up

With a local reputation for being rundown and riddled with drugs and crime, the district of Wedding is a focus for urban regeneration in central Berlin. As part of a wider national project to rejuvenate some of Germany’s dilapidated town centres, a multi-decadal plan of urban and high street renewal was planned for Wedding. Working in tandem with local churches and residential groups, city planners wanted to transform Wedding’s public spaces into areas to linger and spend time in, rather than avoid.

To make Wedding’s central Leopold Square attractive to residents and visitors and to discourage antisocial behaviour, the planning group installed attractive seating, lighting and horticultural features to create welcoming spaces for people to meet and sit. The children’s playground was renovated, and playful fountains were installed in the concrete. Next to this, a boules square was installed. With a cleaned up Square, concerts and weekly markets are now held. This has transformed the heart of Wedding into an active, lively centre that draws in, rather than pushes local people away. Together, these changes help define Leopold Square as a recreational facility, serving multiple generations and members of the public with different lifestyles and interests.

This example prompts the question of what transformations could take place in Northern Ireland’s public spaces, so that market squares become entertainment and social destinations with ‘knock-on’ benefits for local businesses.

4. Detroit, United States: Use data-driven decision making to target interventions

It is important to know where high street regeneration should take place, and to decide how effective interventions might prove for local businesses and the residential community. Data-driven decision making could help achieve this.

Detroit in the United States (US) is an example of a city that has experienced widespread degradation as a result of massive population loss. To decide where they should target urban improvements, Detroit city planners used a number of different social and economic datasets. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the City of Detroit chose neighbourhoods with mixed income levels (i.e. not the poorest districts), with the view from the city’s planners that in order to see change, smaller interventions would be required than in the most deprived areas. Detroit used census data to determine average income and educational attainment in districts, and also obtained social data on community organisations, links with charitable donors, the number of formal and informal businesses, and educational and healthcare facilities.

By understanding the socio-economic contexts of the neighbourhoods they were considering, city planners are trying to support ‘just-about-managing’ areas, rather than very deprived neighbourhoods, where more expensive interventions would be required. Neighbourhoods’ links to education and healthcare facilities were considered important by Detroit’s city planners as possible anchors that both retain and attract people to an area. In neighbourhoods with a large number of effective community groups, city planners also considered whether it would be easier to have locally-run regeneration projects.  Existing links with charitable donors were believed to be important in providing additional opportunities to leverage non-public funding to support interventions within neighbourhoods.

Although Detroit’s example targets areas with high potential returns on investment, there are social justice considerations for choosing regeneration areas based on this kind of data. First, planners and decision makers would need to make sure that cities or high streets on their short lists have data that is comparable and enable fair assessments; and second, they might need to consider whether targeting ‘just-about-managing’ areas reinforces existing divides or prejudices against more underfunded, vulnerable communities.

5. Lille, France: Create a niche

Many of Northern Ireland’s towns have unique industrial and economic histories. Sometimes, reviving what may have dwindled or diversifying beyond what is successful can be challenging. However, for high streets to thrive there needs to be a demand for services and goods within the local population, and that can be generated by creating affluent communities.

Lille in northern France is an example of a town which was suffering from the loss of its textile industry to globalisation and cheaper production abroad in the 1980s and 1990s. The city’s mayor in the 1990s lobbied for Lille to be connected to the EuroStar train service, which links Brussels, Paris and London. As a result, Lille became a hub with a huge geographic sphere of influence.

Harnessing its heritage and new transport connections, Lille invested in transforming its image into a place of research and design, filling a niche in northern France. It did this by renovating disused textiles factories into digital technology and pharmaceutical research hubs. Now, a centre called ‘EuraTechnologies’ has created a physical space in which over 300 major tech companies and start-ups operate. Alongside it, a thriving river-side community has grown with affordable housing designed to attract residents from nearby communities with high levels of poverty.

This example raises questions of how industrial and economic diversification might help attract and retain individuals in Northern Ireland’s communities. How could businesses support developing local skill sets to make Northern Ireland an attractive place to invest and grow, building on initiatives that already may be underway?

Main takeaways

It must be emphasised that no single approach to high street regeneration alone will breathe life back into our struggling high streets. The examples given above demonstrate the multitude of approaches that are available to inform Northern Ireland’s policy makers and businesses. Those examples from around the world demonstrate successes in using existing community assets, industries, skill-sets and infrastructures to productively regenerate town centres and high streets for government, businesses, residents and visitors.