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The future of the city centre

  • Written by  Professor Bob Giddings
  • Published in Opinions
The future of the city centre
31 Aug
City centres in the UK and other countries, could be on the cusp of the biggest upheaval since the Industrial Revolution. Professor Bob Giddings asks who they should be for and what should happen in them

The city centre is changing – what will it mean for you? Join the debate about how to shape our future at a special symposium at Northumbria University, Newcastle on Tuesday 11 and Wednesday 12 September. For more details and to register for tickets, click here

As the 20th century unfolded, cities in the developed world evolved from an industrial base into commercial activity. However, the world recession from 2009 exposed the underlying trend that electronic systems were changing demand for city space once more. Outside capital cities, the need for city centre offices fell as increasingly flexible working patterns, fuelled by the wireless revolution, generated places of work in cyberspace; and an unsettling image of empty shops began to pervade city centres. Much as the early 20th century pioneers had done, urbanists in the 21st century were starting to look around them and ask – what is a city for?

Theoretical perspectives may involve past, present and future; but the emphasis for those looking to answer this question will be on visions for the post-industrial, post-commercial and post-retail city. This theme and the related sub-topics will enable the development of future city models and will help to contextualise urban change. Business development, community activities, health and well-being will all influence and be influenced by their development.

An all-too common sight in city centres today as the role of the space changesAn all-too common sight in city centres today as the role of the space changes

The role of the city centre as a place to live is of particular interest, especially in the context of changing demographics and the potential support or conflict with other city centre uses. Aspects to be considered may also include: The nature of urban design, urban form and the re-use of the built heritage; loss of a distinctive built environment and sense of place. This loss is lamented by many citizens, and strategies are needed for the re-introduction of distinctive places.

These issues are set to be debated at a time when governments, communities, businesses, artists, entertainers, historians, sociologists and others are all re-evaluating their interactions with cities. Consequently, a cross-disciplinary appraisal of the changing nature of cities can explore provision for cultural events; and different forms of creative industries – the arts and entertainment that may offer vitality.

Thus, a number of city layers could be observed. These might be regarded as separate city models, but it is likely that various of them could be evident simultaneously. For example, there may be two principal groupings of people – incomers and indigenous populations. In the first group, the layers include the tourist experience which presents a sanitised version of the city centre as a kind of virtual heritage. There is also the university city, in which transient and large populations impose themselves. Additionally, there is the dormitory dimension. Traditionally, this has been home-to-work commuting. However, with the reduction in demand for office space and work opportunities, this may be translated into home-to-culture commuting.

Will city centres become less about places to work and more about arts and culture?Will city centres become less about places to work and more about arts and culture?

Within the indigenous grouping, ageing demographics might impose particular residential needs on the city centre. The digital society is generating a small number of affluent middle classes, who maintain significant incomes without the need to employ others. They can influence the city centre through their corporate lifestyle choices.

Finally, there is an underclass – no longer in demand for employment and forced onto the streets by the housing market. All of these layers have spatial implications for the city centre.

City authorities are starting to realise that structural changes are happening in city centres, and are responding by establishing core groups of officers to consider these issues. However, even balances between the public and private sectors are shifting. Numbers of former city council officers now work for private sector consultancies as the size of city councils is diminished, primarily by budget cuts. It has become clear that many roles established for local government in the 20th century, are weakened or no longer exist.

Who will take the lead in ensuring an greener future for city centres?Who will take the lead in ensuring an greener future for city centres?

This opens another debate about how much of this activity can be transferred to the private sector. Even if it can adopt a long-term strategy, the private sector does not have democratic authority. The whole notion of cities being governed ‘for the people by the people’ is increasingly open to question. The government may point to elected mayors as a new form of city democracy, but in fact they are an anti-democratic construct that does not address the needs of the people they are supposedly representing.

Democracy is currently in flux and so are city centres. This unsettling period of change upon change may become a permanent state. At present, there appears to be a drift. There is little consideration about what the city centre should be for. The loss of considerable commercial and retail demand seems to have taken the authorities by surprise. There is little indication of who is able to provide leadership. In the last century, it was the local authorities, but their enervated circumstances has left a void in direction. It is no longer clear who should be undertaking which roles at a time when leadership will be essential to manage the dramatic changes that are about to be visited on our city centres.

Professor Bob Giddings is the Chair of Architecture and Urban Design in Northumbria University’s Department of Architecture and Built Environment

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