If you want to save the planet, live in a city. Even better, live in a city centre. Here, all the amenities are on your doorstep. For the places that you can’t walk, public transport is easily accessible. The more densely you live – within reason – the lower your carbon footprint. And the better the chance that we arrest the decline, ensuring that the future high street will be a thriving, vibrant place.
Some groups started moving back into city centres decades ago. It started with the young. The average age across cities is around 40 but it drops significantly in the centres. Here, 20-something workers and students dominate – particularly in big university cities like Manchester. To avoid our high streets fading further, and more importantly, to keep our planet liveable, we need everyone else to start moving in too.
We can focus on two groups in particular. Those in later life and those with young families.
Retiring to the future high street
The first group to consider is those in later life. They are retired, or working part time, and may be downsizing after their children have left home. This is a large and diverse group. City centre living won’t be right for all of them. But for those that are active, moderately wealthy, and seeking to engage in the city’s cultural life, then city centre living is a solid option today. The range of flats and apartments has expanded dramatically in recent years across all our major cities. Prices relative to more suburban homes remain affordable. Leaving the suburbs behind for a life in the city can release a lot of capital. This isn’t yet a dominant trend: as this article in the FT points out, the net trend is still for people to leave the cities for the countryside later in life. But anecdotal evidence suggests it is growing.
What about those who are poorer, in terms of health or wealth?
This is the group who would perhaps most benefit from a move to the city centre. We hear about loneliness and isolation in later life a lot. My work with local authorities has made this phenomenon very real for me. One particular cohort is presenting a problem for one local authority client. In a semi-rural county, there is a group of people who were wealthy enough to buy a home in the countryside. But later in life their kids have moved away to the big cities, and they have often lost a partner. With limited disposable income, and/or failing health, they are often isolated. Subsidies for public transport drying up mean they may be poorly served by bus routes. Many of their neighbours are in similar situations so it’s hard to build a support network. And they are a long way from critical amenities.
This group needs a rather different retirement living offer to bring them into the city. This is why I was so pleased to see Legal and General’s planned £2bn investment in city centre developments. The company’s goal is to transform failing retail space into apartments to buy and rent. These will not be for students and young professionals but for those who have retired. Projects like this will have exponentially greater impact than the government’s £675m investment fund for retail redevelopment.
These are not care homes. But that’s not what most of this cohort need. They need a place to live where they have the opportunity to support themselves and engage with other people. What these new developments will have is ready access to critical amenities like doctor’s surgeries, some of which they will be building on site.
Raising a family on the future high street
I am particularly cheered by the L&G announcement because the amenities they build will be open to the community, not just residents of its developments. This is a critical step in building and growing communities in city centres. And it will be vital in attracting the second key group: families.
Raising a family in a British city centre right now is challenging. When the children are young, as this article from the Manchester Evening News shows, then most of the critical services are there, and space is less of an issue. There are some green spaces dotted around, there are nurseries and parents groups. And of course you have a wealth of shops and public transport. What you don’t have is a school, so when the children reach school age, the families are forced to move out.
The future high street is the perfect place for a school. There will be plenty of space to build one as well. In the last 18 months, it has been accepted in the property sector that the loss of some high street retail is structural, not cyclical. Some classes of shops aren’t coming back, and there is no obvious retail replacement.
Releasing the footprint required for a whole school, primary or secondary, is clearly challenging. This isn’t about demolishing, or refitting a single store. But given the direction of change there may be many redevelopment opportunities in city centres. A school could replace a department store, or all or part of a shopping centre. With the coming of self-driving cars, it might replace a car park.
The amenities for family life
Schools aren’t the only requirement for more families to live in a city. If they are to live well, then more green spaces, play areas, and safe pedestrianised zones would be required. But these changes all fit with the direction of travel for current city planning. And these changes all work to encourage other groups back into the city centre.
The future high street will see four generations of family living, working, playing and learning together in the same shared spaces. There will be fewer shops, and fewer cars, but a lot more life.