Spring 2020 will be one for the history books as Covid-19 takes hold across the globe. But we need to start the thinking about what we could be facing on the other side, and take advantage of the opportunities where they exist, says placemaking consultant BEN STEPHENSON.
The rolling news cycle is both excruciating and addictive, with small, incremental developments about the spread of coronavirus available at every page-refresh. It’s exhausting and unhealthy to fixate on the immediate problem without also looking beyond, to how we plan for the recovery.
By Nikos Ntounis, Regine Sonderland Saga, Maria Loronõ-Leturiondo, Tom Hindmarch and Cathy Parker
passing day we are witnessing the unprecedented effects of COVID-19 on the
heart of our cities and towns, as the boundless pandemic is altering – and
potentially displacing – their social and economic role. In the UK, as in other
countries, the implementation of strict public health measures means that the
majority of service-based and non-food retail, hospitality and leisure business
premises remain closed to reduce social contact
(MHCLG, 2020). Footfall, a key metric in
the management of town centres and other commercial areas, has declined since
the lockdown was announced on the 23rd of March. Yesterday (31st of March)
footfall was down 81.4% compared to the same period last year (Springboard, 2020).
The relatively short period of disruption has already triggered the
first wave of store closures (Laura Ashley, BrightHouse, Carluccio’s), impacting
first on the most vulnerable businesses, whose position was fragile even before
the scale of the pandemic and the unprecedented public health response will
mean much more disturbance is yet to come.
Macroeconomic estimates suggest that the economic shock of COVID-19 will
be around 10% of global GDP. This is five times more than the credit and
liquidity problems that caused the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 (Milne,
2020). A massive number of bankruptcies will likely follow, which will put at
risk many jobs and have a significant impact on the attractiveness of many of
our towns and cities. Not only will their offer be reduced as less businesses
come back to our town centres, post-COVID-19 – but there may be less demand for
these businesses in the future. Prolonged lockdown can fundamentally change
consumer behaviour, as people become dependent on having products delivered to
their home. A survey by analyst Retail Economics of 2,000 consumers, quoted in
The Guardian, found that two-thirds of shoppers said they had switched to purchasing
products online that they have always previously purchased in-store (Inman,
2020). But the increasingly multifunctional town/city is not only at risk of
being obsolescent to shoppers. People used to exercise in their front room, may
not go back to the gym; employees who like working from home may not return to
the office; friends accustomed to socialising online may no longer pop down the
In 1862 in Berlin, the building
engineer James Hobrecht undertook the design of a ‘development plan for
Berlin’s surroundings,’ today known simply as the ‘Hobrecht Plan’. Hobrecht was
part of a broader Berlin movement, which, starting in the mid-nineteenth century
and following several epidemics of cholera, believed in the role of central planning
in sustaining and improving public health. Politicians such as medical doctor Rudolf
Virchow (1821–1902) considered contemporary sewerage, like that already seen in
parts of England, to be indispensable for the improvement of public health in
the capital. Whereas Hobrecht is mostly remembered for the 1862 Berlin
development plan, undoubtedly one of his major contributions is the
modernization of the sewerage system.
The ‘Hobrecht Plan’ provided the
outline for the development of a big part of Berlin and it is still visible
today in large areas of the inner city. It was the first complete street plan
for an expansion of the built-up area inside the municipal borders, with the
main goal to provide a street pattern for predominantly agricultural areas
around the existing city that were to be designated for construction, providing
housing for Berlin’s exploding population.
Whilst the current political and economic
uncertainty surrounding Brexit is generating division and negativity at a
national level, there have been a lot of new policy announcements recently that
are, paradoxically, good news for local town centres and high streets.
The Budget of October 2018 promised to cut
the business rate bills of small retailers by one-third; a package that is
worth nearly £1bn. At the same time, the £675m Future High
Streets Fund was launched to support the transformation of England’s high
streets, from mono-functional retail centres to multifunctional community hubs.
The October 2018 Budget also announced the creation of a High Streets Task
Force, to provide much-needed expertise, training, data and insight to the
place leaders and partnerships that are reinventing their local areas, with a
budget of just over £8.6m for 5 years. The Institute of Place Management is
leading a consortium of partners to run the High Street Task Force, which will
be fully operational by July 2020.
Collecting, analysing and sharing Best Practices, i.e. examples of projects, policies, cases, etc. that have worked out in one place and could be applied to others, is a very common practice in Place Management. It is argued that people and organizations in one place can learn from the experiences of their counterparts in another and that, after considering their adaptability, can apply similar techniques in their own context. This seems like a reasonable assumption: while we mostly learn from our own experiences, and psychologists have demonstrated the validity of this argument, we do take into consideration what other people have experienced elsewhere, albeit marginally.
Area Based Collaborative Enterprise concerns the ways in which local entrepreneurs join forces and form collectives to stimulate business growth and innovation, and to create a more attractive business environment. A clear example in a UK context would be a Business Improvement District.
The project ABCities is funded by INTERREG, a programme aims to help regional and local government to develop and deliver better policy by creating opportunities for sharing solutions to ensure government investment, innovation and interventions lead to integrated and sustainable impact for people and place, by embedding new guidance and measures within existing policy for area based economic development.
The challenge, therefore, is not necessarily poor policy,
but a concern about the mechanisms and techniques used by state institutions to
deliver place based policy.
When Eleusis, a small industrial town in the vicinity of Athens, was appointed European Capital of Culture for 2021, people received the decision both with joy and surprise: Joy, because this town, once one of the most important ritual sites in ancient Greece and home to the goddess Demeter, was back on the map; Surprise, because industrialization has clearly left its mark on the town, whose landscape is marked by factory chimneys, large industrial complexes and a commercial harbour. However, the choice of the European Commission is not based on what the city is, but on what it can become according to the bid book. And it was the bid, with its promise of a “passage to EUphoria” that managed to convince the jury.
What does Charles
Darwin’s theory of evolution and adaptability to the outer environment have to
do with place management? With uncertainty being the new normal, an
evolutionary perspective on place management can help move from static and
isolated plans to a process mindset. What better place to test such a
perspective than Darwin’s home town – Shrewsbury in the United Kingdom.
In this blog article I explore the opportunities of creating an institutional framework for citizen participation in the new public company Athens Urban Renewal SA.
The consequences of eight years of austerity can be seen everywhere in Athens. The past years have left deep scars in the fabric of the Greek capital: unemployment and homelessness, poverty and public disinvestment, growing social rifts and street riots – paired with a threatening growth of extreme right-wing ideology permeating many aspects of public life (e.g. media, police, justice, church – even schools). At the same time, the number of tourists visiting the capital has risen exponentially, creating tensions in the housing market, as more and more flats turn into holiday rentals, making prices soar. While the art scene is flourishing, youth unemployment remains above 40%. Abandoned buildings and deteriorating public space on the one hand; AirBnBs, vibrant street life, cafés and entertainment venues on the other. I can’t remember Athens so fascinating and so depressing at the same time.
The Municipality of Athens has undertaken a series of measures to tackle those issues, including the renewal of central neighbourhoods and the rehabilitation of municipal buildings among others (s. Vaiou 2018 for a critical assessment of the reuse of the former municipal market). Additionally, a new public organization with the telling name of AthensUrban Renewal S.A. (Athens Anaplasis SA.) was founded, complementing the actions of the Municipality. I was asked by its President, Prof Nikos Belavilas, to join the advisory scientific committee of this new state agent, an invitation which I gladly accepted, as I see here the opportunity to institutionalize citizen participation in urban development. Continue reading “Principles of citizen participation in urban development in Athens”→
The Treacle Market takes place on the last Sunday of each month in the Cheshire town of Macclesfield, UK. Over 160 stalls sell local delicacies, vintage clothes, antiques and handicrafts. The streets of Macclesfield bustle with life, attracting people from towns and villages in the area. However, this regionally important event recently received a serious blow: in April 2018 the partly subsided bus services in Cheshire East – run by Arriva, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn (German Rail), the latter property of the German state – were reorganized, with the result that villages were left without connecting buses on week-day evenings and all day on Sunday.
“As IPM research has shown, accessibility is the number 1 factor affecting town centre vitality and viability. For many communities, the local bus service is imperative. Especially for people with mobility issues. What may be considered as edge of town to someone who is able-bodied is not walkable for others.”