Urban stakeholders are increasingly realising the importance of collective action in attempts to ‘future proof’ town and city centres, to ensure that ‘their’ centre retains an important role in the economic and social life of associated communities. Such collective actions, often implemented under the aegis of urban management partnerships (UMPs), raise some key questions for these organisations: what type(s) of collective interventions are the most effective; and how to create sufficient support for them?
In 2017-18, a research project, led by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and funded by Shopping Tomorrow (a Dutch retail and e-commerce think-tank), which comprised an expert group containing a number of IPM researchers and members, tried to answer these questions. Specifically, the research – which analysed a variety of different types of interventions in 21 towns and cities across the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK – sought to identify and illustrate the factors that underpin successful collective interventions aimed at ’future-proofing’ town and city centres.
The resulting report (published in Dutch, and available at www.cmihva.link/FutureRetailCityCentre) was launched at an event in Amsterdam in March 2018. Now an abridged English language version – edited by Anne Risselada, Gary Warnaby and Jesse Weltevreden – is available on the IPM website (https://www.placemanagement.org/media/157034/FutureRetailCityCentreReport.pdf). It features nine case studies (Altrincham, Ballymena, Chipping Norton and Holmfirth from the UK; Aalst and Mechelen in Belgium; and Tilburg, Arnhem and Winschoten in The Netherlands), which describe a variety of different types of interventions aimed at ‘future-proofing’ town and city centres.
The report suggests that the types of ‘future-proofing’ activities chosen by Urban Management Partnerships within towns and cities will in part depend on the development phase of these partnerships. The report describes these development phases in terms of:
- Phase 1, Create sense of urgency – in other words, what is the motive impelling the perception for a need for collective action? This often relates to a specific reason (such as, for example, growing retail vacancies in the town/city centre). However, sometimes there is not enough of a shared sense of urgency in the locale, and it is not possible to create sufficient support for initiatives.
- Phase 2, Establish collaboration – here, the actual urban management partnership is formed. Often, but not always, this may be a legal entity, such as a Business Improvement District (BID).
- Phase 3, Develop strategy and interventions – once a partnership is formed, the establishment of a joint (long-term) strategy/vision for the locale is the main focus of this stage. Often this process of strategy development may have already started – for example, to establish a BID, it is necessary to have a detailed business plan with an overview of planned activities and costs – and measureable objectives.
- Phase 4, Implement interventions – now the partnership carries out the planned interventions, and associated marketing activities. Some interventions may be expensive and complex and weigh heavily on available resources, so an important task here is to maintain momentum and keep all stakeholders supportive of the initiative
- Phase 5, Evaluation and course determination – after an appropriate time, an assessment should be made as to the extent to which the objectives of the initiative have been achieved. After the evaluation, partnerships are faced with three choices: (1) continue on the same footing; (2) develop a new strategy and accompanying interventions; or (3) end the collaboration.
Drawing on the 201 factors influencing town centre vitality and viability identified by the IPM as part of the High Street 2020 project (see https://www.placemanagement.org/special-interest-groups/managing-places/town-and-city-centresdowntowns/town-centre-policy-and-research/hsuk2020/), the Shopping Tomorrow expert group for this initiative identified seven types of interventions that are applicable to town and city centres:
- Spatial: e.g. improvement of accessibility, parking facilities, etc.
- Policy and legislation: e.g. regulatory reform, zoning plans, etc.
- Branding: including brand strategy, atmosphere areas, etc.
- Organization of the partnership: e.g. promoting cooperation
- Marketing: including events, loyalty card, smart parking, etc.
- Financial: e.g. rent reduction, location premiums, etc.
- Training entrepreneurs: including improving digital skills of entrepreneurs
Of course, these interventions are not mutually exclusive and a town/city centre can implement a number of them simultaneously (resource permitting). This was certainly the case in some case study locations featured in the report, and indeed, the number of different interventions an urban management partnership undertakes will very likely depend on the development phase (mentioned above) in which it finds itself.
An important aim of the report was to identify some general ‘best practice’ lessons for urban management partnerships, based on the featured case study locations, and it concludes by outlining some critical success factors that need to be considered by those UMPs that look to plan and implement effective interventions to ‘future-proof’ town and city centres. These include:
- Make sure there is a strong team that leads the way forward – The people organizing the partnership are crucial to its success, as many collective interventions require a large investment of time and specific expertise from those involved. Outsourcing certain activities to external parties can help. Moreover, it is also important that a partnership is managed by people who are genuinely passionate about – and involved in – the town/city centre.
- Much can be achieved with little or no budget, but structural financing is a foundation for a sustainable partnership – The majority of interventions need financial resource. Finding (structural) financing is therefore one of the top priorities of a partnership, as without this it may be impossible to develop a professional partnership and sustainable interventions. However, by persuading stakeholders to make a financial contribution or a contribution in kind, partnerships with little or no budget can also get things done, but this does require a large dose of creativity, persuasiveness and perseverance on the part of the UMP.
- The importance of effective, committed and reliable (local) government – If local government structurally supports the UMP, the success rate of the interventions increases. This support need not only be financial. Adapting local policy and legislation, providing personnel and expertise, improving public space and facilitating meetings are other examples of support that local authorities can offer.
- Take your time to create and maintain the local support base – A strong local support base is the key to the success of Urban Management Partnerships; support is needed to start a partnership, and to carry out successful intervention. If conflicting interests arise and the expectations of different stakeholder groups are not properly managed, the support base for the UMP and its interventions may disappear.
- Be innovative and proactively approach media outlets – Positive media attention for the town or city centres can lead to new opportunities for cooperation and financing, and UMPs need to be proactive in approaching local/regional media.
- Invest in doing research – Research can help UMPs to achieve their objectives in five ways. Firstly, research can provide relevant insights. Secondly, research can help to increase support for interventions. Thirdly, research can help to increase the UMP’s bargaining position vis-à-vis local government and other stakeholders. A partnership that can substantiate its arguments with facts and figures can hold its ground more easily. Fourthly, research can help to adapt or develop ongoing interventions to be more successful. Finally, in order to maintain support for the partnership and the interventions, it is crucial that research is used to determine whether the partnership and the interventions it implements have produced the desired result.
- Seek cooperation with knowledge institutions – The available budget to carry out (evaluation) research is often very limited. Local colleges and universities can help here, as they are often looking for interesting thesis and research assignments for students. A number of the UMPs in this research actively sought cooperation with knowledge institutions and this has created a win-win situation.