Earlier this month, Jasmine Ceccarelli-Drewry chaired the panel discussion at the launch of our Towns of Tomorrow campaign, looking at the challenges of today vs the opportunities of tomorrow. Over the next year, this campaign will see us explore the continuously changing landscape of town centres across the UK.
Emerging Urban Trends
Anthropologist and Strategy Consultant, Gemma John, kicked off the day with a presentation exploring emerging urban trends. She painted a clear picture that urban centres are going to be on the front line of tackling some of the biggest challenges facing humanity over the next ten years. Responding to the key themes of the presentation, the panel discussion looked to explore how the sector can be bold, creative, collaborative, and innovative. Our thanks to Alex Russell (Augarde and Partners), Nalin Seneviratne (Porter Brooke & Associates, previously Sheffield City Council), Ed Owens (Packaged Living), Daniel Tristao (Plate to Crate) and James Ryman (Capital and Regional) for a fascinating and lively debate.
As retail, living, sustainability, regeneration, and community-led development specialists, from the public and private sector, our panel mirrored the audience. Together, they found a collective voice, examining concepts for optimising space, tackling the climate crisis, and being responsive and resilient to changing human and environmental needs as a sector.
Public Private Partnerships
The importance of public/private collaboration was reiterated throughout, with each speaker articulating how they hoped to work together to unlock successful places. Nalin considered the role of Local Authorities in establishing a clear place vision. This was seconded by Ed who explained the positive impact of Local Authorities in enabling confidence across different stakeholders, driving forward investment, and committing to delivery in a local area. Alex voiced the importance of community and business engagement to contribute to the collective understanding of what a place needs, and for this too, to support public and private partners to define a local vision. This was unanimously agreed.
The conversation naturally brought into question the term, 'competitive edge'. The panel reflected on what this meant for the cities and towns across the UK we are collectively working in. In its essence, somewhere that has a competitive edge is a place that has secured and retained its status as a place where people, quite simply, want to - and can - live, work, and play. Against the backdrop of the climate and cost of living crisis, the panel agreed that the sector must recognise and respond to the fact that urban spaces are becoming more vulnerable, susceptible to hotter temperatures and extreme weather, expensive, and generally just harder places to live. Daniel reminded the audience that SMEs are pioneering with advancements in technology responding to some of these existential challenges facing urban areas. For example, Plate to Crate is offering an innovative solution to the increasing need to be self-sustaining when it comes to food distribution. Given the prevailing tomatoes crisis, no one disagreed! Meanwhile space offered a great opportunity to test new ideas, and we also need to continue to search collectively for permanent spaces for innovation, be that through development (for example S106 or affordable workspace commitments) or through public estate (for example through optimising underutilised spaces), so to put genuine investment in realising innovation.
We could not avoid bringing into discussion the Covid-19 pandemic, which provided a stark reality that our cities and town centres must be responsive to changing needs if they are going to be viable. James shared with the room how at Capital and Regional are putting this into practice by looking at how shopping centres can become a microcosm of changing consumer demands. From exploring the co-location of public services such as primary care centres and vaccination clinics, through to new food halls and opportunities for SMEs to secure space,.The key has been finding the right partners and businesses and being forward thinking in their approach to investment.
The panel concluded with remarks on the affordable housing crisis and the need for clear leadership from central government. As our launch also celebrated International Women’s Day, the need for diversity as a sector, from leadership through to community engagement, was an important backdrop to the conversation. What's clear is that diversity in how we design and deliver projects across cities and towns is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s not about ‘filling quotas’ and it's not ‘just an ESG commitment’, but instead it is a critical bedrock to innovation.
When thinking about the cross-pollination of ideas, this panel session demonstrated that we must have more multi-disciplinary conversations as a sector. this was a panel with different, strong voices, and it was inspiring to see the panellists bounce ideas off each other, as well as express specific 'asks' from one another. Let their honesty and creativity set the tone for what's to come.
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Artwork by Hannah Williams of Scribble Inc.