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Cities will be more polycentric in post-pandemic Europe

Cities will become more polycentric in post-pandemic Europe, but the city centre will continue to have a special role, experts agreed at Real Asset Media’s Repurposing city centres investment briefing, which was held online on the REALX.Global platform this week.

Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive, Glasgow Chamber of Commerce

“City centres are the showrooms for authentic local culture and experiences you cannot have anywhere else,” said Stuart Patrick, chief executive, Glasgow Chamber of Commerce. “We know from our footfall surveys that it’s easier to create an experience in the city centre, which is unique. This is why people have been flooding back.”

Socialisation remains the dominant function of city centres, which have sprung back to life after the lockdowns as people felt a strong urge to go out and meet others. But during the pandemic city residents have also rediscovered their neighbourhoods and these sub-centres will continue to play a big role.

 “Mega cities are becoming more polycentric, we’ve seen that in Paris and in London, where local neighbourhoods have become stronger during the pandemic,” said Jarek Morawski, executive director strategy & research, Grosvenor. “But we also saw people flock back to the city centre as soon as they were allowed.”

Leisure and experience to be particular focus for city centres

It is not an either/or choice: the two trends are not mutually exclusive, but they will continue to co-exist. City centres will be more focused on socialisation, public events, leisure and experiences, while neighbourhoods will be more about daily life and a sense of community.

“The social aspect of the city centre is the most important,” said Herman Kok, head of research & analytics, Ellandi. “It’s the destination effect, the sense of identity it can foster. You can buy anything on the internet and you can work remotely, but you cannot have experience and community building online.”

Real estate plays a crucial role, he said: “The built environment must be flexible, sustainable and well thought-out because functions and trends will change but the buildings will stay.”

Cooperation between the public and private sector is crucial in order to develop a common vision and a long-term strategy for cities.

Glasgow has been leading the way to make sure that the COP26 summit which it is hosting in November will have a positive, long-term impact on the city. One of the goals is doubling the number of people living in the city centre.

“We asked the City Council in Glasgow to set up a city centre taskforce with representatives from the Edinburgh and the London governments to establish what the main issues are, think of long-term repurposing , the role of mixed-use and the experiential nature of the city centre economy,” said Patrick.

Street scene key to thriving urban centres

In the UK public sector intervention has been essential to stop the cycle of decline in city centres, he said. The most visible sign of decline is rows of boarded-up shops. If city centres are to thrive, it is essential to pay attention to what happens to buildings at ground level.

“People are keen to go out but pedestrians don’t like empty, neglected spaces,” said Sabine Georgi, managing director Germany, Austria & Switzerland, ULI Europe. “They want to see a nice mix of shops, restaurants and also co-working spaces and different functions.”

New ideas are needed for a sustainable urban development strategy, which must make use of the ground floor of buildings.

“The activation of ground floor frontages is crucial, because that is what everyone sees when walking past,” said Stephen Lewis, managing director, HFD Property Group. “That’s why we have been working on a property repurposing strategy. We want to make sure that Glasgow will remain a vibrant, sustainable and thriving European city long after the COP26 Glasgow agreement has been reached.”