A rush of large-scale post-war redevelopment of city centres in the 1950s and 1960s might well have been justified by the need to recover from a devastating war, but it arguably swept away their character and sense of place.
But now, that mistake is increasingly being corrected in our larger city centres in a process best encapsulated by John Prescott’s term of 20 years ago, ‘Urban Renaissance’. In its report Towards an Urban Renaissance, Prescott’s Urban Task Force articulated a clear desire for higher quality places and city centre regeneration.
The characteristics of the kinds of places which people prefer are well known. There is an extensive urban design literature about ‘what works’. CBRE’s recent global research report Placemaking: Value and the Public Realm, produced in collaboration with leading placemakers Gehl Architects, showed that paying attention to the quality of the public spaces can add value for investors as well as residents and visitors. The report set out one approach to understanding the essential aspects of great places. The study analysed a variety of city spaces around the world, including the recent Liverpool One development.
Figure 1: Key dimensions of successful public realm design
Source: CBRE Research / Gehl Architects
However, placemaking as a concept has increasingly grabbed the attention of investors and city leaders for reasons which were barely articulated at all at in Rogers’ report. Neither the original report, nor the 2005 follow up, made much reference to the role of high quality places in attracting and retaining a skilled labour force. The word ‘graduate’, for example, appears not once in the 2005 report.
Most people are familiar with Samuel Johnson’s view that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. But less quoted is the sentence that precedes the famous one, namely: "Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London.” It’s the idea that anyone with any brains would be mad to live anywhere other than a great city.
And, indeed 20 years on from the Urban Task Force report, today’s cities are now engaged in two campaigns: the bid for investment (including, increasingly, overseas investment) and the bid for talent. The two are linked. Every city in the world seeks investment. Investors are seeking to invest in human capital, especially where it involves innovation and creativity. Creative people want to live and work in great places. So cities which create great places will attract investment. Rising living standards, a better educated workforce, and lower structural levels of unemployment in the UK are increasingly conferring an advantage in the market upon talented job seekers. These workers demand a higher quality of lifestyle and can exercise national, and increasingly international, choices about where they want to live and work.
Looking forward 20 years, as living standards rise, we can expect the brightest talent to be more mobile than ever before, and even pickier about where they live than they are now; which will intensify the demand for sophisticated, aspirational urban interventions that improve the quality of life in Britain’s big cities.
City residents are also likely to be more involved in assisting this placemaking than they are now. Research for the UK Government found that participation in land use planning can be limited to more articulate groups. As we argue elsewhere, this could lead to the rise of the ‘urban NIMBY’. So, ironically, the more successful a city is, the more demanding and vocal about placemaking its citizens will be. We speculate that the city of 2040 will find placemaking harder and more complex than it is today – presenting challenges for city governance, investors and developers alike.