New London Architecture

London, Manchester and Birmingham city centres fight back

Friday 09 October 2020

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

London, Manchester and Birmingham are fighting back to try and keep their city centres alive through a mixture of Covid-influenced measures that focus on improving the public realm and perception of public transport safety and get the ‘buzz’ back. But the ability to continue collaboration and partnership working across boroughs and metropolitan areas will hold the key in the future.

Those were some of the key points to emerge from UK City Dialogue: City Centres, an NLA webinar that sought to examine the existential challenge city centres are facing from Covid’s impact on amenities, shops, cafes, cultural venues and workplaces.

AECOM’s cities programme leader Andrew Jones said UK city centres face significant long-term threats but also opportunities, given their ‘huge spending power’ and the way they culturally embody the character of a city, region or country. 

‘Cities will recover’, he said. ‘We’re still in the shock phase and for the long-term I’m certainly optimistic’. 

This, despite some commentators signalling the pandemic as the beginning of a decline in cities; there was too much invested in city centre real estate to not allow a successful recovery, Jones believes. New working patterns will emerge, rather than a flight from the city, he added, with building adaptations to address health risks and including augmented reality technology to allow meetings with contributions from those onsite and elsewhere. The suburbs, meanwhile, along with town centres and high streets, may enjoy a ‘renaissance’, albeit one which requires metropolitan centres working together for ‘more balanced polycentric economic growth’ with their outlying areas, while cultural institutions need interventions and financial support too.

Moseley, a Birmingham 'city village'
Louise Wyman, strategic director, growth and development for Manchester City, agreed that it was very important for cities to come together and share their experiences and learning. Manchester is often heralded as the entrepreneurial capital of the UK and was proud, said Wyman, that 4,000 new businesses were launched in early lockdown, proof of the city’s resilience, along with how it has dealt with adversity over the recent past. 

The crisis has shone a light on the ‘central’ importance of relationships, partnerships and collaboration, said Wyman. The council has accelerated its public realm improvements, with road closures of 20 streets in the centre (‘Our Highways department has never worked harder’) and relaxed licencing laws to encourage people back into the centre beyond the 50%-60% of pre-Covid footfall being enjoyed currently. ‘Street life is fundamental’, said Wyman. Manchester is also pushing its cycling infrastructure via its ‘czar’, Chris Boardman, producing schemes like a new Cyclops Junction. It is also aiming to be net zero by 2038 so is emphasising green growth, but a key move in recovery would be to get people to feel comfortable on public transport. ‘There is a buzz’, said Wyman. ‘It’s probably not what we would have seen a year ago, but there is a feeling that that’s coming back and that business confidence will be built through partnerships, through collaboration, through investment’. One other innovation it is developing is a Manchester ‘city app’ to help not just with food and beverage but also potentially housing issues or events, said Wyman.

Birmingham, said the City University’s associate professor Beverley Nielsen, is also concentrating on public realm and moving away from the image of Spaghetti Junction, and towards health and wellbeing, via a green recovery. The city has more trees than Paris, 600 parks and green spaces, more miles of canals than Venice and a populace that reported that the outdoors has benefited their mental health during the crisis. Like Manchester, it has concentrated on creating new cycle routes and low traffic neighbourhoods, partially through an emergency active travel fund, plus moves to embrace ultra-light rail. The next step will be to implement bike hire in Birmingham. ‘We would see this as a very significant development for our city’, said Nielsen. ‘It’s been a game changer in London and Paris’. But a more collaborative model, said Nielsen, between councils and combined authorities is key to tackle problems now and into the future.

London's Soho
Finally, Deirdra Armsby, director of placeshaping and West End Partnership at Westminster City Council, said Covid had led to the council focusing more on its resident community as they grappled with what was happening to the cityscape around them, albeit whilst juggling that with its ‘massive’ business community employing over 750,000 people. Many of those businesses will ‘struggle to straddle from the initial hard lockdown into how it transitions over the next 18 months or so’, said Armsby, and will continue to require a lot of support. It too has ‘repositioned’ its public realm, providing 17 km of cycle routes and 18km of extended footways in a bid to draw more people into the centre. 

‘Everybody recognised the idea that we needed to get things done quickly’, she said. ‘We had to have the courage of our convictions and get out there’, operating a flexible, open-minded approach that ‘is not all about the heart of the city but is about the borough as a whole’.


David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ


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