Weak city centres have too many shops, and five other things we learned from the latest Centre for Cities report

Oh dear. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

The supply, type and quality of available commercial space is a key variable in a city’s economy success, probably.

I say “probably”, because we don’t actually know for sure: nobody has bothered to check what commercial property is available in different cities, and whether there is really any difference between those that are vibrant and those that are struggling.

Until now – because those pioneers at the Centre for Cities (CfC) have done it again. In its new Building Blocks report, the think tank has analysed the composition of commercial space in UK cities, and charted how it varies between weak and strong economies.

It can sometimes be a bit tough to work out which way causality runs here: just as the property available will influence a city’s economic performance, so its economy will influence the local property market. But with that caveat out there, here’s what we learned.

1. City centres look very different from their suburbs

Hey look, some charts!

Click to expand.

These pie charts show the breakdown of different type of commercial property in city centres and their suburbs across the UK.

Retail and, especially, offices dominate the city centres, making up a combined 76 per cent of all commercial property – nearly three times as big a share as the 27 per cent in the suburbs. With warehousing and industrial facilities, the picture is revered: 62 per cent in the suburbs, compared to just 13 per cent in the centres.

You can see this trend in individual cities, too. Here’s the same data but this time only for Leicester:

Click to expand.

The centre is 67 per cent office or retail, and 16 per cent industry or warehouse. For the suburbs, those numbers are 20 per cent and 71 per cent.

In short: the centres get the offices, and the suburbs get the warehouses. This is no huge surprise, but it’s always nice to put numbers on your hunch.

2. Economically successful city centres have more offices

To demonstrate this, we first need to define what success looks like. Drawing on earlier CfC research, the report defines its terms thus:

Strong city centres have a higher than average share of jobs in exporting firms, and a higher than average share of these exporting jobs are high-skilled.

2. Weak city centres have a lower than average share of jobs in exporting firms, and a lower than average share of these are high-skilled.

Helpfully enough, there’s a graph. Basically, if you want your city to be rich, you want to be top right.

Click to expand.

So, that behind us, how do strong and weak centres differ? Basically, like this:

Click to expand.

Strong city centres have a nearly three times as big a share of their commercial space dedicated to offices (62 per cent, compared to 23 per cent in weak centres). They also have a far smaller share of commercial space dedicated to retail (43 per cent, compared to 18 per cent).

Once again, you can see this in individual cities. Here’s Leeds compared to Doncaster:

Click to expand.

3. Economically successful city centres don’t just have more offices: they have better ones, too

The report uses energy efficiency ratings as a proxy for building quality – on the grounds that newer, or more recently refurbished, buildings will get higher ratings.

Here are those ratings plotted against the share of a space accounted for by offices. The light green dots – representing strong city centres – tend to do well on both.

Click to expand.

4. Weak city centres have too many shops

“Weak city centres dominated by retail do not have enough demand to sustain all these shops,” the report says, “which is why so many lie empty.”

Here’s a map of cities showing vacancy rates:

Click to expand.

With a few exceptions – booming Warrington has loads of empty space; Liverpool, which is often seen as struggling, has hardly any – this looks a lot like the map of city economic performance we all know and love.

5. Higher skilled suburbs are more  office-y and less warehouse-y than lower skilled ones

Click to expand.

Which is probably what you’d expect. (“Higher skilled” here means “more jobs in high-skilled sectors”.) But the differences are relatively minor: there’s less variation in suburbs than there is in city centres.

That said, there are very striking differences between the suburbs of individual cities. Here are York and Northampton:

Click to expand.

The share of Northampton given over to warehouses is 18 times that of York. Whoa.

6. Suburbs often have better offices, too

Last one, but it’s a strange one. Check out the quality of office space in different types of city and their suburbs:

Click to expand.

The weaker the city centre, the more likely it is to have poor quality offices – and the greater the gap with its suburbs.

This is strange, at first glance. But it probably reflects the difficulty of attracting property investment in certain cities – and perhaps also a tendency, by weaker cities, to invest in out of town office parks.


I’m going to stop there. But if you want to know more, you can download the full Building Blocks report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Uncertainty is the new normal: the case for resilience in infrastructure

Members of the New York Urban Search and Rescue Task Force One help evacuate people from their homes in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in September 2018. Image: Getty.

The most recent international report on climate change paints a picture of disruption to society unless there are drastic and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. And although it’s early days, some cities and municipalities are starting to recognise that past conditions can no longer serve as reasonable proxies for the future.

This is particularly true for America’s infrastructure. Highways, water treatment facilities and the power grid are at increasing risk to extreme weather events and other effects of a changing climate.

The problem is that most infrastructure projects, including the Trump administration’s infrastructure revitalisation plan, typically ignore the risks of climate change.

In our work researching sustainability and infrastructure, we encourage and are starting to shift toward designing man-made infrastructure systems with adaptability in mind.

Designing for the past

Infrastructure systems are the front line of defense against flooding, heat, wildfires, hurricanes and other disasters. City planners and citizens often assume that what is built today will continue to function in the face of these hazards, allowing services to continue and to protect us as they have done so in the past. But these systems are designed based on histories of extreme events.

Pumps, for example, are sized based on historical precipitation events. Transmission lines are designed within limits of how much power they can move while maintaining safe operating conditions relative to air temperatures. Bridges are designed to be able to withstand certain flow rates in the rivers they cross. Infrastructure and the environment are intimately connected.

Now, however, the country is more frequently exceeding these historical conditions and is expected to see more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Said another way, because of climate change, natural systems are now changing faster than infrastructure.

How can infrastructure systems adapt? First let’s consider the reasons infrastructure systems fail at extremes:

  • The hazard exceeds design tolerances. This was the case of Interstate 10 flooding in Phoenix in fall 2014, where the intensity of the rainfall exceeded design conditions.

  • During these times there is less extra capacity across the system: When something goes wrong there are fewer options for managing the stressor, such as rerouting flows, whether it’s water, electricity or even traffic.

  • We often demand the most from our infrastructure during extreme events, pushing systems at a time when there is little extra capacity.

Gradual change also presents serious problems, partly because there is no distinguishing event that spurs a call to action. This type of situation can be especially troublesome in the context of maintenance backlogs and budget shortfalls which currently plague many infrastructure systems. Will cities and towns be lulled into complacency only to find that their long-lifetime infrastructure are no longer operating like they should?

Currently the default seems to be securing funding to build more of what we’ve had for the past century. But infrastructure managers should take a step back and ask what our infrastructure systems need to do for us into the future.


Agile and flexible by design

Fundamentally new approaches are needed to meet the challenges not only of a changing climate, but also of disruptive technologies.

These include increasing integration of information and communication technologies, which raises the risk of cyberattacks. Other emerging technologies include autonomous vehicles and drones as well as intermittent renewable energy and battery storage in the place of conventional power systems. Also, digitally connected technologies fundamentally alter individuals’ cognition of the world around us: consider how our mobile devices can now reroute us in ways that we don’t fully understand based on our own travel behavior and traffic across a region.

Yet our current infrastructure design paradigms emphasise large centralized systems intended to last for decades and that can withstand environmental hazards to a preselected level of risk. The problem is that the level of risk is now uncertain because the climate is changing, sometimes in ways that are not very well-understood. As such, extreme events forecasts may be a little or a lot worse.

Given this uncertainty, agility and flexibility should be central to our infrastructure design. In our research, we’ve seen how a number of cities have adopted principles to advance these goals already, and the benefits they provide.

A ‘smart’ tunnel in Kuala Lumpur is designed to supplement the city’s stormwater drainage system. Image: David Boey/creative commons.

In Kuala Lampur, traffic tunnels are able to transition to stormwater management during intense precipitation events, an example of multifunctionality.

Across the U.S., citizen-based smartphone technologies are beginning to provide real-time insights. For instance, the CrowdHydrology project uses flooding data submitted by citizens that the limited conventional sensors cannot collect.

Infrastructure designers and managers in a number of U.S. locations, including New York, Portland, Miami and Southeast Florida, and Chicago, are now required to plan for this uncertain future – a process called roadmapping. For example, Miami has developed a $500m plan to upgrade infrastructure, including installing new pumping capacity and raising roads to protect at-risk oceanfront property.

These competencies align with resilience-based thinking and move the country away from our default approaches of simply building bigger, stronger or more redundant.

Planning for uncertainty

Because there is now more uncertainty with regard to hazards, resilience instead of risk should be central to infrastructure design and operation in the future. Resilience means systems can withstand extreme weather events and come back into operation quickly.

Microgrid technology allows individual buildings to operate in the event of a broader power outage and is one way to make the electricity system more resilient. Image: Amy Vaughn/U.S. Department of Energy/creative commons.

This means infrastructure planners cannot simply change their design parameter – for example, building to withstand a 1,000-year event instead of a 100-year event. Even if we could accurately predict what these new risk levels should be for the coming century, is it technically, financially or politically feasible to build these more robust systems?

This is why resilience-based approaches are needed that emphasise the capacity to adapt. Conventional approaches emphasise robustness, such as building a levee that is able to withstand a certain amount of sea level rise. These approaches are necessary but given the uncertainty in risk we need other strategies in our arsenal.

For example, providing infrastructure services through alternative means when our primary infrastructure fail, such as deploying microgrids ahead of hurricanes. Or, planners can design infrastructure systems such that when they fail, the consequences to human life and the economy are minimised.

The Netherlands has changed its system of dykes and flood management in certain areas to better sustain flooding.

This is a practice recently implemented in the Netherlands, where the Rhine delta rivers are allowed to flood but people are not allowed to live in the flood plain and farmers are compensated when their crops are lost.

Uncertainty is the new normal, and reliability hinges on positioning infrastructure to operate in and adapt to this uncertainty. If the country continues to commit to building last century’s infrastructure, we can continue to expect failures of these critical systems, and the losses that come along with them.

The Conversation

Mikhail Chester, Associate Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering, Arizona State University; Braden Allenby, President's Professor and Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Arizona State University, and Samuel Markolf, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, Arizona State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.