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:

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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.

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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

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.