What do the differences seen in nearby cities tell us about successful high streets?

Liverpool. Image: Getty.

The received wisdom in the media is that high streets across the UK are struggling. This is influenced by the financial struggles of prominent stores like HMV and M&S and closures of Toys ‘R’ Us and Maplin.

But the headlines obscure an important point: the woes of the high street are not universal. Rather, our research reveals a large variation in the performance of high streets, even amongst those close to each other.

Take, for instance, Liverpool and Birkenhead. As shown in the map below, the two cities are separated only by the River Mersey, yet are very different in terms of the health of their high streets. While Liverpool has a high street vacancy rate of just 10 per cent, Birkenhead’s is almost double at 19 per cent. A similar divergence occurs in South Wales: 15 per cent of city centre retail units are vacant in Cardiff, far lower than Newport’s 24 per cent.

Vacancy rates in city centres. Image: Centre for Cities.

It is not just a matter of empty shops; the type of shops in a city centre matters too. One-quarter of Liverpool’s retail is classed as ‘value’ – such as charity shops or discount stores – compared to 40 per cent of shops in Birkenhead. And while Cardiff only has 18 per cent of its shops classed as ‘value,’ 42 per cent of Newport’s shops fall under the same category. Liverpool and Cardiff also have a far higher proportion of premium shops, as seen in the charts below.

Cities centres by status of retail units. Image: Centre for Cities.

Crucially, the relative health of these high streets reflects the strength of the city centres’ economies and their attractiveness to business, rather than being the driver of it. Liverpool and Cardiff have more successful high streets because they’ve been able to attract in more high-skilled businesses than Birkenhead and Newport. Well-paid office workers in these city centres increase footfall and customer spending power. This creates a market for retailers, bars and restaurants to sell to – which leads to a stronger high street.

The proximity of these city centres to each other does raise the rather thorny question of whether one sucks activity away from the other. Undoubtedly people do cross the Mersey from Birkenhead to visit Liverpool’s shops and restaurants.

But this underlines the need to boost footfall in Newport or Birkenhead by increasing the number of jobs in their city centres. Neither is going to pull people in solely as a leisure destination, especially given the strength of their neighbours. And so a better future for the high streets of Birkenhead and Newport will require a focus on the attractiveness of the city centres as places to do business in order to give people a reason to come in.

This pattern is most clearly seen in London. Despite its success, Oxford Street isn’t the only successful shopping area in London, with the City of London and Canary Wharf, for example, also doing well. The vacancy rate in the latter was less than 6 per cent in 2017-18. Importantly, this is driven by the large volumes of workers pulled in each day, and it’s hard to see how high street services would survive in these areas if it wasn’t for all the office jobs above them.

This means that urban policymakers should not obsess over high street vacancy rates in isolation, but consider retail as one aspect of a diverse economic and cultural offering.  The way to breathe back life into a high street is not with a concerted retail expansion, but to make it a compelling place to invest in and set up business. If the number of high-skilled jobs in city centres increases, there will be more footfall and spend to sustain their high streets and keep shops open.

Owen Bell is a research intern at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this post first appeared.


The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

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