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.


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

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