Towns and cities compete regionally, nationally or globally to attract and retain visitors, investment, leading thinkers and entrepreneurs, as well as a diverse cultural and family-focused offering to enable existing residents to thrive sustainably. This is not happening on its own. In fact, it is the result of a carefully managed strategic process that is gaining growing levels of recognition and interest across the UK and overseas – town centre management. Gone are the days when we could adopt a simplistic approach to the development of our town centres by seeing them solely as shopping destinations.
Today, research shows that there is much more to how people interact with their high street beyond mere retail transactions. The way town and city centres are designed and managed can make a considerable difference to the quality of this experience. Town centre management, which has existed for over 25 years in the UK, North America and the European Union, remains one of the most multidisciplinary activities anyone can engage in and key to fostering the entrepreneurial spirit of our towns and cities. Town centre managers may work for local authorities, public-private partnerships or private sector place management organisations (e.g. business improvement districts) but they often juggle the management of events with other strategic activities such as place branding and marketing, tourism, local economic development, urban regeneration, community engagement, revenue development, strategic stakeholder management and business support, to mention but a few.
In Spain and Italy, for instance, town centre management initiatives are often led by local associations of small independent retailers and have a high focus on entrepreneurship, innovation and customer service. In other countries, business improvement districts and town centre partnerships are forging closer links between effective place management and large scale urban regeneration investment, as well as successful area-based re-branding, which increasingly involve sophisticated used of digital technology channels.
If we are to reclaim our town and city centres as the beating hearts of our communities, we need to involve key decision makers and local communities
In spite of all this, news about the decline of our town centres continues to dominate the headlines. Recent reports (centre for cities), government policy (localism act), as well as the recommendations made by Mary Portas for the future of our high streets seem to converge on the fact that we need to change our thinking with regards to the function of our high streets if many of them are to survive and compete successfully.
A recent study funded by the department for business, innovation and skills, called successful town centres – developing effective strategies, argues that if we are to reclaim our town and city centres as the beating hearts of our communities, we need to involve key decision makers and local communities in a radically different understanding of what makes our town centres tick and, crucially, positioning their offer strategically by aligning it with their 'personality' or DNA in a way that is difficult to replicate by competitors.
This study also offers, for the first time ever, a national framework for town centre performance linked to a toolkit that anyone can use. Is it too late to save the patient? Perhaps the patient was never moribund, but merely waiting to be discharged from hospital.