Towns and cities of the future: what do they look like?

David Atkinson, national head of land and development, recently attended the Derby Property Summit. Derby is the perfect example of a city centre on a transformational journey, as David explains.

It’s an interesting time for towns and cities in the UK. The needs, wants and behaviours of people have changed significantly over the last few years, and many town and city centres are at a pivotal point where they are trying to realign themselves within these changing goal posts.

This means local authorities are having to put new strategies together around placemaking; revitalising and transforming what’s already there, as well as creating a long-term masterplan for what needs to be there in the years to come.

David Atkinson, our national head of land and development, recently went along to Derby Property Summit where Derby posed as the perfect case study for a city centre that is on this transformational journey.

He shares his key takeaways from the event below.

“The event held in Derby gave me a lot of food for thought. It’s no secret that towns and cities up and down the country are facing the same challenge of transforming spaces and evolving to meet the changing needs of people in the area.

That being said, it was interesting to hear the experts’ insights on what the future of Derby City Centre would, should or could look like, with the line-up of speakers including representatives from Derby City Council, University College London (UCL) and the British Property Federation.

Here are my top three takeaways from the event…

1. There needs to be a better curation of place

One repeated suggestion at the summit was that towns and cities need to be ‘curated’ better. Throughout the event, the concept of curating urban areas continued to arise, with the suggestion being that this role should sit at a council level - that they need to provide a more holistic and strategic vision for a town or a city.

A compelling analogy was made about how curating a city has similarities to curating a theme park. In both cases the focus needs to be on ensuring all aspects give individuals a positive experience during their visit and are ‘on-brand’ for that theme park or city.

Other speakers also touched on a similar topic, highlighting that better curation can only take place if a town or city has a strong identity. Derby was used as an example of a city that is currently going through the journey to understand what makes it different and how it will stand out from surrounding towns and cities.

Once this identity is understood, it will then guide the curation of the city and inform what experiences and spaces are required to draw people in to live, work, study, socialise and more.

2. Stop building for a function, start building for an experience

Traditionally, the approach to building towns and cities has been making sure an area provides the specific ‘types’ of buildings seen as being required. In that sense, it can easily become a bit like a tick list of what ‘should’ be included – things like offices, homes, schools, universities, eateries and bars.

A standout concept across speakers was that we’re no longer building to a tick list; we need to stop focusing on types of buildings and start focusing on end user experiences.

For example, an office is no longer just a place to work - it can offer spaces to exercise, socialise, eat, drink, and more. We’ve seen a rise in our customers opting for more collaborative office spaces, with additional facilities like purpose-built indoor bike storage, climbing walls and podcast studios available. Facilities such as these start to go beyond providing ‘a place to work’ and start catering to wider needs such as wellbeing and ease of commuting more sustainably.

A project we recently completed at 10 Brindleyplace in Birmingham even provides floors for managed workspaces where single desks can be hired for just a day or meeting spaces can be hired for as little as an hour.

Alongside needing to create experiences in buildings, one of the areas that Derby is already working to improve is public realm and open spaces. The benefits of this include providing better links between places, making people feel safer in certain areas and adding much-needed green and blue spaces for people to enjoy.

3. Mixed use developments are the future

The days of a building serving a single function are numbered. There were two key areas that speakers covered on this topic, with speakers highlighting the need for "Hypermixity" in our future towns and cities.

The first centred around mixed-use developments in the traditional sense of having buildings that serve multiple purposes and functions, such as homes, gyms, bars and cafes all being housed on one site.

The second was slightly more unusual and focused on how a single space could be utilised in different ways to serve different purposes or audiences.

An example of how this could work was highlighted in Derby Market Hall – a Grade II listed market hall that is currently being transformed to house independent shopping, eating, drinking and entertainment businesses. Speakers from the council referenced this as an area that could provide different experiences and draw in different crowds during the day or in the evening.

During the day, it will provide several different uses such as market stalls to buy fresh produce, seating areas to chat and drink coffee, and even the potential for daytime events or entertainment to take place. In the evening, this space could still provide a space to socialise, but with a different experience. Instead of market stalls, there could be pop-up food and drink stalls such as micro-breweries and street food, the event space could provide live music, and the seating areas could be moved to the sides to make room for a dance floor.

Suddenly, the ‘market hall’ is capitalising on two distinctly different experiences, drawing in two different crowds of people and supporting two different pools of independent businesses.

Do you want to accelerate regeneration in your area?

The evolution of towns and cities isn’t going to happen overnight, but the clock is ticking. Michael Gove thinks they should provide a mix of ‘beautiful homes, flourishing public spaces, cultural jewels, safe and orderly streets, space for trees and nature, centres of educational excellence, dynamic new businesses and excellent public services’.

Well, Derby, like other cities, has big plans, and I look forward to seeing how these take shape over the next few years."

At Willmott Dixon, we’re already working with our customers to help transform towns and cities.

Find how we’re helping to accelerate urban regeneration in the Midlands here.

Alternatively, get in touch with David Atkinson here.