A couple of months I attended an inspirational talk by David Simm of Gehl Architects (http://www.gehlarchitects.com/) on creating livable and human scale cities. For visitors to and residents of cities that have invested in better public parks and spaces, the quality of life and quality of place benefits are undeniable. But for economists the economic benefits can be difficult to quantify? Too often, particularly in an era of austerity, city centre public realm projects are being seen as nice-to-have, not must-have interventions.
I considered this issue in a talk (see: http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Session-C2-Prince-Philip-Room-Tom-Bridges.pdf) I gave a few weeks ago at a Royal Society of the Arts conference on creating socially productive places. My argument is that the shift to a knowledge economy is transforming the geography of innovation in cities with important implications for how and where we prioritise investments to support economic growth.
Bruce Katz, in an excellent recent article and short animation (http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/12/30-silicon-cities-katz) explained how the landscape of innovation is changing. Previously, innovative firms located on out-of-centre business and science parks to which people drove to their buildings, within which knowledge and ideas were kept secret. But increasingly, innovative firms are locating in or on the fringes of city centres where their staff cycle or ride public transport to work, and in the “hyper-caffinated” spaces between the buildings they share their knowledge.
This trend can be seen from tech city on the fringes of the City of London, to the old mill buildings of the South Bank of Leeds. Its causes are the increasing economic importance of agglomeration. It is in city centres where people, firms, colleges and universities can locate in close proximity, where they can collaborate, copy and compete across company and sectoral boundaries, and where they can access easily a skilled and creative workforce (see my previous post on this: https://citypolicy.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/cities-and-the-information-economy/).
It is for this reason that Centre for Cities argued in an excellent report last year (http://www.centreforcities.org/research/2013/09/10/beyond-the-high-street/) that the post Portas debate about city centres needs to be about more than just retail. There should be a greater focus on city centres as locations for jobs, businesses and growth, and the role of retail and leisure as part of that wider context.
This all has important implications for the spaces, places and routes between the buildings in city centres. It is the quality and attractiveness of this public realm that will affect the ability of cities to attract innovative firms, workers, as well as visitors and shoppers. As Katz argues, there are new opportunities to develop “innovation districts” to regenerate areas on the fringes of our city centres. It also creates challenges for established out-of-centre office and science parks, many of which are now seeking to retrofit an enhanced retail and leisure offer, better public and open space, and improved public transport to be more like the resurgent in-town locations.
So are we valuing or prioritising sufficiently potential investments in city centre public spaces? And this might all be very well for Copenhagen, Shoreditch, or Boston, but what does this all mean for a place like Leeds? These are questions I will return to in my next post.