Lessons for Policymakers Building the 21st Century City Centre

IPPO Cities convened a policy roundtable to explore how city policymakers navigate new demands for the city centre as the core of urban life. The event focused on how city centres’ can become more livable, allow slow mobility within, and preserve their cultural identity while climate-proofing their infrastructure. In doing so, cities enjoy increasing autonomy and can leverage it for long-term strategic planning. 

Henriette Ruhrmann

The following four key takeaways summarise the leading learnings from and for urban decision-makers reimagining the city centre.

The 21st-century city centre must be livable

In the 21st century, urban populations expect their city centre to provide more than retail. There is now increasing demand for centrally-located housing, gastronomy, public community and event spaces, and healthcare services. In the past, retailers and parking structures for suburbanites traveling to the city centre to shop dominated the urban landscape. Now, younger generations are moving back to the city and expect the city centre to provide well-rounded public and community spaces. In response, city policymakers increasingly promote development projects transforming indoor retail into outdoor public spaces thereby forging new connections between the in- and outdoors.

Travel patterns have evolved… and our cityscapes need to change too

While traditional commuting has been on the decline for two decades as technology makes homeworking more feasible, the pandemic turbo-charged the move to a hybrid model as the norm. Despite this, our cityscapes are still often planned around the increasingly outdated idea of a 5-day a week commute into a central business district. A joined-up approach to urban planning needs to consider our new reality of multiple hubs, as well as the increasing popularity of transportation modes such as cycling, which also saw a pandemic boost.

City centres can preserve their unique cultural identity and meet new needs

A city’s cultural identity manifests itself in its art, architecture, and social fabric. However, city centres are constantly evolving, especially as the public conscious turns towards new and more energy-efficient infrastructure. In attractive tourist destinations, visitors and locals seek different city centre spaces and services and directly compete for the city’s identity – Sandra Guinand refers to this conflict as “tourism gentrification.” She highlighted two successful approaches to balancing the need to preserve a city’s cultural identity, as well as new economic and environmental needs: (1) partnerships between city governments and private owners, and (2) direct involvement of citizens in strategic planning processes.

Local governments have more and more autonomy – and need to use it strategically

Many misjudge city governments as the level of governance that simply implements policies and delivers services. However, according to data collected by the EU Commission, city governments’ autonomy is actually growing. As city governments shoulder more responsibility for strategy and planning they must also evolve new processes. OECD policy analyst Yingyin Wu sees three priorities for city policymakers: (1) Focus on developing a collective vision, (2) identify policy instruments and stakeholder coalitions necessary to execute that vision, and (3) anticipate developments along the way. Examples of successful strategic and co-creative planning at the local level include the city of Wuppertal’s (Germany) multi-stakeholder “Planning Cell” to build a new cable car route.

Participants at the roundtable were Jonathan Wallace, Board Director at planning and development consultancy Lichfields (Newcastle upon Tyne), Yingyin Wu, Policy Analyst in the Regional Development and Multi-level Governance Division of the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (Paris), Tom van Vuren, Regional Director for UK and Europe at Veitch Lister Consulting, a multi-disciplinary company specialising in transport planning, analytics and modelling, policy and economics (London) and Visiting Professor at the University of Leeds, and Sandra Guinand, Associate Professor at ESPI Bordeaux and Associate Researcher at Pantheon-Sorbonne University Paris.