Blog: 2 September 2020Grasping the doughnut dilemma – how do we stop cities hollowing out?

Andrew Woodrow

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Andrew Woodrow

Planning Associate Director

Glasgow office

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Our city centres are at risk. The once irresistible draw of high streets, restaurants, pubs and clubs has been substantially reduced. Office occupiers are leaving central districts in droves and house buyers are looking more to the suburbs or the countryside than ever before. To stop the growth of so-called doughnut cities, with their hollowed-out cores, requires imagination and creativity from those who plan and design our towns and cities. We need to stop looking at cities with a macro lens.

Cities have traditionally worked in rings, with a commercial-centred core, then a residential commuter ring before eventually reaching the greenbelt. Though offices will always exist in some form, as workers need physical space to come together and collaborate, the increase in flexible working accelerated by Covid, and changing portfolios will substantially reduce the amount of office space needed in any city. As the centres can no longer be propped up by workplaces and their supporting retail and restaurant units, planners are having to think more broadly about how we entice people back to the middle.

Key to this is identifying where there is growth and opportunity. Glasgow City Council’s ‘City Centre Living Strategy’ aims toward the target that Glasgow’s city centre population will double to 40,000 people in the next fifteen years. These 20,000 extra people will need places to live, work, relax and shop. In the plan, Glasgow City Council identifies the possible stumbling blocks, including the obvious need for more homes in the centre. 

The opportunity in Glasgow lies in the many areas in or near the centre of the city that are poorly or inefficiently utilised. Many of the city’s inner regions are ripe for regeneration, and the office exodus may give even more space to rethink how we look at the city centre. Glasgow has an abundance of central grade A office space – now arguably becoming a saturated market – and reinventing this space as well as those lower grade spaces will be essential to regenerating the centre.

Flexibility, innovation, responsiveness and bravery in decision making are all key to making radical changes. This responsibility falls not only on Local Authorities, but on the developers and key stakeholders alike. To grasp the opportunity there needs to be a collaborative and progressive approach.

Build-to-rent and student accommodation are two styles of residential housing that are still very attractive to investors, which means these can form the backbone of such regenerations. But we must look further, to a new and more attractive ‘city lifestyle’ to bring people back to the centre and to strengthen both the day and night-time economies.

Rather than over-relying on retail and associated uses within the city core, we need to look at delivering a true blend of uses in every small section of cities like Glasgow, with residential use having a big part to play in this. Inner city parks and green streets to provide outdoor space, with new restaurants and leisure occupiers sitting nestled between university accommodation and private housing. Offices, too, should remain a major part of the mix, with flexible, modern living allowing for vibrant communities that can live, work, shop and relax within their small districts of the city centre – diverse mosaic cities replacing the rings of the past.

The proximity of every part of each community will also reduce the requirement to drive and to park – accelerating the trend already advocated by Glasgow City Council for new developments to have zero per cent parking in the more accessible locations. Other lifestyle factors must also be provided – with amenities such as good public transport and super-fast broadband cementing the ease of living.  If all of this can be achieved, then these new inner-city communities will help our city centres flourish for years to come. The simple truth is that people want to be where other people are. If we plan and build green, clean, convenient, vibrant, liveable city centres – then they will come.

Listen in to our latest podcast episode "How can we maximise social value in town centre regeneration?" where we brought together a range of voices from the industry, who are intrigued by this challenge and come at it from a range of specialisms and perspectives.

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Retail, Town Centre, Build to Rent, Student Accommodation, Communities