Rising From The Rubble Part 2: City Centres In Crisis

It’s not just Nottingham: city centres across the country are in crisis. As we move away from high street shopping and office working, are these the right plans for an uncertain future?

By NEON writers

This is the second part of our investigation into the future of Broadmarsh. For Part 1, click here.

Nottingham. The bustling heart of the East Midlands is famous for anything from its lace industry to a man with a bow and arrow. Yet, what is going wrong with the city centre? It’s not the lack of people; close to 800,000 people inhabit the Nottingham urban area. It’s not the access; the cities slapped right next to one of the busiest roads in the UK, the M1. A big reason is a pandemic. Coronavirus has impacted us in ways we never thought would happen back at the start of 2020. But is it only the pandemic? 

To learn more about the city centre’s decline, we spoke to The Cheese Shop, a local business located in the Flying Horse Walk. When asked about the pandemic, it was clear Rob Frackingham, the company director, felt strongly about how the last two years had gone. “Footfall has been smashed to bits”, he admitted. “You’ve just gotta bite the bullet and hope that we can bounce back and drag people in.” 

Rob Frackingham, company director of The Cheese Shop. Photo: Charlie Prangle

According to the Financial Times, since the start of the pandemic in-person sales have dropped by over 10% in the Nottinghamshire area, a more significant drop than any of the four counties that border it. Could the Council be doing more to help? “There could be more help; there’s a lot of worry at times”, Frackingham says. ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re small or big; the high street is the high street at the moment, and if we want a high street, we’ve got to use it.’ An obvious statement, but it’s true. 

It’s not just Nottingham that is struggling. The issues here reflect a much broader trend across the country. In recent years, some big names have disappeared from our high streets completely – Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, Burton and Topshop now all only operate as online businesses. Of course, Covid has been a significant factor: with non-essential shops forced to close during lockdowns, driving a boom in online shopping. A reported 17,532 outlets closed their doors for the last time in 2020. Online spending rose nationally by 174% and employed 1,200 people. Other major cities have been hit, wth the heart of Manchester taking a hit of 32% in sales. Given that there were 3.0 million jobs in the retail sector in 2019, the UK economy is in dire need of a healthy revamp – otherwise we risk mass unemployment.

Analysis using new Ordnance Survey data on high streets reveals that places that did well tended to be in very mixed zones, where shops are small in physical size and have a small number of flats above them. This would support Peter Rogan’s argument that the Broadmarsh area would be best suited by small buildings housing independent businesses.

The proposals would also see 750 new homes nestled in the heart of the city. But will these homes truly fit what is needed in Nottingham? A study by Shelter discovered that last year, around 29,000 social homes were demolished or sold nationwide, yet only 7,000 were built. This national housing crisis is very much affecting Nottingham, yet no clear commitment to ensuring that the proposed new homes would be social or affordable housing.

Alex Norris is MP for Nottingham North and Shadow Minister for Levelling Up. “Housing is obviously a very significant issue across the country”, he agrees. He wants to see mixed housing on the Broadmarsh site “so that people with all sorts of means are able to share the site.” He also feels that funding from national government will be vital to the success of the site. “There has been a promise of 20 new Kings Cross-style developments across the country, and I think this clearly would be one of the best possible examples of something like that.” 

One thing is clear: relying on retail, in this Amazon era, is a flawed way of looking at a city. With city centres entering a new era of being much less retail-specific, repurposing city centres for leisure and green space would attract a new group of city users: a place we can go to, to relax. The ambitious ‘green’ Broadmarsh plan may open the door to a unique reinvention of the generic high street. And we need green spaces: a 2008 study published in The Lancet discovered that 40 million Britons found a direct link between inequality, life expectancy and access to green space. There is a clear distinction between the quality of life in green as opposed to urban areas, something that could be changed as we start to see this modern, green city landscape. Plants reduce stress, increase our health and help cool sweaty, polluted cities, especially in the hotter months. In that context, these plans don’t sound too bad

The minds behind the project are passionate that it will be a success. Speaking at the launch event, Thomas Heatherwick argued that “cities were invented to get together or work and get everything done. And Covid has made us see that you can still get things done being close together, but we still need each other; we thrive off each other. Cities are opportunities, and they must be reinvented as a human thing again,”. He is hoping the project could echo the feel of the High Line in New York. Speaking to the Nottingham Post, he added; “It is exciting because I think that we shouldn’t just eradicate or pretend it never happened and then build something shiny… There is a chance to borrow some of that and the truth of that structure.”

“We’re a creative city where culture thrives, but when other towns were upping their game, we stood still,” Greg Nugent, chair of the Nottingham Project, recently told LeftLion. “Firstly, you can’t launch anything these days without worrying that people will say it’s not a good idea, but the opposite has been confirmed… The only negative response, if you can even call it that, is that people have been asking more questions, but that’s fine.”

Broadmarsh is not alone in struggling to develop, unhelped by central government.  This explains why the plans and proposals are taking so long to begin. People are confused about what the future of their cities will look like, and this needs to change. The architects creating proposals for other dilapidated buildings around the country should ask the city natives for advice. Natives see the building daily and have the best ideas about what their city’s skyline should look like. 

It’s fair to say that there’s been a mixed response to the greener city plans. With such divided opinions, will the project ever come to fruition? The main issue is budget; as David Mellen stated, the new plans will have to be wallet-friendly for the developers. 

Many exciting ideas surround the changing Broadmarsh, but the road ahead is still not clear. A city is a landscape that will have to adapt and change to fit in with the moving times. Far fewer people need a high street than before, so taking a step away from traditional retail is inevitable. Despite this, one certainty is that whatever changes are decided, there will always be people unhappy with the new version of the Broadmarsh, whatever it may look like. 

As Jon Collins says, Broadmarsh is “the entrance to Nottingham.” Our council and their developers must find a way to attract people rather than repel them.

neonnottingham

Magazine and website celebrating Nottingham's stories.

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