As many town centres and high streets continue to struggle with sharp declines in footfall accelerated by Covid-19 and the associated increase in internet shopping, they must adapt to changing retail patterns and the digital economy. A new approach is vital in order to repurpose, regenerate and enliven those spaces that were once at the heart of local communities, and can be again.
While the way consumers shop has evolved, it is possible for town centres and high streets to be revived as places where people meet, eat, drink and socialise together. Providing well-designed and safe spaces for communities to thrive in this way means a more economically vibrant way forward. An injection of funding, whether from central government or private investors, is often the kickstart a Local Authority requires to get much-needed projects off the ground. However, gaining the insight to ensure any funding is astutely invested is the key to optimal outcomes. Examples of central government funding for high street or town rejuvenation projects, which are also expected to attract additional private investment government funding, include:
- Future High Streets Fund (FHSF): a £1bn pot launched in December 2018. So far, 14 pilot towns have been granted up to £25m each, with the remaining still developing business cases.
- Towns Fund: 101 towns selected in September 2019 to receive up to £25mn from the £3.6bn, not restricted to the town centre or high street. Some could be those shortlisted for the FHSF, which could benefit from £50mn total. Town Deals, so far agreed in seven locations including Blackpool and Torquay, will play an important role in giving private investors the confidence to back projects.
- Heritage High Street Fund: a £95m four-year programme encompassing High Streets Heritage Action Zones, will target high streets’ conservation areas, ensuring management of their special architectural and historic interest.
In addition to funding, the government has also launched the High Streets Task Force (HSTF) – an alliance of placemaking experts that provides encouragement, tools and skills to help communities and local government transform their high streets. The HSTF is run by the Institute of Place Management (IPM) and has appointed recognised experts to support local authorities and advise on a range of issues. These include planning, urban design, placemaking, landscape architecture, resilience, transport, valuation, asset management, investment, governance, data and analytics, place management and leadership. Having been appointed in the role of HSTF Expert, I look forward to working with a variety of local authorities around the country in support of their efforts to rejuvenate their high streets.
As Professor Cathy Parker, co-chair, IPM commented: “With support and investment from the government and professionals across the country, we have a fantastic opportunity to develop places that are really valued by the local communities they serve.”
So how can Local Authorities make certain that they are using their funding to their best advantage, and investing in the facilities and services that matter most to their communities? Workman’s Activate team has been collaborating closely with a number of councils to ensure they achieve just that. Here are three examples:
The enlivenment of Gosport
The rich military history of Gosport led to it becoming a Heritage Action Zone in 2018, and additionally, in June 2020, it became one of 68 English locations to secure investment for a High Streets Heritage Action Zone scheme in the Gosport High Street and Stoke Road conservation areas. As a result, the area will receive government funding of £1.78m for the implementation of a four-year multi-project programme agreed with Historic England.
Gosport Borough Council, in partnership with Hampshire Cultural Trust, who operate Gosport Museum and Art Gallery, has begun to examine options for enlivenment of the high street, while attracting footfall reciprocally between the high street, market and museum.Working closely with Gosport Borough Council, the Activate team has undertaken trader consultations and customer research in order to form proposals for how the market can be developed and improved. Future developments will include cultural events within the museum that will spill out onto the street and integrate with the market as well as a programme of specialist monthly markets to complement the regular offer.
Master planning for regeneration in the North East
Embarking upon master planning for space within its town centre, this Local Authority in the North East of England was looking for a high-level feasibility assessment for a space that comprises former council offices. The Activate team was approached by a development partner of the Council and asked to research current local retail and leisure provision in order to analyse the viability of potential options for the site. There had been an original proposal to introduce big-box retail, which was shelved due to demand being so greatly reduced over the past few years. After researching the local area, the Activate team recommended a mixed-use scheme, including some chain store retail but supplemented with independent retail. This would be delivered alongside a food hall community hub and public realm improvements, all designed to meet the Council’s regeneration objectives.
Repurposing Merseyside spaces: from vacant to viable
The repurposing of vacant space, while also relocating the town centre market, is the key goal of this ongoing Merseyside project. Having carried out trader consultations, competitor benchmarking and customer research, the Activate team found that an increase in food and beverage offerings would be key to the sustained popularity of this town’s market.
The team put together a plan for the Council which involved repurposing a vacant retail centre to create a purpose-built market. Workman’s Building Consultants designed a layout that offered improved linkages and sightlines, as well as sections that could be shut off, leaving the food and beverage stalls to continue trading into the evenings, while Activate conducted a detailed viability study, including financial forecasts.
Looking ahead, we will establish a steering group with existing tenants to ensure a smooth relocation, and also advise on branding options. Potential new tenants for the market will be proactively sought, while Workman’s Property Management team will propose management options. Workman is therefore providing a true end-to-end service to ensure that this local authority meets its targets and optimises the funding it has received.
A holistic approach
Indeed, the Workman Activate team is well-equipped with the skills, experience and insight to deliver a holistic approach, from master planning to building consultancy to property management to placemaking. Indeed, at Workman, our teams have years of experience providing services for over 30 local authorities and other public sector bodies nationwide. So, our expertise ensures that local authorities looking to squeeze the maximum benefit from both government and private sector funding achieve their goals.
For many local authorities, the starting point is as simple as listening to local people and finding out what’s important to them – a keystone that’s easily overlooked. At Activate, our listening skills are proven, and we take pride in delivering projects that keep the hearts of local communities beating.
Our skills are already being put to valuable use in places like Gosport and Merseyside, so why not harness our expertise and let your town’s heart beat once more?
Placemaking Manager, Activate and High Streets Task Force (HSTF) Expert
As Lockdown Two begins, responding to occupier needs and engaging consistently is more important than ever, which is why increased frequency of communication during this period is business-critical.
Having become accustomed to a greater work-life balance, it’s clear that employees are likely to be seeking more flexibility. But that’s not all. To meet future occupier expectations, offices will require attributes that both tempt comfortable home-workers and provide welcome relief for those keen to return.
From doggy day-care facilities to round benches for communal outdoor seating to Covid-safe events that bring communities together, what office users want is likely to have evolved in accordance with new behaviours adopted since hard lockdowns began more than 220 days ago. According to behavioural psychologist Dr Phillipa Lally, it can take between 18 and 254 days, and an average of 66 days, for new habits to be formed. So, investors and managers who take the time to listen to occupiers and deliver facilities to support these emergent long-term behaviours, will be in a strong position to both attract and retain users when they can finally return.
No one-size-fits-all approach
Our research among occupiers shows 70% are keen to attend social and networking events again, once they are back in the office. Indeed, listening to occupiers has also shown us a whole range of specific preferences: 52% of respondents (to a survey for a client with a portfolio of London offices) said they would be highly likely to use on-site cycle facilities if they were provided, while 63% of respondents from one of our multi-let London office buildings said they would be likely to attend Pilates / yoga classes. However, this is no one-size-fits-all approach – it’s vital that occupiers’ voices are heard, as not everyone is keen to bend during their breaks.
One fantastic example of involving the wider community in charitable and sustainability initiatives is Birmingham Business Park (BBP). In response to occupier feedback, the on-site team created six allotment beds for occupiers including Canon, EQ Technologic, Arval and Create Fertility. The allotments engender a sense of community, network and purpose among occupiers, who have bonded over the nurture of plants. There is also a hub offering ongoing online and offline learning for all allotment holders and occupiers at BBP. It’s proving a popular initiative, so four more allotment beds are planned for 2021, and vegetable trugs have been added.
Two allotments were allocated to Age UK Solihull – the BBP charity partnership for three years, as voted by occupiers. Food banks are organised for the charity, money from sales of BBP honey is donated, along with Christmas presents. Indeed, BBP has been awarded an International Corporate Social Responsibility Award for support to local charities, including a grass roots sports club at Marston Green Junior School, where kit has been supplied for two seasons.
Foster continual engagement
By asking questions and considering the responses of the people who live, work and play in the buildings we manage, we foster continual engagement with end users, which allows us to deliver exceptional customer experience. This has a proven impact on occupier satisfaction and productivity, while also supporting our clients’ key asset management objectives of occupier retention and attraction.
As multiple lockdowns continue to be enforced, and with question marks hanging over the mass-return of occupiers, behavioural changes such as working from home may outlive the pandemic, leading companies to formally offer more flexible working. But offices remain vital places of innovation, collaboration, learning and networking. And while the quality of the office interior has traditionally been perceived as a key selling point, our research shows that occupiers will now also be looking for the chance to see colleagues face-to-face and be part of a community. Delivering that enticing reason for coming to the office has never been more important, but it demands dedicated and considered management.
“A vibrant and valued place to work”
Indeed, as James Coke, Fund Manager & Co-Head of Institutional UK Real Estate at Columbia Threadneedle Investments, writes: “While there are short-term headwinds, we believe over the medium- to long-term the office will remain a vibrant and valued place to work, and consequently, in the hands of an active manager, a viable and reliable investment proposition.”
For many properties, there has historically been little or no focus on community management and no wider programme of services, amenities and events. But it will be these elements that increasingly play a key role in the future customer experience that occupiers are looking to benefit from. Already, prior to Covid-19, we had identified growth in this area and the associated commercial benefits being provided. This requirement will only continue to increase, with bespoke solutions to futureproof properties now being drawn up.
Occupier engagement: only as good as its actions
At Activate, we are proficient in the delivery of focus groups and online surveys to understand occupier requirements and future aspirations. Where needed, we carry out assessments of void space and identify common areas for potential enlivenment activities. We review existing spend on occupier marketing, and for properties where this is not currently undertaken, we are well-versed in the creation of communication programmes for occupier communities.
Of course, occupier engagement is only as good as its actions, and at Activate, we advise following up on changes discussed with occupiers as quickly as possible. This is not only the right thing to do, but also good business: occupiers and users of space will value the effort, and trust built throughout the pandemic will nourish relationships into the future.
The results of occupier engagement will help answer questions and support landlords in the creation of refreshed environments, which will not only appeal to existing occupiers, but also support marketing of the property to new occupiers. Crucially, change and progression will be shaped by occupiers, creating a customer experience they have developed together; and one which will make the office a pleasure to inhabit.
The Activate approach: strategies to improve customer experience
Here at Activate, we regularly engage with occupiers, which has allowed us to embed strategies aimed at improving and enhancing the customer experience. These are a few of the key themes we have seen from this approach:
- Room for community: Make space for a multi-use lobby area, this helps both in terms of fostering collaboration between multiple departments and creating a sense of community, which makes people happier and more productive. This also plays into the increasing desire to work in lounge settings rather than a desk environment.
- Be at one with nature: Allocate space for living walls, rooftop gardens, planting trees and developing community gardens. Our growing urban population is more disconnected from nature than ever before, yet studies have shown that being around nature improves short term memory, restores mental energy, relieves stress, and boosts creativity, as well as purifying the air.
- Change it up: Humans often flourish in a changing environment, so keeping things fresh through continual change can make the space more appealing. Buildings can provide entertainment with spaces that can evolve through imagery, lighting and media.
- Fit for all: Exercise is one of the most important aspects of maintaining good health and a high degree of productivity. Adding a fitness centre or the availability of yoga classes to your office building is a great way to ensure long term occupancy.
- On your bike: Environmental and economic issues have prompted many to bike to work, so it’s become increasingly important to provide secure and convenient bike storage. Adding a bike repair station to the storage area, or a visiting bike repair facility, would be an extra bonus.
Director of Placemaking, Activate
The HSTF, set up to strengthen local leadership in high streets and town centres, was established by the government in 2019 as part of its plan for the High Street and in response to recommendations from a panel led by entrepreneur Sir John Timpson. Run by the Institute of Place Management (IPM) on behalf of government, the Task Force brings together a range of expert organisations on reinventing and restructuring places.
HSTF Experts will visit specific high streets and town centres to work with place leaders and the community to identify the important key issue(s) that are hampering successful transformation, and how to address these. They will also consult with local authorities and stakeholders to help solve complex challenges, which may also include running vision workshops and brokering relationships within the local community. Experts will advise on a range of issues, including planning, urban design, placemaking, landscape architecture, resilience, transport, valuation, asset management, investment, governance, data and analytics, place management and leadership.
Having previously held roles as Town Centre Manager for the London Boroughs of both Twickenham and latterly Hounslow, Esther’s appointment will draw on her previous experience of town centre regeneration projects and will complement her current role managing various placemaking projects for Activate.
Commenting on the appointment, Esther said;
I’m delighted to be appointed as a High Streets Task Force Expert. I’m looking forward to being part of this national effort and supporting local authorities and communities to transform their high streets.
Our recent article Remobilising Retail Destinations , highlighted the value of destination marketing teams for retail assets. They have a crucial role to play, both promoting the customer experience and managing customer expectations of the social distancing measures that will inevitably be in place.
As part of an on-going growth in our destination marketing services for retail assets, we are delighted to have expanded our retail marketing team.
Michelle Atack joined the team as Digital Marketing and Events Associate. She will co-ordinate marketing activities for a growing number of shopping centres and retail parks across the country. Michelle has previously held Marketing Manager roles at Derwent Group and Cushman & Wakefield. In those roles she was responsible for schemes including Liverpool Shopping Park and Manchester Corn Exchange, managing digital marketing campaigns, media management and local community stakeholder engagement.
Welcoming Michelle to the team, Andrew Sparrow, Director of Placemaking said;
Now more than ever, marketing and communications has a vital role to play in driving footfall, encouraging customers to return to safe and welcoming retail environments, collaborating with retailers and local communities. We are seeing a real demand from investors to invest in promoting their schemes. Michelle’s appointment will add valuable expertise and experience in this area. We look forward to working together on a number of new instructions.
As the majority of retail destinations develop their remobilisation plans, the primary focus will be how to introduce effective social distancing measures that reflect both government advice and consumer expectations.
A different customer experience
The outcome of this will, in the medium term, create a very different customer experience. It will require intensive onsite management and an integrated communications plan to ensure potential customers are aware of the restrictions ahead of their visit. This will manage their expectations and provide clarity around the procedures they will need to follow, well in advance.
At the same time retailers, will be looking to landlords to support their re-opening. As the number of retailers opening and level of enlivenment within each retail location increases, we would expect footfall to follow. Whilst this represents a positive step towards a return to some form of normality, this also presents a number of challenges in managing social distancing procedures. How queue management is implemented to cope with customer volume in the mall areas, for example.
An alternative marketing focus
Balancing safety and wellbeing with customer entertainment and experience comes to the fore here. Retailers’ expectations and centre management objectives might not align as they had previously. Ordinarily, the objective of increasing footfall and animating the retail environment would the priority of marketing strategies. For now the approach will have to be modified, most certainly phased. The focus will be to maintain footfall through a marketing and communication strategy which avoids peaks and utilises digital channels for many of the locations usual experiential activities. All in the context of future marketing budgets being (rightly) challenged more rigorously, with landlords looking for economies of scale across their portfolios whilst still retaining the individuality of each location.
A phased approach
Currently the Activate team are working with clients to create a phased, cost effective marketing and communications programme. Previous budgets and creative campaigns are being reviewed for cost, ability to be adapted and impact on footfall and customer experience. Phase 1 – Inform and Reassure, may well last for some time and focus solely on delivering H&S information, social distancing guidelines and welcoming customers back. As we move forward, Phases 2 and 3 will broaden the messaging with a view to increasing frequency of visits, variety of retailer content and offline experiential.
The phased plan and the accompanying content will be one of our key tools as we balance the desire to increase footfall while meeting social distancing during remobilisation.
Director of Placemaking, Activate
We have also expanded our portfolio of office and workspace mandates. Instructed at Aztec West Business Park, Bristol on behalf of the Park’s management company, we’ll deliver a comprehensive occupier engagement programme. This has been designed and costed to promote collaboration, wellbeing and enrichment among the park’s occupiers, to improve employee satisfaction and productivity.
Other recent placemaking instructions for retail and leisure destinations include:
- In Coventry, we have been appointed by new client Royal London Asset Management, to deliver a feasibility report looking at food and beverage provision within the Lower Precinct Shopping Centre.
- At the 200,000 sq ft (Phase One) Liverpool Shopping Park in Merseyside, we have been instructed by Derwent Estates to advise on options for the Gyratory area, including wellbeing and green spaces, as well as pop-up retail and leisure. We will be collaborating with Workman Building Consultancy to provide CAD visuals, layouts and costed plans.
“We have seen strong interest in our specialist placemaking service since the launch of Activate last year. Both new and existing clients are keen to bring a dedicated placemaking focus to managing and repositioning their assets.
These projects encompass the breadth and depth of our service and expertise, from feasibility to management. They also span across key sectors in retail, leisure, offices and business parks.
Whatever the sector, effective placemaking strategies can be fundamental to long term success in helping retain occupiers and protect portfolio values, by attracting and engaging people, and strengthening the connection they have to a place.”
Andrew Sparrow, Director of Placemaking
These instructions follow the launch of the Activate consultancy just over six months ago by Workman, the UK’s largest independent specialist commercial property management and building consultancy firm.
The Autumn / Winter 2019 edition of The Developer includes a feature from our Andrew Sparrow, the importance of tailoring the placemaking offering to the demands of the local users, whether in retail, office or town centre environments.
“Putting user experience at the heart of planning, design and management strengthens their connection with the place and therefore it’s value.”
The article outlines how this approach has been adopted as part of St Helens Council regeneration strategy.
Read the full article in the Autumn/Winter 2019 edition of The Developer
The success of many retail, commercial and mixed-use assets is increasingly determined by the provision of a quality experience and positive social value for local communities, customers and occupiers. Creating places which reflect the needs and aspirations of the people who use them is an instrumental part of achieving this and has become a key element of an asset’s placemaking strategy.
As a result, Workman LLP have recruited a dedicated team with demonstrable experience within the placemaking and regeneration sectors, to form their new Activate placemaking consultancy. Activate will provide clients with a service which can conceive, develop and implement viable placemaking solutions for retail, leisure, office and business parks.
Andrew Sparrow, Workman’s new Director of Placemaking said:
“Having advised on regeneration projects and operated many retail, mixed-use and commercial developments, including Old Spitalfields Market, we’ve seen first-hand how local engagement and research is vital to understand what the target audience actually wants and requires. For example, within retail, people talk about the death of the high street, but our approach has been to identify local solutions to this national trend by working with independent operators, specialist consultants and local stakeholders”
The team’s operational track record enables Activate to support clients’ projects from the masterplanning stage through to operational delivery. Recent consultancy projects demonstrate this, with instructions ranging from: concept and business planning for the development of a new food hall; planning and promoting the relocation of a town centre market; and local research to support developer/local authority discussions on the future of a town centre mixed-use scheme.
“These instructions demonstrate our involvement throughout the development cycle of a project. We have found that our advice and expertise has benefited each element of a project from working with master planners at the planning stage, architects during the design and build, through to asset managers at the point of delivery. This has ensured consistency throughout the project and that the placemaking strategy was fully embedded within the scheme.”
“Meanwhile use” of a space refers to the short-term use of temporarily empty buildings or public realm, often during a redevelopment. Meanwhile use takes a potential problem and turns it into an opportunity, by testing possible long-term uses of the site. Implemented correctly it can have the following benefits:
- Helps keep an area vibrant and active
- Gives the chance to trial uses of the space, some of which may be taken forward into the final development. Often used in tandem with local community engagement.
- Brings together diverse stakeholders to help generate solutions and a collective vision
- Changes perceptions of the site, its opportunities, and its future role, as well as breaking down resistance to change.
- Fosters a community’s sense of pride in, and ownership of, their public spaces
- Generates the interest of potential investors, both public and private
- Creates local short and medium-term job opportunities as well as the chance for start-up businesses to “test the waters” with their product.
We’ve worked on a number of sites and developments where the activation of the right meanwhile use has had a really positive effect. Little Feast was a temporary food market introduced at Shepherd’s Bush Market, London where a run-down area behind the railway arches was transformed overnight into a brand-new temporary space for pop-up food traders. As well as regularly attracting queues around the block, Little Feast challenged the idea of the market as being just a place to buy fabric and household items.
Meanwhile use takes a potential problem and turns it into an opportunity
Another good example is Granby Winter Garden – a “secret indoor garden” within two houses in Liverpool, which was created within two dilapidated Victorian buildings as part of the Granby Four Streets rejuvenation project. The space contains a communal seasonal garden, events space and artist residence, intended to “nurture creative practice in the area”.
Just as with wider placemaking activities, it is vital when creating a meanwhile use strategy that it is relevant to the current and potential future local community. It is also important to understand the connection between the temporary and proposed permanent use of the site so that one feeds the other and the opportunity is not wasted. Finally, consider carefully how the short-term nature of the meanwhile use is communicated locally to prevent a negative local reaction if it is eventually removed.
Activate are pleased to have been appointed by U+I Plc to provide consultancy advice to support their development plans for a mixed-use scheme in the Midlands.
In support of the client’s discussions with the local authority regarding the scheme, we have been instructed to conduct initial research into the competing retail and leisure provision in the town and local catchment area, as well as provide indicative options for the site based on that insight.
While initial research has indicated that a mixed-use independent-led solution would meet the local authority’s regeneration objectives and enhance the town centre offer, particularly with the possible addition of a food hall, further research of the local community is required to complete the feasibility work.
Andrew Sparrow, Director of Placemaking said; “This is a great example of how placemaking ideas, based on local research and insight, can aid the development process at its inception and support the regeneration and re-positioning of town centre locations. We hope to be able to continue to support this scheme as it progresses.”