Town centre futures: Evidence and ideas for recovery

This 2021 report from Centre for London focuses on how London’s town centres might recover and transform from the Covid-19 pandemic. Drawing on thematic evidence reviews, the report first outlines how the crisis has impacted London’s town centres, with a focus on mobility, workforce and employment trends. It next showcases 10 case studies to demonstrate key challenges and opportunities town centres are facing, followed by practical recommendations about how they could transform for the better, post-pandemic, both within and beyond London.

Date added 17 August 2021
Last updated 17 August 2021

This report looks at how London’s town centres might recover and transform from the Covid-19 pandemic. The authors explain how London has been particularly hard-hit by the crisis, which has brought along both challenges and opportunities, in different ways depending on the centre type. As well as town centres needing to respond to other ongoing issues and structural changes around climate change, online shopping, Brexit, inequality, and an ageing population.

Thematic evidence reviews  

Based on thematic reviews of evidence around ‘what works’ in prosperous town centres, the report first outlines how they can be planned to improve health, wellbeing, and adaptability in the face of both current and future crises. Some headline reported findings are around the importance of multi-functional high streets; shared visions and partnership working; collaborating with the local community to better understand and meet their needs; designing for health and wellbeing (e.g. active travel); and how ‘meanwhile’ uses can help to revitalise and future-proof high streets and town centres.

The authors then outline some of the key changes the pandemic has brought to town centres, with a focus on mobility, workforce and employment trends. Some of these key findings are summarised below:

Mobility

  • Demand for trips within local town centres may rise, at the expense of travel into central London, due to working from home patterns continuing in some capacity.
  • Reduction in travel has not impacted all transport types in the same way, with buses and the underground seeing larger declines than road traffic and car usage.
  • The growth in online shopping is leading to increased vehicle traffic and air pollution.
  • It will become increasingly important to provide safe and convenient active travel infrastructure to help to tackle the climate emergency and promote better health and wellbeing.

Workforce

  • Brexit has brought about potential challenges around talent and recruitment shortages, in places like London.
  • We could see growth in more polycentric cities, whereby jobs are spread out into surrounding towns and neighbourhoods, rather than concentrated in the city centre.
  • Post-pandemic, it is projected that job growth recovery in London will be strongest in the cultural industries, accommodation and food service, and construction sectors.

Case studies

Ten case studies are next presented to demonstrate a range of challenges and opportunities a diverse range of high streets and town centres are facing, and how these might be navigated in different ways going forwards:

  1. Tooley Street (improved city transport)
  2. Shepherd’s Bush (regional shopping destinations)
  3. Burnt Oak (local community hub)
  4. Nine Elms (new communities)
  5. Deptford high street (university influence)
  6. Camden high street (independents culture)
  7. Knightsbridge (international highlights)
  8. Bishopsgate (streets for city centre workers)
  9. Upper Street (high-end shopping and food)
  10. Harrow Road (attractor high street).

Recommendations

Finally, the report offers a series of practical recommendations that local authorities, businesses, Business Improvement Districts, and other place stakeholders may adopt to improve town centres in the future (p.10). As the authors caution, however, there will not be a one-size-fits-all plan that will suit every place, meaning that a centre may prioritise some of the below recommendations more than others, depending on the local context. For each recommendation, the report also outlines: what BIDs can do; what businesses can do; what local authorities can do; how it could be funded; potential timescales; and measuring outcomes if it were to be implemented:

  1. Support London’s creatives - build sense of place with outdoor performances and exhibitions to aid pandemic recovery.
  2. Boost outdoor dining - help to create space for restaurants, cafes and bars to operate outdoors to facilitate social distancing and customer demand.
  3. Involve local people - engage the views of local people in decisions about the future of their local high streets and town centres.
  4. Freight and delivery accessibility - optimise delivery vehicle movement on the high street to reduce air pollution, and create more space for active transport and outdoor leisure.
  5. Create new work spaces - to suit the needs of remote workers, and enhance social interaction and activity in town centres.
  6. Redesign roads and streets - make streets more child-friendly and healthier, such as through improving active travel infrastructure.
  7. Improve amenities - for example, by ensuring that visitors have easy access to clean toilets, comfortable waiting areas, and (covid safe) water fountains.
  8. Future-proof community assets - transfer ownership to community groups, to help deliver bottom-up change.
  9. Introduce better lighting - to make the public realm feel safe and secure after dark, and value local heritage by lighting up landmarks.
  10. Increase temporary use of vacant spaces - to increase footfall and vibrancy in the town centre and experiment with future uses.
  11. Increase access to health services - for instance, through opening more health facilities on the high street.