‘Placemaking’ – the art of creating vibrant social hubs which make use of the strategic clustering of retail and F&B outlets – is becoming increasingly important in the modern-day town and city.
The inevitable drop in high-street footfall due to online shopping and out-of-town retail parks has meant we use our town centres differently now – and so our strategy for building these spaces must change, too.
According to figures released by PwC earlier this year, the number of new store openings is at its lowest level in seven years, whereas the number of UK food outlets opening is still rising. As a result, bars, restaurants and coffee shops are now being lauded as the saviours of our high streets. But all the coffee in the world couldn’t give our town and city centres the boost they really need. This is the job of the placemakers: the individuals involved in shaping our built environments; the developers, landlords, town planners and business owners responsible for creating the places we eat, shop and socialise.
The process involves thinking about how the different businesses within a development will complement each other. For example, grouping a daytime cafe with a pre-dinner bar and a restaurant with a post-dinner bar – choosing venues that naturally follow on from one another.
Getting the key parties involved to work together and make this kind of joined-up thinking a reality is challenging. But it could be the determining factor between building a vibrant, well-used social hub – or something that falls flat on its face. “It’s always going to be tough to get such disparate parties together to discuss such a strategy, never mind implement one,” says Matt Scriven, owner of Birmingham-based Bitters N’ Twisted Venues, which has nine independent bars and restaurants around the midlands. “Although in theory everyone should have the same overriding interest in an area doing well, in practice, everyone has such varied motivations. It is very difficult.”
So, what’s the key to creating a successful 'destination development?’ Scriven believes it’s bringing together a mixture of retail, accommodation and hospitality “which, in most cases, gives you something that isn’t replicated already in close proximity elsewhere.” Maintaining this sense of authenticity and uniqueness is achieved by selecting retailers and F&B operators that consumers are willing to travel for, like interesting independent bars and restaurants and one-off boutiques selling products that are more difficult to get hold of and “offer things you want to touch and feel,” before buying.
One challenge these kinds of businesses face when looking for premises is that they don’t have the same influence over landlords and developers as the big chains. Scriven has escaped this pitfall by avoiding the more obvious locations and instead opting for, as he puts it, “sites that are on their arse, or appear to have been forgotten about.” He’s never lost out to another operator because of this strategy and has built a collection of unique, successful independent brands, in interesting locations.
Sunil Johal is Project Director at property development company, Argent, which specialises in city centre placemaking. As a developer who gets to cherry pick which businesses occupy a space, Johal believes taking a more holistic approach to creating a development is the best way of ensuring its success, rather than simply filling it as quickly as possible with little consideration for how the brands fit together strategically.
One of Argent’s latest projects, the Paradise development in city-centre Birmingham, is largely occupied by professional services including PwC, with the ground floor units dedicated to retail and food & beverage. So from a developer’s perspective, what’s the key to ensuring the retail space remains busy? Argent’s approach to placemaking, says Johal, is to define the final vision of the development first, thinking about its impact on the local economy for years to come and how the selected brands will come together to form the overall “experience” for the consumer.
“We design the experience long before we start designing the building and the brands selected need to be commensurate with the other occupiers,” explains Johal. “In the case of Paradise, that’s people with a disposable income, aged on average between 25 and 45. So, not Michelin-starred restaurants, but not mass-commercial brands either, but offers which are niche in the regional market. They need to appeal to everyone within the development, from graduates, to senior execs.”
Another important consideration when creating an F&B strategy for a development is the operating hours of each outlet and the type of product they provide. “Once we have an initial anchor unit, preferably - but not always - a larger operator who takes up some of the larger units, this will help determine who fills the space around this. We also need to ensure we create an all-day offering, so it’s important we have a range of diverse brands, from grab-and-go options, to restaurants, bars and cafés.” This strategy helps ensure the space remains busy into the evenings and avoids it becoming deserted between peak times.
Design is also a significant factor and needs to be complementary to the rest of the development, taking into consideration what customers will see as they enter. “The ground floor experience is absolutely key to how the development is perceived by the public,” says Johal, “and how a brand chooses to fit-out their individual space has a massive impact on whether they will fit with our overall vision.”
Argent is an example of a developer that understands what placemaking is all about - and Paradise is a purpose-built development which has had a strategy and vision in mind from the offset. The real challenge is finding a way of enticing the right operators, who perhaps aren’t as open-minded and forward-thinking as Scriven, to occupy the less desirable existing units and fill the growing number of empty spaces on our high streets.
Alongside this, landlords and local authorities need to take a more strategic approach to the selection and placement of operators. As difficult as this may be, the long-term viability of our town and city centres is hinged on providing the right financial conditions (rent, rates) to encourage and enable the creation of new destinations.
The Autumn Budget announced this week will cut business rates by a third for retailers with a rateable value of £51,000 or less. This, according to the Chancellor, should provide 90% of restaurants, bars and coffee shops with savings of up to £8,000 per year. Whether this will be enough to have the desired impact on our high streets remains to be seen and the changes have seen a mixed response from the hospitality sector. But it’s encouraging to see that the need for high streets to adapt - and the importance of their role in communities - is being acknowledged.