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Life through a lens: How young people can point the way towards town centre revival

The Instagram generation mediate their lives through apps, websites and social media in ways that were unimaginable even 10 years ago. Katherine Simpson considers what this means for town centres now and in the future.

A day doesn’t seem to go by at the moment when the high street, in one way or another, isn’t in the headlines.

The recent pace and scale of change has been remarkable, reflecting changes in the market demand for town centre floor space arising from shifts in shopping behaviour – particularly the growth in online shopping – and consumer demand generally.

Town centres have evolved over time in a way that has met the needs of successive generations. The speed of change has been so great that it has caught planners and policymakers flat-footed. Current planning policies may effectively meet the needs of the recent past, but they are not necessarily well suited to the needs of a rapidly unfurling present or future.

An array of reports, articles and reviews has been published highlighting fresh ideas for adapting to new consumer habits.

In September, the British Property Federation held a #highstreetchallenge day that brought together more than 100 young property professionals (including town planners) to bring a new perspective to thinking on the future of town centres, focusing on Hyde, in Greater Manchester.

“Social media is now being used as much more than just a tool for connecting with friends, and that it can also be used as a platform for town centre businesses to promote themselves”

The government is also reacting, with a ‘High Streets Task Force’ to provide guidance to local authorities seeking to breathe new life into their high streets and town centres. On top of this, The Grimsey Review 2 (pdf), published in 2018, sets out 25 recommendations for reinvigorating town centres. The review covers the smarter use of technology, government and planning, as well as measures to create a more supportive environment.

The 2019 NPPF and updates to the PPG suggest ways to accommodate changes in shopping and leisure habits in town centres to secure their long-term viability. Specifically, paragraph 85 of the NPPF states that town centres should be allowed “to grow and diversify in a way that can respond to rapid changes in the retail and leisure industries”, as well as allow a “suitable mix of uses” to reflect their distinctive characters.

However, without detracting from the response to date – it is too early to judge, for example, how effective the High Streets Task Force might be; we should perhaps take a step back and think about how different demographics, including younger people, are actually interacting with town centres. If we understand their specific needs we can take these into account as we plan for successful town centres in the future.

Meet Generation Z

Generation Z is the term given to people born between 1997and 2012. Labelled retail’s ‘chief disrupters’ in a 2018 report into their shopping and work habits by Retail Week Connect, they now make up a significant proportion of town centre users. Their unique characteristics mean that the way they are interacting with town centres in a manner very different from previous generations.

There can be no doubt that Generation Z is tech-savvy. A recent survey of internet access by the Office For National Statistics (ONS) found that 100 per cent of those aged 16 to 24 access the internet on a mobile device. Unsurprisingly, this age group engages actively with social media (98 per cent) and is highly adept at finding out about information on goods and services online (84%). Yet despite their upbringing with the internet, only 13 per cent take part in online public consultation on political and civic issues – including planning issues.

A recent survey of 16 to 25-year-olds in North East England undertaken by Lichfields sought to develop a more concrete understanding of Generation Z’s shopping habits and how they are interacting with town centres.

The research indicates that through their use of technology, 39 per cent are very or quite likely to share and interact with a venue in the town centre online once they had visited. This suggests that social media is now being used as much more than just a tool for connecting with friends, and that it can also be used as a platform for town centre operators and businesses to promote themselves online to their target audience.

“The new technology that has emerged over the past 20 years is here to stay and future generations will not use town centres in the way that past generations have”

Respondents also said they found out about things going on in their town centre using Facebook (60%) and Instagram (41%). This extended not only to new stores or venues, but also other events happening, including events and markets taking place. Against this background the ‘Instagram effect’ can also be used as a vehicle for change and it is often emphasised in special experiences and events in town centres. Indeed, both established and emerging retail and leisure brands are building on ‘Instagrammable’ opportunities through their stores; the phenomenon is becoming so prevalent that trend analyst Insider Trends recently named 40 of the world’s most Instagrammable concept stores.

Gen Z’s online habits also extend to retail. The Lichfields survey found that more respondents (39%) prefer to browse and buy non-food products online than in store (33%).

To many, these survey results will not be surprising, but the implications for town centres should not be understated. The technology that has emerged over the past 20 years is here to stay and future generations will not use town centres in the way that past generations have.

That said, most young people do still visit town centres regularly and the presence of shops in town centres remains a key reason for this. Indeed, the survey results suggest that 50 per cent of young people still prefer to either buy or collect products in town or in store.  

Gen Z and the future high street

The future – or, rather, the present – is digital, and town centres and their stakeholders need to get on board.

It is clear that young people are interacting online with town centres and there are obvious opportunities for the promotion of town centres through their chosen channels. But these channels also offer opportunities to give a greater civic voice to young people in a relatively cheap and efficient way.

Life cannot be totally virtual, however, and town centres are being used for a more diverse range of visits than ever before. Data released by the Local Data Company in May 2019 illustrates that there has been a clear rise in non A1 retail uses in town centres, with barbers, beauty salons, restaurants, bars and health clubs being among the top 10 rising categories in 2018. What’s more, Generation Z is getting on board.

Lichfields’ research indicates that 59 per cent of those aged 16 to 25 visit their own town centre to eat out, significantly higher than those visiting for shopping purposes (for food 23 per cent and non-food 46 per cent). Young people prefer to visit town centres for ‘an experience’, with leisure uses being a popular option (39 per cent). Almost half (46 per cent) of those aged 16 to 25 also use their town centres as a place to meet friends.

‘Pop-ups’, markets and festivals are proving to be popular ways to draw footfall to town centres. As well as being highly Instagrammable, they offer a valuable opportunity for town centres to diversify their offer and create a buzz and unique selling point in the town, even if for a limited period of time.

"Rather than focusing on the past, we need a better understanding of the needs of consumers of the future – and, in particular, we need to take account of Generation Z’s habits and preferences"

In 2016, planning students at Newcastle University (under the guide of YES Planning), published Tyneside 2030: A Young People’s Plan. The research asked 11 to 18-year-olds across Tyneside in the North East for their thoughts on the future of their town centres beyond retail. Their aspirations extended to a range of facilities, “better food facilities”, “good shops”, “sports and leisure attractions” and more places for students to study, including “the library, study cafés and study halls”.

What does this mean for the future of our town centres? We know they are experiencing significant change as a result of shifts in shopping patterns, consumer demand and levels of market demand for town centre floor space.

Rather than focusing on the past, we need a better understanding of the needs of consumers of the future – and, in particular, we need to take account of Generation Z’s habits and preferences. These young people want something different from previous generations, something that is more of an experience and that offers a broad range of uses and attractions. Retail is a key part of that, but it’s not the dominant element.

This creates obvious challenges, but also great opportunities for leisure and other uses to come into centres and take advantage of the location, not least the high levels of accessibility by all modes of transport.

Technological developments, such as the rise of online shopping, also create difficulties and threats. However, these can also be harnessed to help town centres respond to such threats – and social media offers obvious potential to promote town centre locations and events more effectively.

Planning also has a key role to play in facilitating change in our town centres. Planning policies must reflect the need to accommodate a broader range of uses within centres. In some instances there will be a need for an early review of local plans to ensure that planning policy does not act as a barrier to change. More generally, planners have a role to play in understanding the needs of all generations – including through increased engagement with younger people – and looking ahead to the land use implications for the future. 

Katherine Simpson MRTPI is a planner with Lichfields and a committee member with RTPI North East Young Planners