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Tech landscape: Digital is critical for town centre planning

Words: Atul Joshi

If we’re to plan intelligently for the town centres of the future, we need to change the way we think about them – paying particular attention to digital technology, says Atul Joshi.

A lot of attention has been given to the health of our town centres over the past decade. We know shopping habits have changed, that consumers want an experience and that properties are taking on different uses. Faced with ailing high streets, the government, independent bodies and real estate operators are all looking for ways to revitalise our towns.

But these initiatives hold out little hope for the future. The indicators used by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to measure the health of a town centre are out of date – scarily so. The world has moved on, with far more emphasis on digitisation and the environment. If we are to create truly sustainable town centres, we must start judging their health by the right parameters.

Although recently updated, Planning Policy Guidance (PPG) still contains the same old static measures to assess the health of town centres and retail; diversity of uses, vacancy rates, rents, yields, pedestrian footfall, the balance between independent retailers versus multiples, environmental quality of the town. There’s a huge gap in information; there’s no mention of ‘digitisation’ or ‘technology’ in the entire document.

For example, there is no indication that providing free Wi-Fi in a high street could indicate a thriving centre, although there is clear evidence that this would attract consumers. More broadly, there is no mention of digitisation to future-proof a centre for the emergence of 5G or the installation of electric car-charging points to cut carbon emissions. Why isn’t sustainability factored into a town’s health indicators?

“If we are to create truly sustainable town centres, we need to start judging their health by the right parameters”

The Royal Town Planning Institute’s Planning for a Smart Energy Future report highlights the significant lack of attention that national planning policy pays to smart energy. While strides are being taken to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050, the current pace of change will not keep up with the ambitions outlined in the Clean Growth Strategy. The report says no development should be planned without successfully demonstrating it is fit to form part of a zero-carbon future.

The falling cost of technology and emergence of new tools mean that we can measure a huge number of factors with minimal disruption. Air quality sensors can be installed on existing traffic lights, sensors can detect the temperature of a retail unit versus the number of people inside, technology can monitor the movement of traffic and how it can be made more efficient. There’s a lot to be explored between what indicators currently measure and what we need to measure to guarantee a town centre is truly sustainable.

Significantly, the RTPI calls for joint endeavours between all those involved in development or regeneration. It’s true that fragmented real estate ownership in town centres creates a barrier to implementing new technology. In contrast, a shopping centre with a single landlord can have far greater control over implementing technologies or measures. Furthermore, with councils becoming active players in the commercial market through the purchase of shopping centres and other assets, there is the potential to implement these initiatives further to 
the betterment of town centres.  

One solution could be the greater introduction of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) to create a collective approach to improving the area. For example, 10 or 15 years ago Altrincham high street had a high vacancy rate. Now it has a BID (Altrincham Unlimited) that coordinates everything from social media to attract visitors to measuring footfall. But much more can be done.

Digital infrastructure is key

The way we engage with society and our community has been changing. For a town centre the question is: how well is it connected and how much has been invested in its digital infrastructure? The PPG does not allow us to evaluate this crucial element. As a basic requirement, and potential indicator for a town centre audit, there is a need to identify whether a centre has any form of digital infrastructure such as collective Wi-Fi.

Without supporting digital infrastructure, it will be difficult to establish local links with the community and highlight what is on offer within a centre. This is crucial for attracting a generation that is led by the constant supply of data. It also forms part of a key element of future provisioning where there will be a blending of the physical and digital world, and where more demand will be placed on this type of infrastructure.  

Adapt or die

If we do not provide or evaluate the digital infrastructure within town centres, we are on the back foot. It has multiple uses in terms of engagement with the community and businesses, as well as understanding the health of the high street. If there is no digital engagement, there is no way to analyse performance or provide for innovative place-based marketing and promotion. The importance of digital communication is highlighted by the fact that interaction, inclusiveness and engagement with communities will increasingly move to a digital platform.

For example, UK Digital Retail Innovation Centre (UK:DRIC), based in Gloucester, will be working with large and independent retailers to help them develop and apply best practice. The UK:DRIC is the new national centre for the future of the high street, city and town centres.

"There will be no real impetus to create a new definition of town centre health or to work together unless our national planning guidance asks for it"

A future-focused city

Gloucester has pioneered future city solutions. The city was one of the first in the world to adopt a three-in-one integrated solution with CCTV over Internet Protocol (IP), free high-speed Wi-Fi across the whole city and 4G. It became the second destination in the world to partner with Niantic Labs on the Google FieldTrip app, which allows virtual location-based tourism information through smart devices.

Other projects under way include two being developed (with government funding) by ‘Rewarding Visits’, which builds “interactive services to connect customers and retailers”, and Maybe, a platform that helps businesses engage with customers through social media. Both projects are using digital tools to encourage purchasing to be made in bricks-and-mortar businesses, thereby boosting footfall and local spending.

There will be no real impetus to create a new definition of town centre health or to work together unless our national planning guidance asks for it. Guidelines have to recognise that we need to go beyond the old measures that have always been in place. Our towns need to move towards digitisation and away from fossil fuels. This must be led from the top and we are waiting for that to happen.

Atul Joshi is associate director of planning, development and regeneration at Lambert Smith Hampton

Image credit | iStock