The rise of the cultural quarter: public-private partnerships in operation

4 min read

Our lifestyles, retail habits, working arrangements, family patterns and demographic have changed. Covid-19 has accelerated the decline of the conventional ‘high street’ retail model and single purpose destinations. 

People don’t head to town centres or high streets purely to shop or run necessary errands anymore. The internet meets that demand. They do so to browse (in real life), eat, exercise, socialise, undertake business and to be entertained with friends and family.

Without sufficient and sustained investment in civic, cultural and urban centres - creating multi experiential destinations to drive incidental footfall, traditional high streets will continue to struggle to attract sufficient visitors to sustain the businesses within them. 

Levelling Up, The Towns Fund and The High Street Fund have all been launched in recognition of this transition. However, without a plan and expert strategic support, the solution is likely to remain as elusive as it has been for the last decade. 

Retail transformed 

Online retail offers economic advantage but post-Covid, there is emerging evidence that people (human social animals) crave experience and physical interaction.  It is entirely foreseeable that experiential retail hubs will become destinations in their own right. Local Authorities have the opportunity to support that transition as part of urban renewal and the re-birth of the high street with ‘anchor’ facilities which are the foundation of Placemaking. 

Culture and leisure venues that provide opportunities to celebrate creativity and performance in all its guises will be essential to supplement dwindling conventional high streets and ensure that communities have a focal point or a ‘place’ to go to. As a response to this, we can lead the development of cultural districts (or quarters) within urban areas, which blend private and public sector investment to provide meaningful and desirable destinations for people. 

These ‘cultural quarters’ or ‘districts’ usually commence with well intentioned (and well overdue) investment in a single cultural asset without any meaningful combined strategy other than to boost immediate revenue or at the very least reduce local authority subsidised running costs. These are typically anchored in a library, theatre, museum but soon outstrip their conventional red line boundaries as single refurbishment projects, when the power of place and destination making is really understood. 

The power of partnerships

In the built environment, arts venues have been typified as complex to create and expensive to run. However, using our frameworks to expedite procurement, we are working with a number of clients to improve and establish multi-generational interactive cultural facilities which operate beyond simply the ‘night’ economy or elitist connotations of high art and associated exclusivity. 

We are supporting public, private and institutional businesses by introducing subtle or dramatic property interventions which enable diversification away from single purpose venues. Together, we will create dynamic, flexible destinations. These will include opportunities for retail space, (‘pop- up’ or permanent), a range of food and beverage outlets including franchise outlets, formal and casual dining and start up or street food equivalents alongside bookable space for business and private gatherings and interactions.

By creating renewed focal points for communities and therefore, reasons to meet, footfall will increase and associated commercial opportunities for established and supported businesses can blossom. The emphasis on high-quality public realm will be an enduring legacy of Covid-19. The importance of acting quickly cannot be understated.

As property professionals we need to constantly re-imagine space and anticipate the needs of changing demographics. Supporting changes to high-streets and town centres is rightly becoming a priority for community leaders and central government funding initiatives. 

Creating successful cultural quarters

The rise of cultural districts is a powerful response which can be underpinned, initially, by improvements to existing facilities to optimise value and reduce risk. It will require more than simply a public realm face lift: A cultural quarter becomes a destination in and of itself centred on a renewed or refreshed anchor building focussed on the arts and community engagement in numerous forms. They are gender blind; they serve young and old equally and without preference; they are open to all people at hours that can adapt with present generational demand rather than be pegged to traditional retail business hours, aligned more closely with new on-line norms.

The increase in public-private relationships which are genuinely collaborative marks a step change in traditional consultant-client interactions and will lead to more considered, desirable placemaking. Alliances with strategic delivery frameworks which underpin this philosophy, are already enabling better dialogue and improved project outcomes.