Insight: Understanding the regeneration challenge of heritage cities

Wednesday 8 June 2022

7 March 2022

Understanding the regeneration challenges facing heritage cities

Veryan Lyons, Head of Programme, Central Winchester Regeneration Opportunity

The UK’s heritage cities are at the intersection of two worlds.

Deeply rooted in rich history and culture, they also require sensitive regeneration to create places that local people can enjoy and where business can thrive.  Some are embarking upon a transition from traditional retail models; others are tackling the fact that demographic shifts have left younger people priced out of housing and lacking in opportunity.

Reimagining our heritage cities offers us a way to future-proof them and this involves addressing a unique set of challenges.

It is important to consider how regenerating a heritage city aligns with the Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda.  The Government’s pathway sets out wide-ranging goals for more equitable distribution of opportunities and investment, to boost underperforming regions through a ‘virtuous circle of agglomeration’ where towns benefit from skilled people, flourishing businesses, good transport links and housing.  Historic cities can be relatively prosperous due to their tourism offer but may often still be striving for the same goals as cities which have been decimated by the loss of a major industrial, retail or commercial base.  The ability of all types of cities to reinvent themselves depends on how they adapt to shifting trends and future requirements.

Historic cities as drivers of regional economic growth

We fully understand the pivotal role of heritage cities as conduits for growth and long-term economic prosperity within the context of their wider regions.  Chichester, Durham, Winchester and similar cathedral cities face the challenge of delivering redevelopment projects that are able to replace such losses but also remain thoughtfully aligned with – and complementary to – the historical, protected nature of the built environment.  Durham is a much-loved cathedral city that also acts as the centre for the surrounding area.  The city is more affluent than the wider county but for it to remain a driver of growth, it is looking to revitalise its centre, not least to compensate for the loss of retail it has experienced in recent years.  Likewise, when Winchester thrives, the benefits are felt across the district.

We are seeking to address the pressing regeneration needs of places that were designed for earlier centuries and which now aim to provide workspaces, housing and social spaces for a new generation of residents, workers and visitors.  In Winchester, the huge changes we have seen in working patterns – particularly in the wake of the pandemic – towards flexible and sustainable workspaces supported by modern infrastructure have prompted a rethinking of how outdated areas of the city, often built in the sixties and seventies, can be reinvented to match the requirements of a very different world.  Over the last five years we have worked closely with residents and businesses – they support this rethinking and we have been moving steadily ahead to address their needs via a shared vision.

A challenge which arises again and again is how to provide sufficient, affordable housing to attract young people into heritage cities and encourage students to stay for the long term.  A city like Winchester needs more city centre housing, including homes targeted specifically at young people, key workers and families.  Other councils face different issues. 

Heritage cities are, due to their relative affluence, less likely to access government funding than cities which are seen to be more deprived or visibly in decline.  One solution is to seek a like-minded delivery partner sensitive to the needs of a heritage city, the ambitions of the younger generation and demands of residents for more sustainable living.  We’ve been deploying this method in the hope of enabling a 2,000-year-old city to face up to the challenges of the 21st century and overcoming them through considered and strategic long-term investment in the built environment.  Winchester is currently seeking to revitalise its city centre and diversify the existing mix of uses with a 3.68-acre regeneration scheme.

A sustainable future

With decarbonisation a key national priority, heritage cities need to think about reducing emissions while continuing to remain dependent on large numbers of visitors every year.

Residents, occupiers and investors are increasingly conscious of sustainability criteria.  JLL’s ‘Property Predictions 2020 Investor Survey Results’ notes that around 70% of investors believe that sustainability and climate change will have the greatest long-term impact on UK real estate with key drivers being higher occupancy and rents, tenant retention and long-term value preservation and creation.  And a growing number of employees (almost four out of ten according to some findings) are placing the sustainability practices of organisations under scrutiny in the war to win – and retain – talent, with millennials in particular suggesting that their job choice was influenced by an employer’s sustainability policy. 

Buildings – and cities – which are not sustainable cannot deliver long-term returns and community benefits.  Sustainable regeneration and repurposing are crucial for heritage cities to contribute to the bigger ‘levelling up’ picture.

The effective functioning of heritage cities as hubs for a wider area is also linked to improved public transport.  This in turn can deliver environmental benefits, as can measures to extend pedestrianisation to drive tourism and access to natural public spaces.  In setting the foundations for a sustainable future, there are further intricacies and challenges involved in updating historic buildings with modern, smart technologies and systems while still respecting the historical backdrop of the city.

Heritage city regeneration benefits people and areas beyond the immediate community affected by development.  Nonetheless, it requires a strong understanding of the issues facing a particular city together with a development partner prepared to collaborate closely with a local authority in responding to the specific challenges of conserving the past while simultaneously investing in the future.

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