The truth is, however, the effects of Covid-19 will be felt for several more years and many of our new behavioural habits may be here to stay.
This creates uncertainty and challenges for the economy – at a global, national and regional level. Our town and city centres are a key focal point of these challenges. Following a decade of change driven by the rise of online shopping and environmental concerns, Covid-19 has added another element of complexity.
Never before has the question of what our urban centres are used for, and how they should adapt, been more pertinent. None of us has a crystal ball to predict the future, but some patterns are clearly emerging and we need look forward and tackle these challenges with confidence.
For Sheffield, footfall in our city centre has been steadily increasing in recent months. This shows us that our urban centres still have an important role to play, serving as dynamic commercial, transport, civic and cultural hubs. It is human nature to want to gather – to share ideas, opinions, opportunities and experiences.
While Covid-19 has prevented this, it has highlighted the previously overlooked value of being where others are, both to our mental wellness and business innovation. That is why I truly believe that we must continue to drive forward exciting regeneration projects. Hitting the pause button on schemes, such as our £470m Heart of the City flagship project, would only ensure that any economic downturn lasts longer.
The good news is that Covid-19 appears to have accelerated trends that were already apparent – trends that we, along with our Strategic Development Partner, Queensberry, have based Heart of the City around. Across the UK, we need to improve the environment, livability and flexibility of our town and city centres – enhancing how people access them as well as the use of public spaces.
If each town and city can get this place-making right, in a way that relates to their own location and heritage, we can create a sustainable platform to help the local economy grow again – boosting local spend, creating good jobs, attracting high-quality employers and retaining talent.
With Heart of the City, we have a strong plan – one that renews and repurposes existing buildings and is integrated within the existing fabric of the city centre. Even during the pandemic, we have agreed a new 20-year lease with John Lewis – securing arguably the UK’s leading retail brand, and signed up Radisson Blu – adding another flagship hotel to help us attract more inward investment opportunities.
International law firm CMS is set to join HSBC in the world class Grosvenor House office later this year, giving us a recognisable commercial district right in the heart of the city centre for the first time and broadening our employment base. Plans have also been approved for the city centre’s first zero-carbon ready office, which will contribute to our zero-carbon ambitions.
Naturally, the council and I get asked about retail a lot, and whether it has a future on our high streets. It absolutely does, in my opinion. However, it cannot exist in a vacuum like it once did. You now need retail, leisure, office, residential and hospitality to collectively form an ecosystem – each can flourish if the other is strong.
What has also become very apparent during this pandemic is the importance of public spaces within our town and city centres. These contribute greatly to people’s health and wellbeing. They provide a respite within our busy urban environments.
It is something that Sheffield has done well for many years. We see outdoor and open public space not as a cost, but as an investment into the Sheffield brand. If anything, Covid-19 has only reinforced our beliefs in this area.
Our aim is to ‘‘Bring the Outdoor City into the City’’. We have already started transforming redundant city centre road space into areas of greenery. We are delivering an ambitious plan to improve air quality in and around the city centre, and while improving public spaces, we will also ensure our city centre will deliver a new benchmark in the quality of walking and cycling infrastructure.
For Sheffield, and other towns and cities, all these elements and trends are not only important during Covid-19, but they will help us shape the future of our urban centres and allow us to face the world ahead confidently and successfully.
Mazher Iqbal is a Labour councillor and Sheffield City Council’s Cabinet Member for Business and Investment.
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