The spotlight is very firmly fixed on the UK retail market as it transitions through a period of restructuring accelerated by the pandemic and the continued growth of online retail. However it’s clear that investors are buying in, rather than bowing out. Major brands and their assets are being snapped up as many have come to recognise the opportunities waiting to be exploited. Compared to just a year ago, there is growing optimism, and in prime locations a scramble to secure space. Retail values are levelling.
Selfridges and Heals were acquired by investment firms in early 2022 with re-invention and refinement in mind, and the former Topshop on Oxford Street was purchased by Ingka Investments which is working with us to reimagine this important building as a 21st century retail and workplace environment. There is an increasing emphasis on creating unique, high quality, experiential, mixed use spaces rather than simply supplying vast gross lettable areas. Retailers are mobilising modern technology and art to create memorable experiences for customers rather than purely focusing on sales. In particular, the luxury shopping brands are investing more on their physical presence, rather than reducing their footprint.
On the flip side of the market, secondary, dated and poorly-connected shopping centres are struggling to find immediate ways of staying relevant and alive. In the last two years we have seen a significant consolidation of such retail units in the UK; Shrewsbury’s Darwin Shopping Centre is the only one in town – where once there were three. But from a designer’s point of view this offers great potential; working with asset managers, we have the chance to experiment, encouraging new retail typologies, repurposing and reallocating the spaces for stronger, better connected communities through inventive architecture.
“…we have the chance to experiment, encouraging new retail typologies, repurposing and reallocating the spaces for stronger, better connected communities through inventive architecture.”
As a result, healthcare centres and dental clinics, libraries and other community amenities now claim areas previously dedicated to retail, creating a varied mix of functions and increasing footfall. This, in turn, attracts food and beverage units, shared workspaces, education centres, wellness experiences and leisure, all leading to stronger, sustainable, energetic neighbourhoods that reduce the need to travel and reinforce the trend of ‘localism’ – improving the commerciality and prosperity of places close to home. With some restructuring and by sharing risk and reward with the retailers, asset managers and landlords can help these neighbourhood centres to grow and flourish.
Planning alterations in class use – particularly class E – have made this new, mixed-use approach to town centres easier, removing the previously convoluted process to reusing old buildings.
Looking ahead, we expect strategic changes in city planning, driven by servicing and deliveries and a focus on emerging mixed-use architectural models. There is an increasing need for urban logistics centres that can lead to more active and engaged local areas, generate transformation and even inform the future of city centre design.
Our cities are ever-evolving ecosystems that respond and adjust to external and internal factors, transform and reinvent themselves to remain relevant and adapt to survive change. A huge number of interdependencies and parameters make a city function and as e-commerce and logistics continue to rapidly evolve, so transportation, infrastructure, nature and living typologies will also need to change. This new, mixed-use landscape of development presents a great opportunity for architects and designers who understand the multidimensional constraints of these sites and can invent creative routes to unlock value in our cities – all while focusing on the highest design quality.