A new focus on increasing the residential population of our city centres is required to enable city centre diversification, according to a recently published research report.
Scotland's Urban Age 2 (SUA2) is a major academic study of the AGE cities – Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh – commissioned by Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh Chambers of Commerce and supported by Brodies and AAB.
The report builds on three key United Nations principles:
- cities and all human settlements are central to building better;
- cities cannot flourish without well-functioning housing systems; and
- housing, mobility, environment, economy and culture are interrelated and require integrated responses.
SUA2 notes that residential development rates have halved in post-war period and identifies the public sector's withdrawal in the 1980s as having the greatest impact on Scotland housing input. The report concludes that housebuilding rates continue to be inadequate in the context of stock age and demographic trends and the issue is compounded by the renovation and retrofit requirements imposed by the climate emergency.
More City Centre Homes
The AGE city regions dominate the housebuilding markets, accounting for around 80% of Scotland's housing output, but hybrid working is increasing the attraction of commutable areas and there has been a shift in preference towards larger houses/non-flat homes, preferably with gardens.
While post-pandemic and climate emergency markets may be locally distinct, the report advises that they do share some similar patterns.
The ageing population within each city is seen as a concern. Housing options will need to include the delivery of senior living and/or housing with care, something which has historically fallen to the public sector, other than in areas of high market values.
Increasing the city centre population is seen as a priority in both Aberdeen and Glasgow, while Edinburgh already has extensive city centre living and is proposing densification across its wider urban area with housing led redevelopment. In all three cities, the increasing number of vacant buildings due to the changes in retail and office markets present opportunities for residential led regeneration, including "convert-to-rent".
Glasgow's city centre is widely recognised as having a low resident population with limited new investment for a city of its scale, particularly in converting its heritage buildings. However, the city's experience of delivering public-private initiatives is seen as a major asset and continuing to reinstate urban connections – Clyde Gateway, Clyde Mission and bridging to north Glasgow – will be key to city residential development.
In Aberdeen the loss of former employment buildings and national retailers has had a major effect on the city centre, but this could provide impetus for investment and diversification, including for new models such as build to rent.
For Edinburgh, the residential focus needs to be on completing outer urban regeneration and expansions, sustaining the successful local town centres and encouraging westward growth.
The 20-minute neighbourhood which has become a flagship of the Scottish Government's Programme for Government is important, but not new, to the AGE cities. It should be a fundamental organising device for the way we live in cities.
Rather SUA2 urges Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh to practise better urbanism which embraces economic development, planning, housing, transportation and infrastructure in an integrated way. It stresses that the model can be used to address the climate emergency; highlighting that improving the quality of life in walkable city centre neighbourhoods through redevelopment and retrofitting can also help deliver on decarbonisation targets.
SUA2 suggests that given both the public and private sectors' appetite to build houses, the continually sub-optimal housing development rates reflect wider constraints: financial; industry capacity; risk appetite; models and tenure; planning policy; public appetite; service and community infrastructure. The minimum all tenure housing land requirements proposed for each local authority in the National Planning Framework 4 may give an indication of each city region's intent and the proposal for an infrastructure agency might help to unblock some of the sticking points, however some of the housing system constraints may remain.
Investment in Strategic Planning
The report calls for a more flexible, agile and responsive planning function. The current pace and scale of change in societal need, location, use and design presents a significant challenge to Scotland's planning service. There are calls for significant investment in growing and upskilling the strategic planning service to embed the principles of pace, place and partnership. The AGE cities need planners who can respond more quickly, have the capacity to design better places, and who can work collaboratively with those wishing to invest in our cities.