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      Bringing Innovation into the Centrefold

      The urban centres of the Arc represent fascinating case studies of the manner in which all settlements across the UK have grown and developed.

      19 Feb 2022 David Parker, Partner, Mixed Use Development, Bidwells

      Some, like Oxford and Cambridge themselves, shadowed the lines of ancient medieval settlements for hundreds of years; others like Luton and Bedford grew from villages into large towns with the industries of the nineteenth century; and most dramatically, Milton Keynes went from an abstract concept to a modern city in the space of a few years. Any project aimed at regenerating the urban centres of the Arc would have to take into account this rich historical diversity when considering how space could be developed within these urban centres, but one common thread is clear: that all of the major settlements in the region can benefit from rethinking their use of urban land, helping us to meet some of the vital real estate needs of the wider Arc project while creating and regenerating its urban communities. 

      As this wider report has shown, the need for more laboratory and ancillary commercial real estate for research and development start-ups and SMEs is acute, and could act as a considerable headwind to future growth. Rural science parks and campuses have provided space and the vital clustering dynamic in past, whilst offering an enjoyable work environment and high standard of living. But the answer for meeting the real estate needs of the future of the Arc cannot exclusively lie in campuses on the periurban periphery of the major urban settlements of the Arc: the science park model undoubtedly works and works well – but we need to move beyond having only a narrow, Bletchley Park conception of innovation, where research and development infrastructure has to be hidden away and contained. The opportunities for development of the necessary real estate connective capital for life sciences, artificial intelligence and other innovative industries as part of the strategic long-term regeneration of the urban centres of the Arc are exciting, offering an opportunity not only to solve a wider long-term issue of a lack of available commercial real estate but also to contribute to the revitalisation of parts of the Arc that could be more competitive. Redevelopment of urban brownfield land can be the fundamental mechanism by which the rising tide of regional economic growth can truly raise all boats, ensuring none of towns and cities of the Arc are left behind. 

      With the status of high streets and urban centres in a state of flux, with the long-term decline of physical retail meeting the sudden shock of changes to the world of work and leisure brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, now is the perfect opportunity to update our thinking towards planning, urban regeneration and the way in which we ensure our city centres arrest decline.

      The Luton Town Centre Masterplan approved in July 2021 set out its view of the positive effects of re-establishing a central commercial district, citing opportunities to introduce ‘greater daytime population and spend opportunities’. Luton’s bold and innovative plans for the future, not only in making their town centre a more attractive place to spend time, but also in attempting to establish new commercial and innovation real estate in existing heritage real estate and brownfield sites is an encouraging positive step in reimagining the urban centres of the Arc. 

      Regeneration of not just commercial but also residential real estate can have a tangible impact on urban areas – adding not only to the connective capital but also the human capital of the region, as the people who live and work in the Arc are provided with the high quality housing that allows them to maximise their potential. The Lakes Estate redevelopment in Milton Keynes aims to replace decrepit and dangerous mid-century social housing with a bold new development that uses space more efficiently, provides more vital city-centre homes and amenities, is more environmentally sustainable, and crucially offers safer and more attractive central housing. The mindset that created Milton Keynes was both bold and visionary – but where original urban planning solutions have, over the course of half a century, resulted in suboptimal solutions to the housing needs of today, local government and the private sector have to work together to come up with solutions that provide crucial urban regeneration whilst remaining a participatory and positive experience for existing local communities. 

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