Real Estate Adaptation and Innovation within an Integrated Retailing System

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: College of Social Sciences


The retail sector is crucial to the economic health and vitality of towns and cities and is a core component of the national economy, but is experiencing an ongoing period of change and the challenges faced by centres are being met in different ways, with different outcomes. Consumers are behaving, shopping and using urban centres in new and diverse ways and many retailing centres have experienced falling footfall, retailer closures and a rise in empty retail units. In an attempt to reverse the cycle of decline, centres need to be multi-functional places and policy-makers are encouraging more mixed use development. Large-scale mixed-use re-development of obsolete stock, novel temporary land uses, events and public realm works are being used to try to make urban centres more attractive and increase their competitive edge. Yet, not everyone is experiencing the benefits of these changes. Mistrust, tension and conflict can arise from land use changes and become barriers to further renewal and change, limiting the effectiveness of these "town centre first" policies. A recent ESRC-funded study undertaken by researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University blamed these tensions and lack of co-operation as significant contributors to the continued declined of retailing in many centres (Parker, 2015).

This project seeks to explore one of the largest stakeholder groups within the sector. The objectives and behaviour of land and property owners, developers and investors are significant to the use and form of retailing centres. The project explores how ownership and the behaviour of this stakeholder group impact on the sector, by exploring issues around changing ownership and use patterns; innovations in design form; the ability of the industry to respond to change; and the ways the group engages and interacts with other stakeholders in urban centres. Thus, it aims to examine how their expectations, perceptions, practices and co-operation help or limit experimentation with new uses, building types and designs.

The research will explore issues around: whether retailers and landlords in city centres are becoming more or less diverse; whether new design formats, flexible uses and large scale redevelopments can help struggling centres; the extent to which established practices and procedures in the real estate market encourage or even hinder new uses; and whether stakeholders can work together in better ways for the future health of town and city centres. These issues will be examined using five case study cities over the period 1997-2017: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Sheffield and Nottingham.

The project will bring together different data that has not been available previously, to map, measure and identify any links between changes in land and building use, vacancy and ownership over the last 20 years. It will analyse and identify new developments and novel land and building uses and designs and, by talking to developers, designers, planners and occupiers, the researchers will identify the factors shaping these changes and how they impact on cities and shoppers. The project will examine established real estate market practices, such as lease lengths, rent review terms, repair obligations and use clauses to see how adaptable the industry is to change when shoppers and retailers want new and unusual property uses and forms. Finally, the researchers will talk to different centre users, managers and owners to explore how relationships might work well or badly and identify good practice for the creation of new developments and adaptions to the existing building stock to help the retail sector in cities.

Planned Impact

As well as scholarly gains, the research will inform and offer benefits to a range of users and actors across the public, private and third sectors, including: (1) governance and stewardship stakeholders; (2) property occupiers and managers, and social and voluntary enterprises; and (3) end-users, including the general public as shoppers, residents, workers and visitors.

By working with key decision-makers and other stakeholders via the project partners, professional networks and Project Steering Group, the findings of the research will directly inform practice and behaviour. The majority of the individuals that will be involved have duties, caseloads and networks beyond the case study areas. For example, the identification and dissemination of good practice will directly benefit city centre managers and public sector local authorities in and beyond the five case study cities via liaison with networks such as the Association of Town Centre Management, for example. It will be further disseminated to national planning and economic development policy-makers, to provide specific insights into how the processes of adaptation and renewal in retail markets may be facilitated and expedited. The good practice will make recommendations relating to design, use and ownership patterns and how assemblages and power relations influence the speed of adaptation and the effectiveness of local and national policies. The findings will both inform the evaluation of historic and current policy initiatives, and how new innovations in urban form may be fostered to create resilient retailing destinations, support adaptation, and improve the management and use of existing stock. This guidance will contribute to the development of retail, design and urban governance policies to address barriers to urban renewal and facilitate greater resilience in urban centres. The effectiveness of such policies will be of interest at the international level as the decline of retailing centres is a problem common across many countries, especially within the Global North.

In the private sector, the project will be of benefit to asset managers, fund managers, property managers and project development managers operating and investing in regional markets, with the findings and recommendations of relevance and applicability to the London and international markets. The research will extend knowledge and understanding of solutions to retail obsolescence, urban decline and regeneration challenges provided by design and use innovations, and how these adaptations may be facilitated through critical reflection on the responsiveness and adaptability of property and design practice. Increased levels of adaptability may relate to more flexible leasing approaches, including lease terms, repairing and maintenance responsibilities within shorter leases and this may impact on adaptability in rating assessments and liabilities, and investment viability. Such changes may be required to see enhanced responsiveness within professional practices as occupiers, users and usage patterns change quickly.

The findings of the research will also provide details of the possible polarised impact of new retail developments on local stakeholders, as well as the nature of social structures and power relations within the local urban economy. Enhanced understanding of the impact of developments will enable suggestions on how to improve practices of engagement between private sector, public sector and third sector interests and with the local community. Better community and local enterprise advocacy offers potential for collaboration and partnership to find ways to deliver desirable and more effective urban renewal projects. More attractive urban places, greater property market vitality, improved social spaces, and better connected and complimentary land uses, driven by the findings of this study, have potential to benefit all those managing, investing in, living, working and using urban centres.


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