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Reimagining the city centres of the future

Patrick 0’Gorman


Proposal: Artist’s impression of Smithfield Yard plan

Proposal: Artist’s impression of Smithfield Yard plan

Proposal: Artist’s impression of Smithfield Yard plan

All of us will be hoping to see far fewer images of empty town centres and closed shops, restaurants and offices in 2021.

The various lockdowns and restrictions that have forced many people to work from home and stopped a lot of businesses opening their doors will undoubtedly take time to recover from. While the shutters will hopefully start to go up again soon, it's clear that any return to normality will be very gradual.

But with a comprehensive vaccination programme in the works and a return to a more normal life seeming more likely, it is probably time to start asking some urgent questions about what we want our town and city centres to look and feel like in future.

The pandemic has caused us to ask questions about how we live our lives, particularly when it comes to retail.

Covid has accelerated the trends we were already seeing on the high street, with more of us going online to shop and many traditional, often famous retail names struggling to keep up. It has become clear that centres can no longer be retail-led in the old sense of the word.

So, what is retail and what does it need to look like in future? This is a question we've asked ourselves in planning our Smithfield Yard development, which we hope will return the hustle and bustle to an area that was once the trading heart of Belfast. It will be a 167,404 sq ft mixed use campus, with three buildings connected by one yard.

Our view from the outset was that our development needed to focus on independents rather than big chains, and the whole ground floor of our buildings will be spaces for small local traders, makers, pop-up stores, artists and coffee shops. My experience is that it is the independent retailers, hospitality operators and cultural enterprises that make a city centre unique and hold most of the attraction for those who use them.

Belfast is in the same position as many other cities in that it needs to give people new reasons to come into the city centre. Demand for the big stores has declined, and today people want to have an experience when they are shopping.

Smithfield is a work-led scheme but one that's tailored to what workers want. We know the average 27-year-old worker doesn't just want to go in 9 to 5 to a bland office building. In a world of hybrid working and 24/7 connectivity, working times have become more fluid and employers know they need the right environment to attract and retain the best talent.

As well as having a cool workspace, these workers want to experience all that a vibrant city centre lifestyle can offer, which is where the unique retailers, makers, artists, restaurants, coffee shops and bars come in. Wouldn't it be great if people wanted to go in to into the city because they want to see what the retailers and artisans are doing or what cultural event the flexible pop-up spaces are being used for that day?

We believe the shift the sector is going through may spark a return to a more traditional shopping approach focused on local and community, where customers want to build relationships with shop owners and enjoy the customer service that comes with that. They will still want big brand names to be available too, but it's important that the retail offering has something more to it. We have no doubt the city will enjoy a renaissance and we're excited to see some of the work that's going on to reimagine the city centre for the future. In a post-Covid world, let's give people a reason to come into Belfast to work, to shop and to relax.

Paddy O'Gorman is principal at Bywater Properties

Belfast Telegraph