Cities are competing to regain their vibrancy. The ones which make true mixed-use work for them will win


The main character in most of Charles Dickens' books is London; "wealth and beggary, vice and virtue, guilt and innocence... all treading on each other and crowding together" (Master Humphrey's Clock). For the great chronicler of arguably the world's first global city the vitality, crime and poverty of what was then the largest city in the world, drew him in and became his obsession.

What made Dickens' London so interesting and suprising a place, as with most large cities of its time, was the dense mix of activites. Residential and commercial areas were one and the same, with housing, small-scale manufacturing, shops and offices creating a street life full of variety and energy.

The downside to this organic and chaotic mix was endemic poverty, disease and pollution. Spend an hour reading Friedrich Engle's descriptions of urban life at the time and the scale of the problem becomes clear. The response in London, and throughout the developed world, has been almost a century of planning rules and legistation with one overriding objective - zoning: the separation of the city's activities into more regular and controllable spaces.

The problem is zoned cities are generally dull. So, for several decades, cities have been trying to untangle the restrictions they put in place. Mixed-use may be an overused term for developments, many of which often do not deserve the title, but it reflects a clear shift in priority from city authorities, developers, occupiers and residents.

This desire to make cities more interesting places has coincided with a number of related trends which are propelling true mixed-use to the forefront of development activity. The ‘war for talent’ has been a critical driver, with cities competing ever harder to nurture the right ecosystem to attract the best workers. Put bluntly, if you are the right side of 40, well educated, tech-savvy and have an interest in art and culture then you are in demand.

While not every city has an environment that immediately appeals to this group – somewhere inbetween San Francisco, New York and east London - a number are finding that they can create it. Sofia Song and Dana Salbak discuss below how Miami’s focus on high-end residential development provided a catalyst for innovation in retail and design industries, whereas Dubai’s skill at urban repositioning focused initially on tourism following the financial crisis, before widening into the creative sectors of the economy.

The challenge for city authorities is balancing their top-down approach to regeneration without undermining the authenticity that talented workers appear to demand from their working and living environments. Put simply - how do you create creativity?

In some cases it is a simple process – the happy confluence of cheap space and accessibility were the twin drivers behind the transformation of Shoreditch in London and Brooklyn in New York. In other locations, especially those without the advantage of several million affluent workers on their doorstep, the top- down approach is a valid route forward. However, the journeys that cities take are varied. 


Culture, as a means to create diversification of land-use and to broaden the appeal of a city, is well established, and Miami’s Art Basel event is only one high-profile example. Where art or museum quarters lead, retail and restaurant culture follow.


As The Wealth Report confirms, education is a key driver underpinning residential demand. Over 25% of all UHNWIs considering changing their country of residence in 2016 name this as the key push factor. Universities in particular have a real ability to encourage commercial development, especially supporting research and development requirements - attracting high skill employment. Student accommodation has a similar significant potential to add density and vitality to existing residential or commercial neighbourhoods, supporting retail and restaurants. 


With schools and universities creating new campuses in cities around the world, this is an area of significant future growth. The ongoing encouragement of innovation hubs and incubators for new industries is also likely to be another source of change, with private sector sponsors increasingly acting alongside or in place of public sector champions.

Layering other uses into the urban mix is a key focus for cities in their bid to maximise their attractions to current and future residents and commercial occupiers. One of the biggest growth areas we see is health and fitness, an industry which has moved far beyond the obvious gym and swimming pool offer, with the intelligent use of the city as the enabler of fitness – most visibly through the encouragement of cycling.


With Christophe Carpente’s insights from the luxury retail sector, pointing the way towards a desire for more localism, individuality and a more human scale within development – the move towards a more engaging and mixed urban environment is clear.

Dickens would approve. 

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