The population of our four main Central South cities is predicted to grow by 9% in the next twenty years, faster than the surrounding towns and villages. History tells us the growth in city centres will be higher: the population of Southampton’s city centre, for instance, almost doubled between 2002 and 2015.

Midway through the pandemic, the Central South arm of established law firm Blake Morgan began working with the Southern Policy Centre to explore how these four cities – Bournemouth, Portsmouth, Southampton and Winchester – were evolving to meet the demands of the future.

We talked to local residents, local government and key regional business leaders about how our city centres can remain at the heart of the urban community: how will they respond to challenges as diverse as the internet or global heating, what sort of retail, housing or workspace they should provide and what will make them exciting places to visit in the region.

Our research fuelled a policy debate about the future of the ‘High Street’.

The pandemic has accelerated changes in retail driven by on-line shopping and brought new worries: more people working at home, fewer (or no) customers for theatres and restaurants, people deserting public transport. But it also appears to have driven changes in behaviour which may now be with us long beyond the release of restrictions, and reinforcing changes in society’s values which have emerged in recent years. Most notable are a growing concern for nature and our environment, alongside a focus on individual and community health and wellbeing. All these factors are changing how we think about the role and purpose of our city centres.

In January 2022 we took the opportunity to revisit the topic, bringing together an audience from across the businesses, organisations and institutions of the Central South to discuss how city centres continue to change.

The participants in our discussion were positive about the future of our city centres. As places they continue to evolve in response to change, with creative new ideas about how we should be thinking about, and using, space.

There are many examples in the region, some within this publication, of how traditional retail space is being re- purposed for a range of uses, from health to leisure or independent retail. Likewise, there are examples of how technology can help improve our city centres, capturing and sharing data which can help inform decision making and improve user experience of the city centre. The digital infrastructure of the ‘Intelligent Merchant City’ at Fawley Waterside, for example, will be used to support residents and businesses, as well as shaping its character.

One Station Square, Southampton © Ellis Williams Architects

All of the cities in our study looked at new ideas and fresh initiatives being pursued: whether to create new, flexible business space, leisure and visitor attractions, bring green space into the centre or improve the quality of the local environment.

We can be optimistic in the South Central region: the future of our city centres is, for many of our participants, bright. That’s because of the creativity and flexibility we are seeing in how business, retail and other aspects of city centre life are evolving.

How we invest in this region of England is crucial to ensure that our cities remain vibrant and creative go-to hubs in the UK’s Southern Gateway.

To find out more information about the research contact:

Rebecca Whitehead, Rebecca.Whitehead@blakemorgan.co.uk