Tony Reddy: Networks and Magnets: The National Role of Regional Cities

Tony Reddy FRIAI discusses the theme of the forthcoming AoU and RIAI Conference, which takes place on 23 and 24 February online.

A joint online conference organised by The Academy of Urbanism and RIAI will be held on 23 and 24 February to examine the conditions that are enabling small and medium-sized cities to achieve growth and prosperity whilst delivering a good quality of life for all.

The speakers of the conference will include experts who blend international and local solutions to housing, transport, economic, inclusion and design problems within growing cities, among other things, demonstrating that it is possible both to grow and to take care of your citizens.

Small and medium-sized regional cities have not had it easy. For successive decades, while cities such as London, Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow have prospered, smaller and medium-sized cities have had to grapple with the challenges of inequality, falling productivity and investments, while battling a perception of bigger-is-best.

The capitals and largest cities of Britain and Ireland have a younger population and significant net inward migration, which creates greater natural growth potential and a self-fulfilling cycle of innovation, culture and creativity. As a result, many of the regional cities, whose bright young citizens leave to live in the capitals, never quite reach their full potential.

The success of cities such as Cork, Limerick, Oxford, Cambridge and Perth has therefore become central to national economic policies. Policies are being put in place to transform these cities into drivers of investment, tourism and migration and to make them more attractive to the young, the educated, the creative.

The aim of governments is to ensure that the successes experienced by Britain’s and Ireland’s capital cities is matched by this next tier of city. The National Planning Framework published by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government anticipates that in the next 20 years we will grow by an extra one million people.  This raises a series of important questions for our consideration, the most basic being where will all these people live and work, what kind of quality of life will we each enjoy, and how will a country of almost six million people impact on our communities and on our built and natural environment?

Project Ireland 2040 is the national response to this quandary, aiming to provide a boost to second and third-tier cities by spreading significant investment beyond Dublin. This approach to distribution is much more in tune with the policies of countries such as France and Germany, which lean less on the success of a primary city in favour of a poly-centric approach.

At the end of last year, Michael McGrath TD updated on Project Ireland 2040 and said: “Project Ireland 2040 is enhancing regional connectivity and competitiveness, improving environmental sustainability and building a fairer, more equal Ireland for everyone.” The potential therefore for cities such as Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford are huge.

While in Perth in eastern Scotland, the city is exploring its future with citizens and businesses through the lens of becoming the most sustainable small city in Europe. Led by the Perth City Leadership Forum, momentum is building behind this aspiration around the issues of urban design, transport and connectivity, inclusion and social justice, enterprise and more. What has dawned upon the city is that to attract investment and jobs and therefore people, it must have a future and a way to bind its citizens together.

Perth is also taking steps to ensure it is outward looking. As part of the Tay Cities Deal, the city and its businesses and voluntary organisations are working with their counterparts in with Dundee, Argyle and Fife to secure a smarter and fairer Tay region. The partners that make up the Tay Cities region have negotiated with the UK and Scottish governments to secure investment and greater local powers. This will be used to encourage skills development and progress infrastructure such as roads, rail links, buildings and communications networks.

Similarly in England, regional inter-city collaboration is being pushed up the political agenda as a way unlock the potential of smaller cities. The Oxford to Cambridge Arc is a strategic partnership of local authorities and other bodies such as a Local Economic Partnerships and academic institutions in between the two globally known cities.

Cllr Ian Hudspeth, leader of Oxfordshire County Council, said: “The development of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc is a real key to unlocking economic growth that will bring jobs and prosperity to all of the people who live in the areas around and between these two famous university cities.

Cities have the power to change their own destiny. Indeed, to come back from the brink. Eindhoven in the Netherlands did just that after the collapse in the 1990s of its two primary employers – Phillips and DAF. Through a rethink about the city’s economic purpose, it landed on a plan – which it calls the triple helix model – which saw the city work with the private sector and education sector to drill down on knowledge innovation. This attracted a new wave of entrepreneurs and began a reset of the city’s image and quality of life.

The conference will examine all these case studies and more. It will highlight some of the new thinking which is needed to assist the growth of smaller cities into the future. It will also examine how successful cities have put in place governance, planning and financial structures to achieve sustainable development of our built environment. It will demonstrate that these nimble, energetic smaller European cities provide a positive template for urban futures, combining inclusion and identity alongside economic prosperity.

Tony Reddy FRIAI, is a Director and former Chair of The Academy of Urbanism, he is a member of the RIAI Urban Design Committee.

More information on the conference

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