During the coronavirus pandemic, midsize cities did relatively well. To continue to attract and retain visitors, a clear vision and positioning for the city center is needed. “The more this is done in consultation with retailers and residents, the more successful the city center will be.”
For a moment, the medium city seemed to compete with the ‘big city’. IT company Argaleo and Breda University of Applied Sciences reported in early February that cities like Oss matched the number of visitors to ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Breda on Saturdays immediately after the last lockdown.
The effect soon turned out to be temporary. In February, the figures between medium and large cities again separated according to known proportions. However, limited store openings during the pandemic showed that visitors are looking closer to home. Oss, whose visitors consist of 88 percent of its own inhabitants, retains relatively more visitors in times of limited opening than ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Only 40 percent of visitors live in the city.
‘During the weeks of limited store and restaurant opening, Oss residents still relied heavily on their own town center. The consumer was not yet ready to return to the cities they are normally in,” says Stefan van Aerle, city center development advisor. The researchers asked him to comment on the results. Van Aerle: ‘You can see how big a hit it is when tourism and recreation disappear.’
The medium-sized pre-crown city was often a victim, according to Van Aerle, with competition from larger provincial towns. The conditions of the pandemic temporarily changed the flows of visitors, which raises the question of how medium-sized cities can maintain this “popularity”.
Successes in Oss
Jack van Lieshout is a city center manager for the municipality of Oss. He knows better than anyone what the city has done of him to attract visitors to the city center. During limited opening periods, Oss actively appealed to shop locally. The municipality also actively supported entrepreneurs and retailers before corona.
‘An incentive scheme has been established to make buildings above the commercial floor habitable. This created enthusiasm among entrepreneurs to settle more in the center.’ The transformation in the city center leads to more consumers within walking distance of the shops, explains the manager of the city center.
The municipality also launched the ‘store of my dreams’ project in 2017, which was launched again last January. It consists of rental support, marketing and communication assistance. This should attract new stores in empty buildings. ‘We have to look for new formulas and mixtures that the visitor finds attractive.’
In order to retain visitors longer, Oss is investing in further greening of the city center. Van Liehout: ‘The residential climate in Oss is increasing. The people of Oss also experience it as such, we hear again.’ In his ten years as city center manager, Van Lieshout has never gotten the feeling that mid-sized cities want to compete with larger neighborhood municipalities. He believes that the medium city can successfully apply elements of that great city to its own inner city without compromising his own experience.
“In that experience, you can really distinguish yourself as a mid-sized city,” says Van Lieshout. According to him, that works on Oss. ‘When I explain to other downtown managers how we approach this, they notice that they are jealous of how we are doing.’
Mid-size cities in transition
In midsize cities, a transition has been visible for years. According to Lennard Magis and Sven Bertens of property consultant JLL, mid-sized urban centers have been shrinking for at least five years. This also applies to larger cities, but is more noticeable in smaller municipalities.
“That means you have to check in certain places to see if retail is future-proof,” says Magis. According to him, medium-sized cities should reconsider how the retail offer fits together, grouping together and making the city center more compact.
To continue enticing residents and visitors into the ‘mid-city experience’, municipalities can activate various buttons, according to Magis and Bertens. An attractive public space attracts visitors, as does good accessibility. The car certainly plays a part in that. “Medium-sized municipalities are not always easily accessible by public transport, so it is advisable to continue to provide affordable parking solutions,” says Bertens. According to him, between 60 and 70 percent of visitors to the median city still come by car.
Other possible buttons are a flexible policy for issuing permits for events and a flexible approach to the use of the city center considering what zoning plans are desirable. Magis: ‘Listen carefully to the merchants and businessmen in the city center, they know very well what is needed.’
each unique city
The most important thing according to Magis and Bertens is a clear vision and positioning. ‘It is desirable that both the owner and the user of the city center work together in this regard. Municipalities must develop this vision together with retailers, business owners, visitors and residents. The more this is done in consultation, the more successful the city center will be,’ says Magis. There is no prefabricated vision for medium-sized municipalities, because ‘one city is not like another’.
City Center Manager Van Lieshout agrees that each city has its own route and approach. He cites Waalwijk as an example, a municipality on the other side of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Although Oss and Waalwijk border the larger city, Waalwijk has its own challenges. “They have a double challenge: not only to retain visitors after corona, but also to attract visitors first.”
That is not easy: the retail market is dealing with the decline in corona support and the associated financial obligations to pay this support to owners and the government. According to Magis and Bertens, this has a chilling effect on retailers’ expansion plans in mid-sized cities. ‘Particularly at smaller, independent retailers. But these are the retailers that make shopping streets unique.’
In addition, medium-sized cities do not benefit directly from the recovery of tourism purchasing power, so these towns have to position themselves even more strongly to attract visitors. The municipalities have been busy with this during the corona pandemic. As a result, they have not been able to carry out all the plans for the city center,” says Bertens.
Too big to fail
According to Marcel Evers, director of INretail, the retail sector will have to reinvent its social and public function in the coming years, strengthening it even more and showing it more clearly. According to Evers, the too one-sided focus on the economic function of the city center must change to a broader public function. he writes this The report ‘The added social value of retail’.
Midsize cities have to go from being too big to fail to being slower, smaller and more humane. According to Evers, this means more attention and, where possible, management of decentralized local developments that arise between residents and merchants. A broadly oriented collaboration, as Magis and Bertens also call it, should bring innovation in spatial planning, digitization conditions and financing processes.
Evers explains that digitization offers opportunities for Web 3.0† According to him, municipalities should support retail and local entrepreneurs by investing in a new digital infrastructure: ‘From web 2.0, where strongly centrally organized and internationally operating platforms derive value, to web 3.0, where local and decentralized platforms add value and prosperity to the source back By better matching online demand and local supply, thus strengthening the local economy.’
This is subject to the condition that the municipalities are serious about developing such a digital strategy. Extra money is needed for this, in addition to investments in the physical infrastructure. In some cases, municipalities are already setting up ‘local currencies’, which residents can use to pay at local stores.