Vibrant Energy as City Living is Returning to the Heart of Derby


The primary purpose of the Derby City Masterplan is to create a vibrant city centre in order to make Derby a better place to live, work and visit.

Core to achieving this is the concept of ‘city living’ – that is, attracting greater numbers of people wanting to live in the city centre itself.

In mainland Europe, city living never really went out of fashion, as any visit to France, Germany or Italy will show.

There, city centres tend to be multi-purpose, with thousands of apartments located above the central shops, commercial and leisure activities. Their cities don’t die each day at 5.30pm – indeed, quite the opposite - residents abound, milling around, populating the cafés and stores, participating in social street life, la passeggiata. 

However, over the 20th century, most cities in the United Kingdom and United States abandoned the principle of living in central areas, as residents migrated out to the suburbs and beyond.

The endless miles of anonymous urban sprawl seen in many US cities is quite astonishing.

A few years ago, I drove across what appeared to be 50 miles or so of nondescript San Antonio, Texas. Anyone who has had the dubious pleasure of driving across Los Angeles will know the urban area stretches well beyond 100 miles.

The legacy has been dilapidated and deserted downtowns which only recently are being rediscovered and developed. Key to this revival is city living.

Whether it’s Denver, Houston, or even Los Angeles, US downtown districts are well into a renaissance based on people living downtown. 

Of course, America does everything on a bigger scale. So, whilst it’s true to say that UK cities were never quite abandoned to the levels seen in the US, what did happen here was that zoning polices and practices separated use classes.

Living, working and playing were palmed off to different parts of the city – investment focused on out-of-town shopping, business parks and housing estates – and most city centres became depopulated.

That began to change in the 1990s, led by cities such as Manchester and Leeds, who began to attract residents back to their core.

It might have started with conversions of industrial mills, but soon students, young professionals and, more recently families became citizens of the city centre.

Derby missed out on this revolution. By 2005 we had a city centre that was slowly dying on its feet, a place of convenience not choice.

The introduction of the masterplan in 2005 was the first expression of a desire to regenerate, to learn from others and create a vibrant heart.

Designing and launching masterplans is the easy bit – the challenge is delivery.

In Derby’s case, the first wave of investment was retail- and leisure-based, the catalyst of course being the £340m down payment, made ten years ago, by Australian giant Westfield which created a shopping centre that increased visitor numbers from 16million to 25million.

This was quickly followed by significant investment in infrastructure, hotels, leisure and then, more recently as the city become a more attractive proposition, by residential.

Derby may have been late to the resi-party but we are certainly making up for lost time. Over 1,000 residential units have already been built or converted with a further 2,394 in the immediate pipeline.

Use types has been varied and include: office conversions, such as St Peter’s House or Heritage Gate; new build, such as Compendium Living’s Castleward or Radleigh’s Weavers Point schemes; and student living, such as Roman House and Cathedral Court.

The immediate pipeline includes the two schemes that received planning permission last month – Nightingale Quarter and Prosperity Capital – plus of course the second phase of Jensco’s Friar Gate Square, currently under construction, as evidenced by a tall tower crane on Agard Street.

The impact is becoming apparent – just as it did in other cities – more people on the street. Beneficiaries include local businesses, as well as the City Council, which will soon be receiving significant sums in Council Tax and New Homes Bonus. By our estimate, a scheme such as the DRI, is worth something like £10m over ten years to the local authority.

But, the real benefit is a city growing up, rediscovering some of what made it great as a home, as well as a place of work or leisure.

To that point, I think of St Mary’s Gate, originally a predominately residential street, given over to office use, but where the recent refurbishment of Simpson House and sale of Middleton House for up-market apartments is making it once again a mixed hub in the shadow of the Cathedral.

Vibrant cities feed off the energy of ideas and perspectives. Vibrant cities benefit from diversity – communities and cultures, young and old, in people and places. Vibrant cities are places which accommodate varied uses – working, playing and, now in Derby, living.