For somebody long-versed in the fundamentals of using evidence in guiding town centre change, I was fascinated by debate about the virtues of measuring footfall as town and city managers gathered in Bournemouth recently.
I work with some town and city centre regeneration programmes where very little of the hard-won resources are diverted to monitoring impacts, as well as other initiatives where chasing key indicators like footfall and vacancy rates seem to have become ends in themselves. So great to hear the perspectives of practitioners at the Association of Town and City Management Summer School.
For me, measuring footfall is a step in the right direction.
Improving town centres is about understanding the performance AND personality of a place, however. Measuring footfall is just one indicator of performance that it happens to be easy to count and seemingly straight forward to understand. It tells little about the personality of places.
Using a ‘suite’ of town centre indicators
Footfall is one of the suite of indicators that we have long used in our town centre benchmarking process at People & Places. We are though aware of the limitations in using it alone and tracking it too intently. Footfall is a symptom; it does not alone help understand the causes of changes in town centre vitality. We supplement it with other quantitative indicators including vacancy rates, parking occupancy, rental levels and business mix. The approach has been used from the outset to provide a baseline and guide progress in delivering the Welsh Government’s £100 million Vibrant and Viable Places regeneration framework.
The Institute of Place Management through its Big Data to Small Users research has recently extended the use of footfall to classify town centres into four types: comparison, holiday, convenience/community and speciality. We like this move to link measuring footfall with other indicators to say more about the personality of a place. We will watch intently as IPM researchers link impacts to interventions in selected study towns.
More and more we are looking to replace footfall with ‘footflow’ as an indicator of how and why people move around a town or city centre. We like the work that people like Sven Latham at Noggin are doing to make such approaches affordable and intelligible alongside other indicators.
Understanding town centre ‘personality’
Footfall alone also tells us little about the ‘personality’ of a place including the people who use a town centre and the businesses that trade there. We have long investigated this through qualitative surveys about business confidence and customer perceptions. We also reach-out to non-users on-line. Recently we have supplemented this by gauging business sentiments around identity. This understanding of personality starts to tell us about the long-term causes of change in a town centre.
The Understanding Scottish Places programme has combined such primary survey work with analysis of data to provide portraits of different types of towns, their populations and the inter-relationships between them. This approach seeks to combine a complexity of data and present it in a meaningful way that can inform delivery.
Exploring town technology and data
As in so many current-day situations, the possibilities to capture and use technology-based data seem endless and will help us explore deeper in to the performance and personality of a place. Town WiFi usage for example, can not only tell us about footflow but can tell us about who the users are and enable targeted marketing. ‘Sentiment’ analysis of social media can plug us in to live data about people’s changing perceptions of a place.
It is interesting to track the progress of a company such as Solomon which is working alongside Leeds and other Business Improvement Districts to provide a data dashboard for place managers. Sophisticated analysis of social media sentiment will doubtless be a ground breaking next step in such provision to offer greater insights in to the personality of place.
Four tests for using data wisely
Whether you are looking at measuring footfall data more effectively or identify other indicators, I believe that there are four tests you should always seek to satisfy. Ask yourself if your town centre indicators are:
- Simple: Is the data simple and cost-effective to collect?
- Predictive: Does it help you understand the causes of town centre change?
- Digestible: Can the data be presented in a digestible way to stakeholders?
- Correlated: How strong is the connection between actions and measurable impacts?
Don’t invest in other indicators unless they can more than better the half-marks achieved by measuring footfall. To do anything else would be a wasted opportunity; the proverbial one step forward and two steps back!
Take a look at how we use indicators to capture the performance and personality of a place as we compare small town High Streets. I reckon we score a 3 out of 4 but we are always looking to innovate in usability and in particular crack the correlation between actions and impacts!
The discussions in Bournemouth told me that seasoned professionals are looking for more sophisticated approaches than monitoring footfall alone. They want to use a manageable suite of indicators that help with planning and projections. They want to know more about the composition of footfall and what these people bring to the town. In answer to my question posed to the panel about ‘digestible data’, I think we settled on a ”smörgåsbord’ of indicators as being the way forward.