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Lockdown threw some high streets a lifeline, the challenge is what to do next

As with any crisis, reinvention comes through adversity. With the right curatorial approach, our high streets could become an intrinsic and well-loved part of our towns once again, writes Max Farrell, Toby Denham, Aymara Lamche-Brennan and Chris Pask of LDN Collective

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Shoppers queue for the high street. Getty Images
Shoppers queue for the high street. Getty Images

The retail sector was under enormous pressure before the pandemic, with footfall in town centres declining by as much as 20% over the past 10 years and 25% of high street shops closing nationally, according to BBC’s Panorama. In 2019, a report by analyst Retail Economics predicted that internet shopping will account for 53% of retail sales by 2028.

 

Covid-19 is having a crippling impact on retailers and businesses, large and small. What it has done is accelerate the demise of already stressed businesses. At the same time, we are witnessing people ‘nipping out’ to their local high street as online retailers struggle to meet demand. If there is a silver lining to this crisis, it will be refreshed and reinvigorated high streets and a renewed interest in all things local.

 

The real challenge is what to do next. Town centres have never been static – they have adapted over time to an ever-changing world. From railways and cars to out-of-town shopping centres and mega supermarkets, the overarching trend has been towards homogenisation, which has led to the creation of ‘zombie zones’ and identikit places.

 

As with any crisis, reinvention comes through adversity. With the right curatorial approach, our high streets could become an intrinsic and well-loved part of our towns once again.

 

The overarching trend has been towards homogenisation, which has led to the creation of ‘zombie zones’ and identikit places

 

High streets and town centres can no longer rely solely upon shopping to attract people. Purchasing of volume or universal products will be consigned to the virtual realm. Responding to this change presents a great opportunity for reinvention and to overcome the blight of big brands and ‘same-as-ism’.

 

The move away from large footprint stores due to changing shopping patterns provides an opportunity for other uses to flourish and reinhabit our towns. New trends in the way we use our high streets have been emerging for some time, with a shift towards town centres as destinations. The temporary stop during lockdown to the drain of thousands of people commuting is likely to become a more permanent reality even once the virus is overcome. Commuting into city centres may be reduced to just two or three days of the week. Larger firms will therefore be looking for more adaptable and flexible space, to meet the needs of an increasingly remote workforce.

 

Perversely, this is good news for town centres and high streets. It enables residents to engage in a way they previously may not have. A new wave of ‘stay at homers’ will not want to be confined to their home office or kitchen table. Part-time home workers will crave human contact, valuing physical and mental well-being and the need to strike a healthy balance between home and work life – something the local high street can provide.

A new wave of ‘stay at homers’ will not want to be confined to their home office or kitchen table

 

In Paris, the mayor has made the ‘15-minute city’ central to her re-election campaign. She says each community should be self-sufficient, offering shops, parks, sports facilities, cafes, schools, health centres and workplaces a walk or bike ride away from people’s homes. The Garden City movement pioneered a similar approach in Britain in the 19th century, and this has had a renaissance with projects like NW Bicester and Tresham Garden Village.

 

Bottom-up and community-led transformation is also making a comeback, emerging as a positive model of regeneration that keeps gentrification at bay. In many coastal towns, artists and creatives have led this trend. Kernels of entrepreneurship, often taking over disused buildings to create hubs for ideas, critical thinking and collective action, characterise a rebellious streak that brings with it successful, locally specific regeneration.

 

Resilient communities such as Morecambe’s have become visionary. Deal in Kent did the same years ago and is referred to locally as ‘Soho-on-Sea’. Former full-time commuters are likely to shed their smart attire, abandon the tiresome commute and swell these creative, entrepreneurial destinations.

 

In Paris, the mayor has made the ‘15-minute city’ central to her re-election campaign

 

Stockton-on-Tees is a typical example of a town with a declining centre, having lost more than 100 shops and stores in the past five years, including M&S and Debenhams. Its council has earned itself a reputation for taking a proactive approach to rethinking the town, how it should look and what it should offer. In consultation with the local community, it is investing in changing the profile of the high street.

 

Richard McGuckin, the council’s economic development officer, describes it as a ‘large outdoor room’ with places for sculptures, music, performers and sporting events throughout the year. This is encouraging residents to engage with their town centre in a new and exciting way.

 

The internet is generally viewed as the enemy of the high street, but it can be used to future-proof them by connecting with local and wider audiences, advertising events and opportunities, and giving us repeated reasons to make the journey. Apps and social media are connecting us in ways we could not have imagined 10 years ago. These should be harnessed.

 

With less consumption comes more creativity. It is a time for repurposing, sewing, painting, fixing and all those worldly pleasures for which we previously had little time – or didn’t make time.

 

Consumerism as we knew it has been suspended and with less consumption comes more creativity. It is a time for repurposing, sewing, painting, fixing and all those worldly pleasures for which we previously had little time – or didn’t make time.

 

‘The pause’ has forced us to re-evaluate what matters, what is important to us and why. It is highlighting interdependence as the key to our survival, reclaiming the collective community – a ground lost to individualism and corporatisation.

 

In this time of scarcity and social distancing, we are also rediscovering the ability to cultivate and make our own food. Local garden centres are in high demand, with many sold out. People are relearning lost skills in domestic food production, recalling a time when our grandparents thrived and survived through self-sustenance.

 

Perhaps we will develop a greater awareness of nature and the seasons and an acceptance that strawberries shouldn’t be available in the middle of winter. The local could once again be more dependable than the global.

 

This could be the death of the open-plan office... and no one wants to be a small meeting room

 

There is an opportunity for councils to encourage community food production and continue these efforts that have emerged during the period of lockdown. Regenerative agriculture, rewilding and community resilience would benefit from this approach – planting edibles such as fruit and nut trees for everyone to pick from and enjoy while supporting local growers.

 

‘Edible towns’ can be part of a sustainable and resilient approach, where nutrition and public health are factored into the design of a place.

 

In our experience, the most successful high streets are not ‘one-liners’. They have a rich palette of places and events that reflect and enhance the way we live.

 

Without regard to the physical connections of routes and spaces, segregation will predominate. By creating routes that connect to events off the high street, green spaces, places of activity, places for rest, markets, pop-ups, maker places, independents and charity shops, it is possible to create networks that will keep attracting us back to the high street for surprising experiences and human interaction.

 

the most successful high streets are not ‘one-liners’. They have a rich palette of places and events that reflect and enhance the way we live

 

Distinctive and unique high streets communicate a strong message that ‘this place is made and re-made by those who inhabit it’. It is about much more than business. It is a rich layering of inhabitation by those who live, work, shop, visit and play there: the people-watchers, the artists and the collective networks that support them.

 

Frome is an old market town in Somerset with a town council that does things differently. ‘The Frome Independent’ is an award-winning destination street market that reclaims the high street once a month to showcase craftspeople, designers, makers, food producers and vintage traders from across the South West. It attracts people from near and far.

 

Similarly, Marylebone High Street in London has flourished thanks to Howard de Walden’s careful curation of retail and leisure, making it a vibrant and attractive place for residents and visitors.

 

These solutions are driven by the specificities of place, the uniqueness of local offerings and a strategic, long-term plan.

 

Homogeneity makes places replicas of one another with ubiquitous betting shops and coffee chains. A soulful high street subverts this, protecting and promoting distinctive places instead of creating ‘clone towns’. It thrives off a unique mix of local makers, producers and creatives, disrupting and occasionally supplanting the larger chains.

 

Security guard outside Fortnum and Masons, London Photo: Getty Images
Security guard outside Fortnum and Masons, London Photo: Getty Images

Diverse communities are open-minded, welcoming and humble, celebrating cultural differences and strengthening shared humanity. They encourage people from disparate walks of life to find common ground and share their experiences. Diversity, in all its forms, must be a central tenet of the high street offering: a place where cooking ingredients from around the world can be bought, local bookshops promote authors with different stories to tell, hair salons cater for all hair types, and alternative medicines can be found.

 

The rebirth of our town centres should bring different generations closer together, which would improve the well-being of all. Community assets can be places for meaningful engagement and interactions between the ages, promoting empathy, understanding, storytelling and the sharing of experiences of living through different times, with drastically different forms of communication and access to knowledge.

 

The healing from the current pandemic is bringing together diverse and disparate communities, who offer mutual recognition and support to each other for the gargantuan task at hand. There has been widespread recognition that it is the NHS workers, delivery drivers, carers and teachers who are leading the fightback against Covid-19, with the whole country coming out to applaud them on their doorsteps and balconies every Thursday. Let’s hope it is the beginning of a re-evaluation of the roles of key workers in our everyday lives.

 

We know that the environment is benefitting from ‘the pause’ in life as we knew it. Experts at Stanford University predict the reductions in the number of flights, industrial activity and movement will result in fewer pollution-related deaths, strengthened ecosystems and direct benefits to air quality – an improvement that has been confirmed by recent NASA satellite imagery. These are significant and positive outcomes that should be nurtured and embraced.

 

The direction in which we are headed shows that we are learning lessons, not just papering over the cracks or rigidly sticking to received wisdom and dogmatic design principles

 

We are understanding more about the effects of good and bad design on social mobility, educational opportunity, health, well-being and social cohesion. Social, economic and physical infrastructure all play their part in supporting thriving communities, along with public transport, broadband and a range of community amenities.

 

We are learning about and sharing guidance on how to design popular, inviting and inclusive places and getting better at communicating this to a wider audience. For example, Create Streets has synthesised its research, Of Streets and Squares, into a plain English, eight-step guide How to Design Popular Places. The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission is another example of the growing body of work influencing government policy.

 

These examples illustrate a pull in the same direction: improved spaces and places that really work for the people who use them. We are turning our backs on the soulless mistakes of dull places devoid of character and inspiration.

 

The direction in which we are headed shows that we are learning lessons, not just papering over the cracks or rigidly sticking to received wisdom and dogmatic design principles.

We cannot remove all vehicles from town centres, but we can address the priority of the pedestrian

 

Many town centres are strangled by ring roads and awkward, clumsy road layouts. ‘The doughnut phenomenon’ has seen fields of car-dependent homes on the outskirts of town become parasites to existing services. Low-density housing outside the centre prioritises motorists and attracts retail parks with windswept car parks.

 

Dual carriageways and ring roads come complete with pedestrian barriers, limited pedestrian crossings, and heavy ‘clutter’ or signage. They are not only difficult to cross but create physical and mental barriers that affect the accessibility and desire to use the high street.

 

We cannot remove all vehicles from town centres but we can address the priority of the pedestrian, reopen lost routes and introduce ‘at grade’ crossings to reconnect the town centre and high street with its hinterland. Encouraging active travel with walking and cycling routes will help ride the post-COVID-19 wave confidently and build on the legacy of people jogging and cycling more regularly.

 

Mobilising side streets and having a creative approach to access can transform our high streets and town centres into inhabited, lively places once again.

 

Max Farrell, Toby Denham, Aymara Lamche-Brennan and Chris Pask are members of the LDN Collective


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