Re-inventing the High Street

This note is to set out some ideas for discussion on the role of High Streets in Britain.  In summary, some High Streets risk being unsustainable but could have a great future if they can become

(a) more compact, walkable[1], accessible[2] and people-centred, and

(b) reconfigured to be usable for a range of ‘new’ non-retail uses such as meeting, adult learning, exchanging, campaigning, as well as the important ‘traditional’ non-retail uses of leisure, public service[3] outlets, worship and transport interchanges.

DRIVERS

Firstly, one aspect of the current economic recession is the increasing number of empty shops on High Streets.  This is an opportunity for change as well as a perceived threat.

Secondly, there is a growing sense that solely consumption-lead growth is evidently unsustainable, which leads to new conclusions around local retail strategies and their limits for driving local economic development, and which leads away from the Clone Town[4] approach to retail development.

Thirdly, techniques in urban design[5] and forming sustainable communities[6] indicate that compact, walkable places can reduce energy and materials consumption while achieving the same social and economic outcomes, exemplified by the Transition Towns movement.

Fourthly, there are social capital gains from human interactions within the public realm when the quality is sufficiently high, and these benefits are both individual ones, such as in wellbeing, and collective benefits such as improving community cohesion[7] and promoting diversity as a welcome strength.  There are tensions, for example between teenage and older people, where urban design along with community development could maybe go further in seeking mutual solutions.

Fifthly, there are social value gains to be secured and which can be quantified, for example by deciding not to close a Post Office there are savings to the public purse gained in other public organisations such as adult social care services[8] spending less staff time on unrewarding ‘service failure’ costs.

Finally, High Streets form the natural centre to a neighbourhood, giving a community a coherence and sense of place that is more authentic and lasting than an administrative boundary.

TOOLS

Local authorities have a leading role in place-shaping.  Planning powers are one method, using the ‘change of use’ provisions it may be possible in many places to reduce a sprawling and struggling High Street to a sustainable, mixed-use and delightful core by encouraging changes from shops to housing, either as flats or as town houses.  The quality of these conversions is key, along with reconfiguring the spaces to the front and rear of the premises as small gardens or similar semi-private places.  This may require some new pilot projects with local economic development functions which, to date, have serviced High Streets with shop-front improvement grants, public realm refurbishments and better cleaning and security regimes, but where some shop owners may now need help in how best to ‘exit’ from the edges of the High Street core, especially where land values are not generous.

Registered social landlords also can have a place-shaping role, and can bring additional resources into this area.  In particular, converted flats to a high quality may be attractive to elderly people[9] who do not (or no longer) drive and value proximity to the High Street provided that good urban and property design ensures that noise and nuisance are minimised.  Local authorities may soon be given an incentive to start building social housing again by being allowed to keep the rents as income rather than as now having to forward rental income into a national account.

This kind of refurbishment and in-fill development is also well suited to smaller, local construction firms rather than volume housebuilders.  By providing the right support from the local authority staff (planning, building control, economic development) to local firms, councils could enable high standards in design and build to be secured, helping to promote a greater sense of hope for and delight in local places.

The public sector generally can have a major influence here, because locating not just the service outlets but also the ‘back office’ teams within High Streets has a sustaining effect. 

Some degree of car parking will often need to be managed, and the use of ‘liner’ buildings where shops, flats, etc are wrapped around car parks (and big box stores, if any) can help to retain the High Street benefits, so long as the design starts from the existing High Street and not from a proposed new-build major development outside the core.

In some circumstances it might be best to replace redundant shops with pocket parks to improve the green infrastructure[10] within the town or city, provided that design quality continues to be central to the scheme, rather than crude landscaping as a holding operation until a viable plan may come along.

 

Tony Baldwinson, June 2009
Manchester, UK
 


[1] Perhaps as important as ‘walkable’ is where a place is a delight to dwell.

[2] Learning from the campaigns by disabled people in the 1970s on pedestrianisation schemes when some designs excluded disabled people who need to use cars.

[3] But often it seems that GP practices etc are located away from the High Street core area because there is ‘better’ car parking, under pressure from staff as well as from service users.

[4] new economics foundation

[5] CABE in UK with Building for Life and Sustainable Cities; some parts of New Urbanism in USA.

[6] Such as Young Foundation and FixMyStreet project within the Local Innovation team.

[7] High Streets can often be a place of neutral territory, especially for young people from different communities.

[8] David Cameron’s 2008 speech to CPRE on villages and social value, “20:26 Vision – Communities and the countryside” http://www.cpre.org.uk/library/results.

[9] Lifetime Homes standard by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are a good basis here for property design, and similarly their Lifetime Neighbourhoods guidelines.

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