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Remaking our high streets for the 21st century

Our high streets are in a terrible state - they have been ravaged by years of dealing with economic decline caused by austerity. By competition from out of town shopping (the most stupid bit of urban planning ever conceived) and by our ever changing relationship to technology, the internet now allows us to bring the shop to our doors, so why leave the house?   


And, this was before the pandemic. Social distancing, limited hours and a reduction in footfall are forcing stores to close and jobs to be lost up and down the UK.  


But against this backdrop we are optimistic. Why? Here are the reasons:  


This moment is a unique opportunity 

Because, the pandemic has not created the problems of the high street, they were there already, and already needed to change - this, combined with the dual threats of the climate and biodiversity emergencies make the impetus for change greater and the need to do something radical even more important.   

   

We know the issues so we can fix them  

Because, out of this need to radically remake our high streets we can make them serve us and our planet better. Many of the high streets we work in are confronted by the same issues: private vehicles dominating, creating poor air quality, noise and taking up too much space; poor wayfinding, signage and digital infrastructure making them difficult to access; a lack of clarity to the public realm meaning spaces are disconnected or undervalued; a lack of definition to fronts and backs meaning places lack activity where needed; not enough green infrastructure bringing health, wellbeing and ecological benefits and a lack of good quality cycling infrastructure. We know the issues, and how to go about fixing them. We just need to do it.     


Now is the time for a new economic model 

Our notions of value are no longer tied to immediate financial wins. Social, environmental and cultural value together with long term sustainable growth are better measures of success. By re-evaluating the economic models of our high streets we can make them work for the long term community benefit of those they serve. Simon Davis a specialist in funding and viability in high streets at Urban Delivery believes in a different economic model, where a proportion of buildings in the high street can be brought into public control (not necessarily ownership) to release their long term value, and allow not just ground floors but all of the building to flourish:  


“Where new investment in buildings can be captured and occupational costs made affordable, the potential exists to utilise the whole of the building and to deliver not only retail but a mix of uses that will provide space to work and live. Traditionally many high street buildings focus on the ground floor retail with limited uses on upper floors or in basements. Acquisition and control would make a significant difference to the affordability and range of uses that populate buildings.” 


People need high streets now more than ever 

In our quest for convenience (internet retail, out of town shopping) we’ve forgotten the importance of our high streets and the fact that what they offer can not be found on the internet…. high streets are where social interaction occurs, where communities are brought together, where civic and health services are accessed, where entertainment, leisure and cultural events happen and where small businesses start and thrive. But, more than this they are where the incidental, ad hoc interactions of everyday life happen. And, after the pandemic we will need this more than ever.   


Design principles

Our 8 principles when working with high streets, guide our work:  


- Multi-functional not mono-functional: consolidating retail space to allow other uses to flourish

- Resilient: valuing re-use and adaptation whilst designing for future climate impacts

- Green & verdant: using nature to soften the urban environment 

- Easy to use: accessible & easy to get to and around 

- Connected: a strong digital presence both in the civic and commercial realm 

- Prioritise health & wellbeing: air quality, exercise, mental health and access to health services are all key components 

- 'Walkable' & 'Cyclable': increasing fitness, improving air quality and reducing the need for private vehicles 

- Local over generic: ensuring that local business get the support they need to succeed


So, yes - we should all be worried about our high streets. But there is cause for optimism, because through the crises of climate change, biodiversity emergency and pandemic we are forced to confront what really matters, and making our high streets work for the 21st century is more important now than ever before.