A new vision for our high streets

Emma Davies
We shouldn’t be afraid of a new high street, but instead embrace it as a change to our built environment that reflects the changes to how we now live, work and play.

We are all familiar with the headlines capturing the changes to our town centres – high street store closures, the loss of well-known brands and the merger of some national retail players. What does this mean for the high street and should we be concerned about the economic effect?

High street developments need to be combined with profitable forms of development, to contribute to the cost of ‘social’ development

Changes in the way we shop, how retailers engage with their customers, and rising rates and rental levels have led to a number of the changes we’re seeing now – these include collection points for goods and services sold on the internet, the growth of specialist, high-end and contemporary retailers, concept stores, discount supermarkets, pop-ups and specialist markets and coffee retailers. These types of retailers are responsible for the pockets of growth we are seeing on the high street. The UK cafe society, for example, is said to boost the economy by 3-5% a year and the growth of the discount supermarkets was reported by the Guardian in 2017 to be in the region of 20%.

In February 2019, the government published a paper High Streets and Town Centres in 2030 outlining their vision for “activity-based community gathering places where retail is a smaller part of a wider range of uses and activities and where green space, leisure, arts and culture and health and social care services combine with housing to create a space based on social and community interactions”. 

This approach has already been embraced by some towns – for example the “arc” development in Bury St Edmunds. Despite initial concerns by local traders, footfall has increased steadily in the town in recent years and the town was named as the Sunday Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in the East’.

The key point here is the financial justification for these redevelopments – because developments need to be viable and investors need to secure their future asset value. Therefore, authorities, the public and local traders have to accept that high street developments need to be combined with profitable forms of development, to contribute to the cost of “social” development. 

This means looking at residential proposals, combined with active uses at ground level, potentially increased building heights and a repositioning of the town centre.

Just imagine, it is the year 2025, you are 30 and rent an apartment on 20th floor in Futuretown. You need to be at work for 8.30am, so you rise at 7.30am, leave your apartment at 8.15am after booking a desk, ordering coffee and a bowl of fruit for breakfast. You walk 200m to the Workspace building, where the desks are occupied by at least 50 different companies from SMEs to multi-nationals. Your coffee and fruit are waiting on your desk and you get straight to a morning of teleconferences. You send the concierge a message on the Workspace app to request your dry cleaning back and order your lunch, which are delivered to your desk at 12.30pm. You have a quick lunch and go to a meeting in the “Hub” on the ground floor of Workspace, where you can work off the wall, using holograms from your phone. At 5.30pm, you pack up your desk for the day, collect your groceries from the collection point in the hallway, and call a driverless car to take you five miles to meet friends in a locally run market, populated by pop up food stalls and local artisan producers.

This may seem like a fairytale, but this blending of home, work, consumer and social life is closer to reality than we think. For local authorities, this means reimaging the high street uses, blurring the use classes order and prioritising the concept of “placemaking”. For developers, it means a new class of investment – one that is income producing, with an emphasis on service and a break away for the traditional sector specific categorises. Where appropriate pop-up, temporary and short-term uses should be considered.

So, maybe we shouldn’t be afraid of a new or different high street, but instead embrace it as a change to our built environment that reflects the changes to how we now live, work and play.

This article was first published in Building magazine.

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