Opinion: Stop talking down the high street

We need to recognise the specific challenges of individual high streets, and not assume that the national narrative is true for every place, writes Holly Lewis.

High streets are in the news again, and this time it’s not all bad. Although it feels like the pace of ‘death of the high street’ articles in the press is ramping up, recent government announcements reveal an appetite for some creative thinking about these vital urban assets. The future high streets fund will invest £675 million into innovative ideas for how high streets can adapt and evolve in the context of challenges brought about by trends, such as increases in online sales and changes in consumer behaviours. Alongside that, a high streets task force will provide local support for these new ideas.

There is a risk in all of this ‘SWAT team’-like support being announced that high streets are portrayed as sclerotic, ailing and outdated. But, across research, strategy and delivery projects involving dozens of high streets, we have seen many reasons to be positive about high streets. Rather than continually talking them down, we could use some clear thinking to help us get excited again and capitalise on the opportunity presented by the future high streets fund. For starters, there are a few myths that need to be challenged.

The myths

Myth number 1 is that the ‘death of retail’ will kill high streets. The demise of some famous high street names is well documented, but recent surveys have shown that in fact 85 per cent of purchases still touch a shop and that between 45-66 per cent of visits to high streets are not actually for shopping. To think that high streets are just about shops is missing most of the point of them in the present day, and even more so looking to the future.

Myth number 2 concerns tumbleweed town centres. Vacancy isn’t a universal problem, so strategies that assume that this is an issue need to be tailored to their locations. The logic that we need to fill high street voids with housing just doesn’t stack up in many places and could be toxic, freezing out other more active and productive uses.

Myth number 3 is low quality economies. It’s easy to dismiss high streets as ‘mom and pop’ shops and fragile businesses. In fact our 2017 High streets for all study revealed that in London, there are more jobs on and within 200 metres of high streets than in the whole of the central activities zone.

Myth number 4 is that it is all about the money. High streets for all found that 40 per cent of businesses were offering some form of social support in their area, ranging from form-filling assistance, translation services, informal credit to just knowing the name of a lonely older person. This is a beautiful thing that most places in our cities are sadly lacking. If we judge everything by pound signs and aesthetics we’re missing a whole host of valuable high street characteristics.

Alongside our collaborators at Hatch Regeneris and PRD, we have spent almost a decade researching, designing, strategising and delivering in town centres. They are exciting places, mostly well connected, often with strong civic identity and great buildings. There is a danger that blunt intervention will lead to these more nuanced local strengths being lost and the real value of centres being ignored.

To help ensure that this is not the case, we need to recognise the specific challenges for individual high streets, and not assume that the national narrative is true for every place. This will help us to embrace new uses, and be careful about assuming that adding residential is a panacea.

Making, working, learning, caring, culture - all the other things aside from residential that happen in our city can happen on high streets and keep them lively. By way of example, our East Street Library project reinvigorated a local civic asset to support a wider range of workspace uses on the high street, and sat alongside more direct high street investments such as new market furniture.

We also need to value and support businesses, and not overlook them. Sometimes, this conversation can be difficult, but it is always current and better than relying on top-down evidence for decisionmaking. This was a vital component of our work in Burnt Oak high street in Barnet, London, where an extensive support programme was directly coordinated with public realm works.

To support these interventions, we need to understand the value of ownership where coordinated landlords and public sector ownership can help to curate and cultivate innovative or socially-oriented uses on the high street. By working across all these facets, we’re hopeful that the future high streets fund can genuinely light the way for our town centres.

Holly Lewis is co-founding partner at architecture and urbanism practice, We Made That.

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