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Our high streets were already suffering before the lockdown says Neil Bennett, it is now time for them to act or die.

Long ago, in that different world where

  • we worked together in offices,
  • we bumped into people on the street,
  • we hadn’t heard of Zoom,
  • when everything wasn’t delivered to us, and

when we were already worried about our town centres and their high streets, I was calling for them to – evolve or die.

Today, in the midst of coronavirus and with a level of uncertainty that dwarfs Brexit - if you remember that - it’s more important than ever that our high streets need action and hands-on management to continuously re-invent themselves, to survive and to again become multi-cultural, interesting places, not just shopping centres, but places where something different happens everyday.

So, what good points can we glean from the lockdown?

For myself, I would hope that we can hold on to the realisation that with half of the population deeming themselves to be depressed and anxious, society, sociality, matters, and caring about the places where people meet matters.

And then, as my world has become where I can walk to, I would also hope that we can retain an understanding of how important our local services are – not just retail, but the places that host the social and civic elements of our lives.

I can’t avoid the bad news – nobody really knows, and the casualties are not yet visible – but, if we forgo this year a seventh of our economic activity, then we will lose many, disproportionately smaller, businesses.

Sadly, many of these are likely to be the low cost base, low funding base, independents. I think we have also seen the end of the department stores like Debenhams, that used to ‘anchor’ many of our high streets. Overall, it’s a sudden acceleration of the trends we have seen over the past years,

with all the underlying issues coming  to a head:– its time to act or die.

So why would you stray out of your literal health and comfort zone, and visit your local high street? And then why go again, and again?

For me, that revolves around uncovering a shared understanding of what a place’s USP is, and building a personal, a social experience around that.

Many physical parts of retail are now irrelevant, and people will only travel to

  • To touch things  - to go to a “show”-room
  • To get human contact 
  • To be stimulated and entertained – the theatre of a high street – something Westfield for instance understands very well
  • To buy something unique
  • For convenience

From this, it follows that a High Street should not just be a shopping centre – a specialised mono-functional place for shopping only – but rather return to being a multi-functional place – a place where you live, work, shop, eat and drink, and be social, civic and healthy, throughout the day and week.

In the long term, we have the cavalry slowly arriving, in the form of more people living in our  town centres, an ever better understanding of how to balance traffic and people, and people beginning to understand the need for flexible places to meet and work – shown by the remarkable rise of coffee shops.

But we can’t wait that long.

In my view, a high street, a local centre needs active curation and management, with a frequent shot of adrenaline, to make it an interesting, relevant, entertaining, changing environment, where there is always something new.

Learning from experience, first steps are to:-

  • Experiment and be prepared to fail with new ideas, using temporary structures and empty spaces – for work, for food, whatever
  • Deliver small - scale upgrades and quick wins as a continuous process – something has to be seen to be happening
  • Establish an ‘Urban Room’ as a hub for continuous communication about the change and regeneration process, a place for change leaders to meet

The aim is to provide a continuous spectrum of space and uses from one day pop up events through to 5 years, and from food and drink, through to flexible workspaces, with no more dividing lines of fixed tenancies and fixed use classes.

I’m inspired by the example of Roeselare, a small post-industrial town in Flanders in Belgium. They have energetic, passionate civic leaders and officers and crucially have built an effective coalition of opinion across businesses, their communities and the council, which has turned their high street around.

I’ll end by quoting Vanessa Dehullu, their council head of regen

Don’t expect miracles to occur within 12 months - you have to keep maintaining and refreshing your approach for years and years. If you have passion for your city, and you want to see it thriving, you can’t just sit on your hands and watch people leaving the town. You have to try things, whatever it is that works. Sometimes these things don’t work – know from me that doing nothing is not an option, because you will end up with a dead city centre.”

So what to do first?

As one of those who thinks social distancing won’t last forever, have a party! Kick start your high street 2020 with fun, a festival of managed, ‘curated’ transformation and find out why people like your place, what they want to see, and why they would want to come back.

Neil Bennett is lead partner at Farrells architect/planning practice for strategic infrastructure and urban design projects.

WhenThisIsAllOver is the London Society's debate about what the post-virus, post-lockdown world will and should look like. Contributions so far include:

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