Our high streets need more curation, not less says Lucy Bullivant
From the 2020 edition of the Journal of The London Society - complete contents and details on how to get your copy can be found here.
At the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the identity of the UK’s town centres is already reeling from a loss of character due to a mix of changing retail habits, challenges in trading, and austerity policies. Will this improve under a further deregulation of the planning system?
To expand the social impact of town-centre neighbourhood planning we have to forge bespoke strategies that explicitly enable social value, and push back on deregulation. If we don't, their character will be diluted leaving an imbalance between excessive residential development and inadequate levels of complementary community uses. There will be reduced social interaction at street level and limited diversity of expression. Hello glum, isolated dormitoryville.
Progressive policy shaping has to lead, through dedicated, ingenious people; local authority officers, leaders and councillors and third-sector agency town centre specialists such as Enfield's small-business champions Love Your Doorstep, all committed to encouraging a much higher level of localist collaboration across all sectors.
Take back ownership
Firstly, who owns the high street’s physical assets? A good plan is to allow local authorities to buy up or issue Compulsory Purchase Orders for vacant properties. At the same time they must devise a strategy for influencing the mix of uses of their assets, based on strong input from local residents. Many local authority officers today feel that high-street shopping centres should be in council ownership where a very long-term view can be taken of the neighbourhood's future. Authorities could extend this civic activism towards town-centre developments, by providing business loans, for example.
Businesses operating from town centres would also benefit from a review of their rates, perhaps paying them into an ‘evergreen’ fund held by the local authority for reinvestment in the town centre. These approaches are also advocated by a number of officers; one that I've spoken to recently feels an evergreen fund would be ‘a lot easier than creating a Business Improvement District. [It] would allow local authority town centre management without using a BID levy, as this may be seen as an inadvertent additional tax.'
In some urban areas, a full-blown effort to build partnerships is needed to avoid being overshadowed by nearby centres already on the upsurge (there are some!). Interacting in dynamic networks and by signing up to support social value, the third sector and community groups, developers can encourage everyone’s ideas for kickstarting renaissance.
Interest is growing in having more independent, artisan traders on the high street rather than yet more chains, shaping a town centre vision based around local entrepreneurial talent, goods and services, and bespoke local jobs. Most of us would readily say goodbye to sterile, clone high streets.
However, some retail specialists are sceptical about the idea of whole town centres full of artisanal entrepreneurs – and they have a point. The new vision has to be sustainable. A town centre’s character benefits by being curated, so that its key features are drawn out, very often through a dynamic approach to heritage and culture. For example Stevenage, the UK's first new town (1946) is currently restoring its 1960s heritage assets and introducing mixed use. In Wolverhampton, where the main high street needs plenty of TLC, the policy is to balance traditional and contemporary industrial activities.
In London, in the St James Quarter regeneration area of Walthamstow, the local authority has partnered with Crate UK on a new two-storey high street centre on a former car park, comprising 28 small businesses in micro-offices, bars, and eateries, with a regular, curated live music and events programme. Crate St James, a carefully placed assemblage of black shipping containers with big roller-shuttered windows, is already activating the town centre by building community spirit and setting up programmes that will benefit both the council and neighbouring housing developers. One local community group has already been motivated to create large-scale street art on neighbouring side walls.
A pilot project marked by a strong sense of conviction about the value of layering local activities and audiences, Crate can also benefit the regenerating street market [see also our post on Walthamstow Market] by introducing new traders and canopy structures to the area, reinforcing the idea of Walthamstow as a place for food and entertainment. It’s contribution to place saw it named ‘Best Meanwhile Use’ last year by The Developer magazine.
Fostering town centre living – through homes with street frontages and animating centres such as Crate – is not a bad thing, and can be an excellent way of rethinking the sense of place of a high street. It can kickstart the arrival of more GP practices, for example, and a wider range of businesses.
Retrofitting stretches of high streets to turn their motley mix of tired fabric and totally defunct spaces into productive, intimate places that are fit for purpose and engaging to visit has to be a journey free of top-down, cookie cutter homogeneity. Let’s be street smart and set civic streets free with creative ideas by working far more collaboratively to release their full potential for social value.
Lucy Bullivant is a place strategist, curator, award-winning author of books on architecture and planning, and the founder of Urbanista.org webzine for liveable urbanism