At a time when retail sales volume is declining on the high street, and shop closures and job losses are making the headlines, internet sales are still growing – we are still buying stuff, still consuming – stay calm and keep shopping.
But our high streets and town centres are no longer seen as the only places to go for shops. Limited car parking, and high rental levels are most commonly cited, but poor quality public realm and built environment have played their part in the sustained decline of the high street.
Our high streets have grown as Meccas of retailing when towns and cities flourished and growing your own veg, baking your own bread and making candlesticks became a chore rather than a necessity. There are more streets with this name than any other in the UK by far. In London you are never more than a few hundred metres from a high street.
Many high streets have been in decline for years. It is difficult to assess whether the chains and clone towns have caused the erosion of the public life of high streets and town centres or merely contributed to its decline, but attractive and well maintained public realm and buildings is an important component of success.
However, while internet purchase and home delivery increases then so too does the inconvenience of not being home when they deliver. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the high street. Ocado, the company famous for delivering Waitrose food within the M25 area, recently had a pop up shop or rather a shop window, at One New Change on Cheapside, the City of London’s High Street. Using an app, what else, customers could scan pictures of food and add to their shopping basket for delivery to home. This internet company wants a high street presence. Amazon too has announced that it wants to have collection points for goods rather than the lottery of delivery times. Could the town centre or high street be the place for this?
Perhaps the high street ought to make more of its role in providing services and not goods. What we might also want from our connection of place is a connection to people. A significant number of people in Starbucks on my local high street appear to be working, either as students or employees, self or otherwise. These lone workers seek out human contact and interaction not just coffee.
Undoubtedly, residential is a key use in most places. Living on the high street might still be seen as an inconvenience but in our crowded Isle we have to consider it. The types of properties are often open to being altered, giving a blank canvas; but empty shops could easily become places of live and work. Why not set up an office downstairs from where you live?
There will always be a part for retail, particularly in places with strong local economies and service provision can’t hope to match the rental levels of successful retail, but perhaps some landlords won’t have a choice.
New inventive uses and entrepreneurial endeavour might be encouraged. An example is The Hub in Kings Cross, a working community where you hire space and facilities as you need them, you get a PO Box address and the benefit of forging networks with people that might otherwise be hard to do. If more of us are working locally then we will need support for business in terms of IT but also meeting spaces and printing facilities.
Delivering social infrastructure, health and beauty could also be the next big thing. Education and training might be a big winner, with schools and colleges looking for new premises as their existing buildings crumble. Large vacant office or vacant Victorian buildings could be schools. How about hotels occupying now redundant Town Halls? However, these are unlikely to give rise to high rents but could be long term uses and so we need a change in expectation too.
We may need local authority property managers to demand best value, not just highest price, and to think holistically about the mix of retail, services and residential that makes a place successful. We may need to brand the high street to be as familiar and of consistent quality as the mall, company or a hotel chain. We may have to find new ways of rating property on the high street and encouraging new uses of vacant units rather than seeing them empty or turned over to high turnover, short lived uses.
We have to be smarter about allowing rapid change of use. Town centres and high streets should be able to be mix and match uses, so long as building regulations can be satisfied what does it matter a high street building changes from retail to office, residential or cafe? We need different development logic, that includes those with a stake in the area and not focus solely on retail growth. Whitechapel will remain the hub for community life: working, sharing, exchanging and playing. Whitechapel has great flexibility and adaptability and an important mix of retail, health and culture so should fare well in the future but it needs to be cared for and its community to forge a place with a unique identity.
A collaboration with Steve Smith, Urban Narrative