Highs and Lows

How can the British High Street be Saved?

Article image

It is undeniable that the UK suffers a crisis of the ‘toothless high street’, as Trevor Phillips, President of the retail giant John Lewis Partnership recently described it, referring to local shopping hubs that have lost their bite. The power of the high street – once a major centre of gravity supporting public life and interaction – has been permanently unseated by ecommerce with its rapid increase in online sales.

Whatever urban identity the ailing high street once represented has shrunk dramatically, with 2017 seeing an average of 16 shops in UK town and city centres close every day. This is also a crisis of imbalance, because, for every metropolitan mecca like Westfield Stratford shopping centre – the largest in Europe – currently adding at least 50 new shops to its east London so-called ‘lifestyle destination’, are hundreds of drab and denuded high streets across the country. If anything here is significantly growing in numbers it is the food banks, underlining the vulnerable instability of contemporary civic life.

The latest retail surveys show that hairdressers, gyms, nail bars, cafes and tearooms and pizzerias are also increasing in the UK, because they are purveyors of precisely the kinds of services and goods that cannot be supplied via the internet. Chain store outlets, pubs, banks, travel agents, post offices and newsagents are rapidly on the way out. Six years ago Justin King, Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s supermarkets, was one of the first retailers to suggest that empty shops could be converted into classrooms or homes, but since then only a few new homes have been part of the trend for change of use, including the conversion of pubs into luxury flats. This may provide additional housing units to a civic centre at a time when there is a housing crisis, but they often merely operate as second homes (especially in seaside and country towns) or as ‘Buy to Let’ properties, with owners living remotely.

The life of the high street remains driven by people sustaining high levels of interest. It will only possess the meaningful civic identity everyone needs by creating experiences people cannot get online. One way of doing that is through socially geared pilot projects, which try to incubate a new spirit of secular cohesion, and, at a time when austerity is far from over, which open up opportunities for interaction that sheer commercialism alone cannot muster.

An emerging practice for a number of architects has been to pursue strategies to maximise the social value and power of the high street.

Architect Holly Lewis, co-founder of We Made That, is the author of High Street Stories, a publication commissioned by Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, which makes a strong case, supported by evidence, for the UK’s high streets to be championed as places of social, civic and cultural infrastructure. Get every aspect of this right, and then the UK’s high street can fully reflect and support renewed social value for all residents of and visitors to neighbourhood civic centres through enlightened processes of project development, delivery and evaluation.

This means promoting high streets as vital places of employment and citizen-led regeneration initiatives, which is where the ‘meanwhile’ (temporary) use movement comes in. Meanwhile Space, a social enterprise set up in 2009, has a mission to access empty and underused space to convert it into low cost flexible space for mixed use, creating new kinds of urban destinations that change the character, and hopefully the economic prospects, of a local neighbourhood, as the ‘meanwhile’ use kickstarts something more permanent.

High street and new urban uses
Central Parade in Walthamstow, London, a mixed-use space by Gort Scott architects. © Dirk Lindner

‘Meanwhile’ use is a highly significant strategy to help the creative industries, a sector of London’s civic life whose viability that has been in jeopardy during the years of austerity. Many creative business owners have had to look at moving out of the city in order to find affordable premises when they should be operating at the heart of the local neighbourhood to be of maximum value. Meanwhile Space has been the force behind the Central Parade centre in Walthamstow, in the north east of London, opened in 2016 with the backing of the local council, Waltham Forest and the GLA. It is the borough’s first mixed use creative space, a conversion by architects Gort Scott of an entire traditional shopping street into a multidisciplinary hub for creatives and entrepreneurs at its ground floor and basement levels.

Central parade, a local business and council house on a high street
Central Parade mixes local business and council housing. © Dirk Lindner

Rather than a typical inward-looking mall or exclusive centre, Central Parade has plenty of opportunities for the wider public locally to engage through Central Parade’s programme of workshops and reasonably priced retail outlets. Central Parade is a Grade II listed street designed and built by the local authority in 1958, with a distinctive wavy canopy with mosaics and patterned tiles on its façade. Gort Scott’s conversion maintains its iconic presence as well as its function as a council block housing around 40 residents on the second and third floors, above the group of fledgling businesses growing on the doorsteps of local residents.

Sinergy House, a hub of small business on a high street
Synergy House in Holborn, London. Alamy stock photo

There are other treatments for the landscape of the street anyone travelling by bus can enjoy: visible symbols of change such as the first living wall in London on an entire front elevation of Synergy House, a building opposite my office in Holborn, for example, that is a new start up hub for small businesses. The well-maintained living wall reflects more relaxed planning attitudes (to façade treatments in a conservation area) by the local authority (Camden), recognising the value of a more distinctive high street identity that is emerging.

Most residents of neighbourhoods wouldn’t want any development on or around their local high street to be barred if it seems that it will enhance the street’s ability to fulfil both its economic and social functions locally. But for this to be possible without just letting narrow commercial forces lead, the case for an enlarged vision of the high street, actively intertwined with the entire quality of life of the wider neighbourhood, has to be used when planning cases are considered. Lewis’s report creates that vital tool for change. And by also giving support to collaborative ventures, it empowers independent businesses, entrepreneurs and social enterprises to join forces across sectors and to make pilots and other new initiatives to create something of greater value – and with more teeth – for urban places.

Main Image: The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland. One of the UK’s most famous ‘High Streets.’ Alamy stock photo