Bricks and mortar retail has long been on the rocks. The general shift in consumer behaviour towards online shopping certainly pre-dated the Covid-19 pandemic, but now has been sharply accelerated by the experience of lockdown and continued social distancing measures.
Yet the pandemic has also promoted hyper-localism. Restricted for months on end to our local neighbourhoods, and with commuting a no go, smaller regional towns and villages are now seeing healthier footfall than many big cities. There’s been a huge newfound appreciation for the amenities and high streets closer to home. And we cannot afford to let this appreciation go to waste.
As the country grapples with how to build back from this crisis, there is a significant opportunity to re-think what we want from our towns. There are unloved, shuttered high streets and shopping centres all across the country crying out for regeneration, and some re-imagination too.
To do it successfully first requires a recognition that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. We’ve already seen that identikit high streets don’t thrive. Instead, it’s up to local authorities to engage with communities earlier on in the process to help them to shape bespoke plans for their area. The schemes I’ve worked on that have been most effective are often those where we’ve started our consultation with a completely blank slate – asking people what they’d like to see, what they’d use, what works and doesn’t work in their home town. Engaging with communities from the get-go helps not only to bring a bit of local colour and context to regeneration plans, but also builds trust in the process and means that those who are ultimately going to live, work and shop there are invested in the success of the scheme too.
Just as there’s no homogeneous silver bullet, there is no homogenous definition of a high street today now either. Town centres today need to fulfil many functions to attract visitors – it’s simply not enough to rely on a single anchor retailer or corporate occupier anymore.
Our high streets must serve multiple purposes – you need to think about what errands people need to run, where they can socialise and shop, what’s going to appeal to young kids and teenagers. Getting the right blend of shops, cafés and restaurants, amenities, activities and public spaces is central to creating high streets that people want to visit. Developers need to see this bigger picture and look beyond traditional measures for calculating return on floorspace – investments in destination public spaces can be a huge driver in footfall and ultimately determine local trade.
More than anything, local authorities need to take a tip from retailers and listen to their customers – the communities they serve. Proper analysis of long-term demographics including the age profile of the local population needs to inform how we plan and allocate floorspace within a town for the next 50 years or so. We need to be designing our high streets with the growing younger demographic in mind if they are to stay relevant and successful.
2020 may be the year that we were confined to our homes, but let’s also make it the year that we recognise how vital it is for local high streets and town centres to thrive.
Read more from Nicole in 'Talk of the Town' where we chat all things High Streets. Her favourite, immediate and future challenges, tips for success and her new role as a High Streets Task Force Expert.
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