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31/05/2021

Bring back the agora! A new methodology for the future high street

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The modern high street can learn from the birthplace of retail - the agora of ancient Greece, argues Adam scott

“The high street needs to go back to the birthplace of retail: the agora in Ancient Greece.” – Ross Bailey, retail entrepreneur, Appear Here.

Covid-19 has laid bare inherent fault lines in the disjointed and unevolved high street and town centre: streets based entirely on age-old sales models resulting in streets full of age-old middle-market big-box chains; landlords and tenants with little or no long-term social investment in place and community; offline retail competing on online retail’s terms, birthing a race to a bottom called empty and vacant.

We need a set of mechanisms designed to move us from a shareholder to a stakeholder model for the high street. First, ensure that the regeneration of any high street is framed by a vision that is flexible, commercially astute and socially useful, whereby teams are representative of all stakeholders, work with the community to investigate, design, activate and manage the project, and are contractually invested in its long-term success.

“Covid-19 is... an opportunity to return to the marketplace of old”

This means empowering local authorities to act on behalf of all. It’s ensuring a much richer mix of leaseholds designed to both fill vacancies in the short term and encourage a richer mix of tenants and experiential retail types in the long term. It means an old-new type of owner – one that genuinely operates a triple-bottom-line approach, and so understands that being socially useful is one and the same as being commercially astute. It’s a model that makes for a different calibre of landlord – present, creative, enabling.

As Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council’s epic journey demonstrates, anyone in the business of reinventing the high street faces an uphill struggle. But the alternative is returning to what we’ve had. In this respect, Covid-19 is a gift. It is a worst-case scenario made real.

It’s what many a British high street has been facing for 20 years. As such, it’s an opportunity to return to the marketplace of old, to the sensibility of the market trader, to a place of experience, of culture and of commerce. It’s the loss, says CBRE’s Nigel Costain, of the squeezed middle, and the resulting flight to, at one end, the rare, the niche and the pop-up, and at the other, the familiarly local.

It’s the vision and the everyday follow through, as stewarded by the local authority – planning, licensing and regeneration policies aligned. It’s understanding that retail and hospitality form the liveness of our public spaces. Bring back the agora! 

Adam Scott is global creative director and founder of FreeState

Image credit | Shutterstock

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