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Looking back to move forward

Crumbling High Street CREDIT Neil Webb

How is the high street to survive in the age of online shopping? Perhaps the future of our town centres can be secured with a return to past principles, says Louise Brooke-Smith.

Are we any good at learning from the past or, in this digital age, is that sacrilegious? With the pressure on us all to be ‘born again’ millennials, or to ‘get down with the kids’, recreating the Ladybird Book of Village Life seems to be deeply frowned upon.

However, when we actually think about it, community spirit and camaraderie is actually at the heart of how we want to live – unless you value the hermit’s existence or the life of a devout nun. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for ‘living and let living’ and if that’s your calling, then it’s fine with me. But most of us like a bit of interaction with fellow humans, the ability to meet, share a meal, listen to some music or generally have the opportunity to congregate.

The perfect storm that is online shopping meeting autonomous transport and flexible working allows many people to log on and clock up their working hours wherever and whenever they desire. Our high streets simply don’t need to be repetitive clones of each other, across the country. Indeed, given the demise of so many traders, nowadays they couldn’t, even if they wanted to.

Gone is the standard line-up of clothes retailers, department stores and electrical shops. How many of us can remember walking down a high street and passing Woolworths, BHS, Poundworld and then turning the corner to find Maplins, Banana Republic and Austin Reed, before heading back to the car park via Athena, Blockbuster and Tie Rack? Or making a special trip to Barratts and Freeman Hardy & Willis to buy the kids’ school shoes and of course C&A for those ‘coats and ’ats’?

Primark may have taken the place of the latter and indeed is bucking the trend as it is about to open its biggest global store in Birmingham. But for the likes of Rumbelows, Tandy and Dixons, the only alternative is a Google search, the indulgence of a PIN number and, hey presto, you have your new electronic gadget or super deluxe low-energy white goods in your arms within hours.

“The digital age has brought us back to the first millennium – but without the smallpox or black death”

Will other household names join this list of the great but fallen? Of course they will. But what of the gaps they leave behind? Charity shops and pop-up art studios now embellish the raft of food and drink establishments that are clinging on in the age of vegan, low-carb, low-fat menus.

But is this enough? Should we be thinking more along the lines of what else those high streets could offer as opposed to simply filling the holes with short-term players?

While the very nature of how we all work, live and play has changed in terms of how we use digital systems, there remains a fundamental need for most of us to have some form of interaction, be it social, nutritional, political or, heaven forbid – face-to-face conversation.

The ability to congregate for a meal or drink, to play games, to talk or be entertained will still be important.

The good news is the speed at which some local planning authorities are rising to this challenge. Planners are adept at recognising how our town centres should be flexible places and spaces for this brave new world of interaction, rather than pure service and retail activity.

So we are seeing some fabulous initiatives for new living accommodation, mixed-use centres, community space, festivals and celebrations, and market spaces unencumbered by brand names or retail chains but simply places where people can bring their goods to sell to the community.

Hold on, that sounds rather like a medieval enactment. Perhaps that’s the answer. We’ve come full circle and the digital age has brought us back to the first millennium – but without the smallpox or Black Death.

Perhaps looking back at what has historically made a good centre work for its community, but having a digital twist, isn’t such a bad idea after all. Who will join me in some May Day celebrations in the form of a ceilidh along the high street?  

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a partner at Arcadis LLP and UK Head of Development and Strategy Planning


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