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29/07/2020

What's happening downtown?

Illustration by Zara Picken

I realise that I am prone to referencing song lyrics in my writing, writes Louise Brooke-Smith. Whether it’s embedding the words of St David of Bowie in speeches or hiding poignant Leonard Cohen prose in appeal statements, its generally for the fun of it – but sometimes it does have direct relevance.

I realise that I am prone to referencing song lyrics in my writing. Whether it’s embedding the words of St David of Bowie in speeches or hiding poignant Leonard Cohen prose in appeal statements, its generally for the fun of it – but sometimes it does have direct relevance.

Any Radio 4 listener will have their secret Desert Island Discs list ‘just in case you get the call’. And with that in mind, in addition to the obvious Bowie and Cohen I have one of Petula Clark’s hits, possibly her best:

“When you’re alone and life is making you lonely

You can always go

Downtown

Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city.

Linger on the sidewalk where the neon lights are pretty.

How can you lose,?

The lights are so much brighter there.

You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.

So go downtown...”

Of course, those words were penned during the Baby Boomer years as the Sixties were swinging. I’m sure the irony hasn’t passed you by, not only in terms of the pandemic lockdown and the recent perilous moves to get the UK back into shopping mode, but in the shadow of the demise of the high street.

At a time when some towns are waiting to hear whether they have been lucky in their respective bids to the government’s Future High Street Fund, it is interesting to reflect on whether ‘downtown’ the lights are still so bright. News of the demise of high street shopping, the fall of Intu and similar landlords, and the uncertainty over our modern-day places of worship such as the Trafford Centre, will not be a surprise to those who have written on the changing face of retail with the loss of so many household stalwarts.

It is likely that Covid-19 will mean that more names will be added to ‘I remember them’ list to elicit nostalgia at every lockdown quiz evening.

"Online, or should I say e-shopping, is e-fficient, e-xpedient but ee-by-gum very dull. Where’s the fun, the bright lights?"

We all know that in place of the old normal, and the rise of everything digital, a new form of high street and downtown are fast emerging. Think of it like a pop-up, chatbot version of Petula Clark. Online, or should I say e-shopping, is e-fficient, e-xpedient but ee-by-gum very dull. Where’s the fun, the bright lights?

Can the Future High Street Fund be used to bring back a little frivolity? There is the chance that in between being King Canute trying to stem the tide of high street decline, some local authorities will see the bigger, more realistic picture and approach the regeneration of high streets as community centres in the broadest of terms: places for fun, frivolity, music and activity for all of their respective communities.

Indeed, as Canute was King of England and Norway, some lessons could be learnt from our Scandinavian cousins and ‘coming soon to a high street near you’ we could be seeing well-designed green open spaces for people to congregate safely. We could be supporting daily markets selling locally made healthy stuff. Live music and performances could entertain us, whatever our age. Bring back the brass bands and mix them with beatboxers. And we would all be walking or cycling to these centres of hustle and bustle.

"We can dream of a utopia and if it can be done in the suburbs of Amsterdam, Oslo and Århus, why not in Skelmersdale, Smethwick or Oldham?"

I accept that this all sounds quaint and in reality we know that business rates will still have a part to play and pension funds will still need to generate capital or many of us will be left high and dry in our retirements. But we can dream of a utopia and if it can be done in the suburbs of Amsterdam, Oslo and Århus, why not in Skelmersdale, Smethwick or Oldham?

So, High Streets Task Force – take note of Petula, who I’m sure is still saying, even after emigrating to the land of good cheese and wine that she probably buys from her local farmers’ market – “Things will be great when you’re, downtown. No finer place for sure. Downtown, everything’s waiting for you..."

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a development and strategic planning consultant and a built environment non-executive director

Illustration l Zara Picken

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