Here's why High Streets should be less about shopping and more about socialising

Abandoned shops on London's Kilburn High Road, 2009. Image: Oli Scarff/Getty.

As internet shopping becomes simpler and face-to-face customer service gets replaced by online enquiries and instant messaging, we have to ask ourselves a tough question: “What is the future of the high street and what purpose does it really serve?”

At times like these, when we start to unpick and question the role that town centres play in our daily lives, we realise the high street is less about shopping and more about socialising. In bygone eras, the town centre used to be a market place, an "agora" for hubbub and gossip as well as trade, where information, news and conversation were top of the shopping list.

There will always be a demand for the convenience of local amenities right on your doorstep. But how these are accessed is constantly changing: late night supermarket deliveries, "click & collect" services, and online take away orders are all responding to customers with a more 24/7 lifestyle who want to shop from home. But if the high street’s primary role as a source of convenient retail is diminishing, that means its future is less determined and consumed by space for shops – or at least, shops as we know them today.

So what will occupy this space instead? More housing? More office space? More car parks? If the high street’s original purpose was to provide an area for trade and social gathering, then none of these options are fit for purpose. Where will the beating heart of our communities lie if high streets are flattened for prime real estate?

Over the last few years, as the empty shop crisis took hold of British high streets following the 2008 global economic meltdown, it seemed that the UK wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to its high streets after all; and even after a period of austerity the high street has been seen to make a remarkable comeback in 2014. The Portas Review, the Outer London Fund, The Mayor’s High Street Fund and numerous other programmes have been specifically set up to distribute funding to projects that look for alternative uses of empty retail space and for ideas that challenge existing conventions.  

Local authorities, architects and landscapers are all reimagining the British high street in different ways up and down the country. Some trends are taking hold – such as the prioritisation of green space, stylish street furniture and creative lighting design.

Not all changes will be universally welcomed. The simple introduction of flower boxes to a deprived area could be seen by some sceptics as a dangerous move towards gentrification, marking the start of an unstoppable snowball effect that ends with local pound shops being replaced by trendy frozen yoghurt outlets. Although this kind of regeneration may be welcomed by some, it’s not for everybody, and we have to ask ourselves if these kinds of designs are really responding to the needs and long-term interests of the existing resident community.

All regeneration comes at a price; change always requires some kind of loss. The greasy spoon cafe on the corner may be an eyesore upon first glance, but look more carefully and you may see that, for an elderly resident living in isolation, it’s actually the only refuge for social interaction that they have, and therefore a crucial local resource.


So if we return to this idea of the high street as a community hub, a place for residents to spend time with one another, then perhaps we need to rethink the current social norms of behavioural etiquette in these shared public spaces.

Some economists and retail experts argue that a high street with an active social scene – cafes, bars, restaurants, entertainment venues – is more valuable and attractive to retailers. Footfall is generally higher and "dwell time", the length of time a visitor spends in the area, is increased. Al of this adds to the general atmosphere, making it a "destination", rather than simply an area for passing through: ultimately, that exposes retailers' products and services to a captive audience for longer, which may in turn lead to sales in the future.

That's the theory – but what really counts as dwell time anyway? A group of 13-15 year olds hanging out in the front of the kebab shop is perhaps not the kind of dwell time some retailers are looking for. But their consumer habits could potentially lead to more direct sales to local businesses then a retired gentleman reading a paper on the high street bench, even if that is potentially considered more desirable.

In reality the experience of being on the high street is pretty crucial for its survival. It has to be a place where people actually want to spend time; ideally, if it’s ever going to have an identity of its own and fight off the clone town epidemic, these people will be drawn from the local community. Retailers who want a future on the high street need to be thinking in terms of the experience economy.

As for the rest of us, we need to re-imagine our social function for the high street and think beyond the borders of tried and tested town-planning designs. More parks, inventive architecture, tasteful street art are all good places to start.

But maybe we can go further. Maybe the high street can become a playground for new ideas, a location for interactive art installations, open air cinemas, public allotments, communal kitchens for shared neighbourhood meals. Can we go even further than that? Public forums for debating current affairs, free skill-sharing tutorials, people-powered energy sources stations – it has the promise and potential to be a seedbed for testing new forms of interaction between people and places. Can it become a place for leisure? For fun? For health? For education even?  The jury is still out – but anything is possible.

Lydia Fraser-Ward is the founder of the arts organisation Fantasy High Street, which works in disused retail spaces.

Fantasy High Street will present Carrier Crows at the Crystal Palace Overground Festival on 27 & 28 June 2015: a trail of messages delivered by digital birds that allows the public to unlock the magic of the festival using digital wristbands, supported by  Creativeworks London.

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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