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.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.