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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.