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.

 
 
 
 

Air pollution in London is now so bad it’s affecting lung development

Cough, splutter. Image: Getty.

Air pollution is known to contribute to early deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular disease. There is also mounting evidence to show that breathing polluted air increases the risk of dementia. Children are vulnerable, too: exposure to air pollution has been associated with babies being born underweight, as well as poorer cognitive development and lung function during childhood.

Cities including London are looking to tackle the social, economic and environmental costs of air pollution by improving urban air quality using low emission zones. In these zones, the most polluting vehicles are restricted from entering, or drivers are penalised to encourage them to take up lower emission technologies. London’s low emission zone was rolled out in four stages from February 2008 to January 2012, affecting mainly heavy and light goods vehicles, such as delivery trucks and vans.

But our new research, involving more than 2,000 children in four of London’s inner-city boroughs, reveals that while these measures are beginning to improve air quality, they do not yet protect children from the harmful effects of air pollution. It is the most detailed assessment of how a low emission zone has performed to date.

Young lungs

Our study focused mainly on the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney, but also included primary schools in the City of London and Greenwich. All of these areas experienced high levels of air pollution from traffic, and exceeded the annual EU limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO₂). What’s more, they have a very young demographic and are among the UK’s most deprived areas.

Between 2008-9 and 2013-14, we measured changes to air pollution concentrations in London, while also conducting a detailed examination of children’s lung function and respiratory symptoms in these areas.

Every year for five years, we measured the lung function in separate groups of 400 children, aged eight to nine years old. We then considered these measurements alongside the children’s estimated exposure to air pollution, which took into account where they lived, and the periods they spent at home and at school.

Our findings confirmed that long-term exposure to urban air pollution is related to smaller lung volumes among children. The average exposure for all children over the five years of our study was 40.7 micrograms of NO₂ per cubic metre of air, which was equivalent to a reduction in lung volume of approximately 5 per cent.

Changes of this magnitude would not be of immediate clinical significance; the children would be unaware of them and they would not affect their daily lives. But our results show that children’s lungs are not developing as well as they could. This is important, because failure to attain optimal lung growth by adulthood often leads to poor health in later life.

Over the course of the study, we also observed some evidence of a reduction in rhinitis (a constant runny nose). But we found no reduction in asthma symptoms, nor in the proportion of children with underdeveloped lungs.


Air pollution falls

While the introduction of the low emission zone did relatively little to improve children’s respiratory health, we did find positive signs that it was beginning to reduce pollution. Using data from the London Air Quality Network – which monitors air pollution – we detected small reductions in concentrations of NO₂, although overall levels of the pollutant remained very high in the areas we looked at.

The maximum reduction in NO₂ concentrations we detected amounted to seven micrograms per cubic metre over the five years of our study, or roughly 1.4 micrograms per cubic metre each year. For context, the EU limit for NO₂ concentrations is 40 micrograms per cubic metre. Background levels of NO₂ for inner city London, where our study was located, decreased from 50 micrograms to 45 micrograms per cubic metre, over five years. NO₂ concentrations by the roadside experienced a greater reduction, from 75 micrograms to 68 micrograms per cubic metre, over the course of our study.

By the end of our study in 2013-14, large areas of central London still weren’t compliant with EU air quality standards – and won’t be for some time at this rate of change.

We didn’t detect significant reductions in the level of particulate matter over the course of our study. But this could be because a much larger proportion of particulate matter pollution comes from tyre and brake wear, rather than tail pipe emissions, as well as other sources, so small changes due to the low emission zone would have been hard to quantify.

The route forward

Evidence from elsewhere shows that improving air quality can help ensure children’s lungs develop normally. In California, the long-running Children’s Health Study found that driving down pollution does reduce the proportion of children with clinically small lungs – though it’s pertinent to note that NO₂ concentrations in their study in the mid-1990s were already lower than those in London today.

Our findings should encourage local and national governments to take more ambitious actions to improve air quality, and ultimately public health. The ultra-low emission zone, which will be introduced in central London on 8 April 2019, seems a positive move towards this end.

The scheme, which will be expanded to the boundaries set by the North and South circular roads in October 2021, targets most vehicles in London – not just a small fraction of the fleet. The low emission zone seems to be the right treatment – now it’s time to increase the dose.

The Conversation

Ian Mudway, Lecturer in Respiratory Toxicology, King's College London and Chris Griffiths, Professor of Primary Care, Queen Mary University of London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.