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.