The UK is filled with empty shops. Why not fill them with culture?

Boarded up shops in Dover. Image: Getty.

First it was Poundland. Next, House of Fraser. And then, Marks & Spencer.

In Aldershot, for example, the devastation of the local Marks & Spencer closing led to other traders losing 30 per cent of their income. In other towns, such as Cannock, Peterborough or Rugby, issues with high streets are nothing new. Shops on high streets remain shuttered, with betting shops and charity outlets filling in gaps. In total over, 6,000 shops closed in 2016, a rate of 13 per day. These figures, produced by Kantar, do not include independent shops.

These wounds are not being healed by the success of out-of-town retail parks. Yes, some, such as Elliott’s Field in Rugby, are thriving – but many others are not. Research has actually shown an increase in hair salons and cafes on high streets, especially in London. Nonetheless, many landowners are now either subsidising retailers to stay open – for example, subsidising big brands to remain in large ground floor units – or replacing them with ‘experiential’ uses.

Music, arts and culture have faced similar crisis. We are still reeling from a decade of closures of music venues, artist workspaces and rehearsal studios across the country. In London, it is widely noted that 35 per cent of grassroots music venues have closed since 2007, although this number has stabilised since 2015. For nightclubs and artist workspaces, the number is closer to 50 per cent.

This is being replicated across the country, with similar percentages noted in Manchester, Edinburgh and Leeds. Just this week another storied venue, the Milton Keynes Stables, was threatened by a residential development.

So at the same time as a crisis is hitting shopping streets and retail parks, our venues are suffering, each victims of so-called regeneration and development.

I believe these trends are not a crisis, but present an opportunity for landowners and developers across the country. To make use of it, though, we must change the way we view and subsequently, value real estate. Without sacrificing a return, I believe this is possible. And it comes through focusing on people, not assets. We’re seeing a change to experiential and people focused working environments, like the much lauded 22 Bishopsgate project. It’s time to look at this as the solution to improving our high streets, too. And the best way to change this narrative, enliven our town centres and ensure that land retains an investor-friendly yield is through using, incorporating and leading with music and culture.

First, equip all ground floor units – those that are empty – to convert themselves into venues and community centres. This requires some investment - cleaning, repurposing, security, health and safety – but done inexpensively, can be bolted into covenant or through a service charge.

Once available, use local networks to advertise that they are available to be used. Advertise the rates, prioritising longer leases on more favourable terms for longstanding organisations or businesses, or offer peppercorn rent in exchange for the operator investing in outfitting. Or, like at Tileyard, go into business with the creators, where the developer and in that case, music community, developed the site in partnership. Put the onus on creators – and their products, services and offerings – to animate the space. Look at Peckham Levels as an example: a car-park turned youth and community hub, full of art, music and F&B.

And to back up this assertion, what if we developed more social and economic impact monitors to measure the viability and success of such a venue? What if global valuations and market flows looked more into the social impact models being led by organisations like Real Worth, or Triodos Bank?

And what if an asset, like this ground floor unit, was backed up by a 15 year viability plan, rather than one lasting just three or five? What if business rates were linked to community benefit, and calculated to incorporate culture and enlivenment in a more nuanced manner? If we were able to value culture through our business rates system, and provide some sort of discount linked to community benefit, it would encourage entrepreneurialism and ensure councils received rates.

How much money would the NHS save if an empty ground floor unit created social opportunities for older community members? And with all the empty spaces available, if each has programs aimed at improving health and wellbeing and combating loneliness, would this, over time, loosen the strain on our hospitals and social care providers? In Pinner, West London, a cafe is trialling a scheme where customers choose to sit at a particular table and, by doing so, open themselves up to conversations from strangers. This is just one table in one café in one unit.

I know this isn’t possible in some scenarios – but changing how we view our ground floor units will improve our towns and cities. Not only could we fill empty units with culture: that culture would earn income for those creating it, and raise the value of the land it sits own. If successful, it will capture value across its community.

Regardless of what we do, we are stuck with thousands of empty shops. Let’s use these spaces to fill all our towns with artists. Watch them improve.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.