The British high street had been struggling long before COVID-19, and its accelerated decline is well documented. However, with some town centres already in the process of regeneration, all is not necessarily lost. In fact, current vacancies and changes to town centres represent an opportunity to shake things up a bit and deliver a different type of town centre experience.
Filling our town centres with the ‘same old, same old’ will not solve the problem – but landlords and councils who are prepared to be a little disruptive, adding unexpected and random elements into a high street, may reap the benefits of experimentation. Adding an edge and creating a buzz can create a new type of destination, through independent pop- ups; artists studios; cultural workshops and experiences; live music and theatre, alongside traditional retail and hospitality offerings. Creating footfall, and therefore revenue, means giving people a reason to reacquaint themselves with visiting town centres out of curiosity, not just necessity.
Two examples stand out: Really Local’s projects, including Catford Mews, involve locals in creating cultural hubs, whereas Stockholm’s Kulturhuset makes innovative use of former grand department store, creating a multi-storey, open-to-all, centre for culture in the middle of the city.
Putting the ‘Punk’ into Planning
We face a challenge: to unleash creativity and encourage bravery, without risking the family silver. At the moment, the challenge is too polarised. Government wants to be seen to be doing things, and so wades in with heavy-handed measures like permitted development rights for Class E to residential; local authorities can easily be too precious, and too concerned not to upset local interests. It’s time for planning to step forward and rekindle the spirit of post-War reconstruction, but this time from a ‘punk’ perspective rather than a social utopia one.