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Goodbye High Street, Hello Place-making

Posted 13/09/2017

by Patrick McNamara

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As I was wandering down Streatham High Street, locally believed to be the longest high street in Europe (an urban myth I’ll have you know), my mind was drawn to the challenges facing the modern day high street.

The problem has been simmering under the surface for many years, with smaller local high streets proving less and less popular. It would be easy to say that this is just the ‘Amazon’ effect, with prices being driven down and online shopping taking over. However, this is blatant misinformation and if you look at the figures on retail, physical shops are still king.

Of course, online shopping is increasing year on year, but the figures (an estimated 17% market share by 2035) do not support the crash that has been seen in some high streets throughout the country.

I think a more reasonable answer is that high streets simply aren’t responding to the changes in the market. At the core of the issue is that people don’t want goods in the way they used to. Instead, people want services and leisure, and by extension they want places. The success of these new public places relies on them being filled with public art, libraries, fountains, public squares and more – in essence, places where people can do more than simply shop.

I for one, think this is an opportunity not a disaster. Yes, the decline of the traditional high street may make me nostalgic, but the prospect of a change of attitude to our district centres is of fundamental appeal. This isn’t just about retail and restaurants, it’s the prospect of creating places from the ground up to connect people to places in a way that responds to their lifestyle – it’s a natural extension of the movement towards urban mixed use developments.

As far as retail is concerned I also think this is now becoming one of the most exciting sectors to work in as a built environment professional. By responding to the changing market, architects, planners and developers all have an opportunity to think creatively about how their next project makes a place, not just a row of shops. An ideal that previously would have been seen as commercially foolhardy, but now is essential.

Fundamentally, places need to be built with people in mind, not shops, and as a result the new and improved ‘high street’ may have a chance of revival.