Culture and community engaged to halt the decline of High Streets

18 March 2019 Dee Halligan

Everyone cares about their High Street, and everyone wants to have one (if not go there evidently). They want a thriving street that is full of colour and idiosyncrasy, an economic driver which benefits the diverse and rounded community which surrounds it (well trodden ground by Mary Portas among many others). This idea has less and less connection to the reality of our High Streets: in the UK decimated by 18 closures every day of 2018, before you get to what’s been termed the Retail Apocalypse in the US.

The emerging consensus is that future high street will be social, reinvigorated by community use. In the UK this is the conclusion of the Timpson report on Future High Streets (Dec 2018) as it pretty much was for the Portas Review in 2011. The difference between 2011 and 2018is only that the community should be active contributors and partners, rather than consultees.

In 2018 we were engaged to consider a high profile London street and spent 6 months immersed in possible futures.

And we fund that we don’t disagree with the gist; High Streets need to be rethought and social and community spaces must be at their heart. But what that looks like is not a life raft to buoy up suffering retailers. It’s radical change, and while no-one resists the idea that the existing model is broken, no-ones letting go easily of the existing systems and assets and most importantly the ideas of what a successful looking hight street looks like. Meanwhile a foggy idea of community is used variously as a can opener for funding, and as a stick to beat people with, but rarely with clarity or real responsibility.

We were briefed by an enlightened client with money, scale and a sense of responsibility, with whom we developed a series of thought experiments. The obvious we revealed, the scale of risk, the long term commitment needed, the necessity of unwieldy partnerships and deep relationships as well as significant public subsidy and cooperation knocked back their good intentions.

It’s blindingly obvious that we’re over retailed, and we will survive happily with a portion of the retail we have. And it’s also obvious that people generally yearn for connection to place, something the High Street has offered for generations (for anyone who wants to wax lyrical about Museums and Libraries as centres of social connection you need to look a bit more carefully at the roles of  pharmacies and Post Offices in creating community).