While these figures denoting 15.4m sq ft of extra space contribute to conversations on the death of the high street, there are fundamental transformations that can be undertaken to improve struggling retail destinations. However, rather than attempting to ‘save’ the high street, we must focus on the best new uses for these areas.
There are many ways these empty spaces can be creatively reimagined to become places that benefit both the local community and the broader economy. Swathes of vacant retail space can damage local employment and economies, and, with central meeting spots in jeopardy, they can disrupt local communities.
Repurposing high streets to become living, leisure and work spaces can turbo-charge economies while providing enhanced space for communities to convene.
No significant change to UK legislation need be undertaken to do this, as it is entirely possible to re-employ these spaces within existing policy frameworks. The government’s flexible planning policy enables the growth of local towns using non-retail development.
We’re not saying permitted development rights – retail to residential – is the way forward, but redeveloping sites into residential areas with complementary uses at the ground level that retain active frontages is vital. Architects and developers must work together with local councils to deliver spaces that possess both social and economic value.
Assael Architecture has several examples of residential projects that reimagine redundant retail locations to create vibrant and connected communities.
In October, Assael won planning permission for Fife Road. This retail-to-resi development will transform a former PC World and Sports Direct stores into Kingston-upon-Thames’ first co-living development. The scheme will contain a ‘field-to-fork” restaurant and include public realm enhancements that include resurfacing the adjacent pavements, tree planting and new cycle storage.
Such initiatives can inject new energy into town centres. Fife Road is a leading example of what forward-thinking councils can do to provide an alternative to the traditional high street.
Tim Chapman-Cavanagh, director, Assael Architecture