Editor: Debenhams’ drawn-out demise is just the latest reminder that the UK’s retail sector in its current guise is no longer sustainable. An ever-increasing number of empty commercial spaces across Britain’s high streets and retail parks is the result.
While this could be labelled a crisis, it actually represents an opportunity for the UK to revitalise and redesign empty retail spaces in imaginative ways that will benefit community and commerce alike.
The UK would not be a pioneer in taking this approach. Empty retail space is not a UK-only phenomenon. Solutions have sprung up around the world, with North America in particular providing some valuable lessons we should draw upon.
There has been a huge empty big-box retail issue in North America for the last decade. In response to this, a new trend is emerging to use empty commercial space for community projects, alongside other types of repurposing.
Some of the world’s largest firms are finding opportunity in empty retail space. For example, Google recently signed a 14-year lease to redevelop 548,000 sq ft of the Westside Pavilion shopping mall in west Los Angeles into a campus.
There is ample space in the UK to pursue similar schemes. Since 2018, the equivalent of at least 250 football pitches of UK retail space has become vacant as retail chain after retail chain has gone bust or slid into administration.
Big-box out-of-town retail space, like some of the old Toys R Us stores, could be revamped and reimagined as community centres, pop-up markets, leisure facilities and maybe even Google campuses like in central Los Angeles.
Activating and repurposing these spaces would have a range of positive knock-on effects for other parts of retail parks, as well as the surrounding locations, by increasing footfall, providing employment opportunities and keeping the destinations vibrant and exciting, rather than letting them become forgotten.
North America is leading the way when it comes to creative uses of empty commercial space and we should be looking to follow suit here in the UK.
Steven Charlton, managing director, London office, Perkins+Will