Debenhams has joined the ever-growing list of retailers that have fallen prey to the long, slow death of Britain’s high streets.
The traditional British high street is in danger of losing its place at the heart of our towns and cities. But purpose-led, intelligent design can create a positive reimagination of these places. Design that intelligently utilises available space can bring social value to towns, encourage interaction and offer commercial and community investment opportunities.
We are seeing this process happening through a number of initiatives. Central Parade in Walthamstow is a great example of a disused building that has been given a new lease of life. Funded by the local council and Greater London Authority’s High Street Fund, the project, which supports arts and creative exhibitions, has opened up space for businesses to collaborate, share resources and co-locate.
One would hope that the increase of unused sites is not to be the death of the town centre, but rather the birth of new opportunities.
When we think about high streets, we mainly think about the buildings, ignoring the importance of the spaces in between them that play a vital role in animating the streetscape. Benches, trees and well-lit public realm contribute to the overall enjoyment of a space, which will make a difference to footfall.
Community-led initiatives also have an important role to play. Where I live in West Norwood, monthly community-run market the Feast has transformed the high street. It is set in different zones spread along the street and although it hasn’t physically changed the streetscape, it has been a catalyst for change.
We need to aspire to intensify and diversify the UK’s high streets, going far beyond simply converting empty retail spaces to homes. Imaginative intensification of town centres means creating opportunities for new spaces and ventures that can be complemented by residential projects. Whether it is using an infill site, or unlocking the air rights above a building, the onus for residential development is bringing people back to the high street.
Diversification is important – the strength of a high street is found in the variety of people who congregate there. By developing a variety of tenure types, from build-to-rent to later living, you can create self-sustaining communities.
By developing a variety of tenure types, you create self-sustaining communities
For all the troubles high streets are enduring, they still have a lot to offer. As central locations, surrounded by public amenities, retail diversity, places to work and go out, good quality public spaces, transport links, social infrastructure and community involvement, they are also ideal places to live.
What’s more, they are an opportunity to bring people of all ages and backgrounds together to foster vibrant communities.
Harnessing architectural design and urban planning can bring life back to town centres through new forms of development and social entrepreneurship that are both community-led and commercially savvy.
The traditional high street might be dying, but community can bring it back to life.
Félicie Krikler is director of Assael Architecture