With all the recent media interest in the decline of our high streets there maybe a danger of an over enthusiastic knee jerk reaction that unwittingly ‘throws out the baby with the bath water’.
Instead of a superficial rash of hanging flower baskets and jollied up shopfronts or the other extreme of wholesale demolition and re-structuring reminiscent of WW2 bombing raids or 1960’s highway improvements we surely need a more rational and measured urban design approach based on understanding the local context and its intrinsic qualities.
This will quickly identify the inherent strengths and locally distinctive attractions of our high streets and highlight practical measures to re-establish the essential qualities that we cherish and yearn for that will never be found in our competing out of town or edge of town retail parks.
Allowing us to park anywhere we like and for free may appease local retailers and politicians but what is the evidence that this will make us get out of our car and spend more time walking to fully appreciate the wider offer of our high street and town centres? In any case if we are in a hurry or do not want ‘reality’ retail we simply use the internet.
We have ready made successful retail exemplars all around us in the shape of our historic towns - all of which have adapted to radically changing trading patterns over many centuries and endure and survive today as no brainer destinations.
The Historic Towns Forum has been actively engaging with the BIS review and in collaboration with our partners and English Heritage have been leading the way in promoting our historic places as models of sustainable retail provision. In reality they are much the richer for being mixed use centres providing just the extended offer that retail developers are striving to replicate in their new schemes.
It could also be that by celebrating the many qualities of our present high streets and historic centres we can ensure that the present debate focuses back on the age old sales adage of meeting customer needs.
Through an urban design toolkit approach which my company +Plus Urban Design has recently developed - see our link below – we can ensure that our physical offer continues to maintain and generate the essential footfall fuel for retail to flourish.
We can at the same time ask of our retailers – national and independent alike – to improve their customer service offer from its present complacent low threshold.
Whilst no longer needing to rely on ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ – at the risk of being labelled a grumpy middle aged man - surely we can do much better than the present service ethos characterised by the ubiquitous and irritating ’Mate’ greeting …
Historic Towns Forum
Director @ +Plus Urban Design