As the 21st century has progressed, an assumption has gradually taken root that the traditional high street is doomed. Economic and social forces beyond the control of any single government or council are widely assumed to pushing 20th century concepts of retail towards obsolescence, undermining the basis of every urban centre in the UK. A report co-authored by Tom Bolton – The Past, Present and Futures of the High Street – draws together evidence that reveals a far more complex, and intriguing, picture.
The UCL Adaptable Suburbs research project concluded four years of research with a closing conference in the spring. As well as the Adaptable Suburbs project’s own work, looking at three outer London town centres, a series of international researchers lined up to present their own high street projects. No blog post will do justice to the full range of ideas, which are detailed in the report. However, a set of headlines themes were evident:
– High streets are very robust, and have survived through constant change. However, although many types of businesses have come and gone, Adaptable Suburbs found that the mix of uses in their case studies has remained very similar. Shops are only a part of the picture. A continuing mixture of retail, commercial, social and industrial uses is the key to their future.
– High streets thrive on movement. Movement creates activity, and activities develop on high streets because they are the best places for pedestrian and traffic access. If it loses its movement role within a town or city, a high street can wither and die.
– High streets are poorly understood and underappreciated. Often councils see high streets with a mix of uses as problematic places that need tidying up. In fact, they are likely to host valuable, productive small businesses, often hidden within urban blocks, behind retail facades, out of sight and out of mind.
– Many high streets are thriving, despite reports of their demise. However, particularly outside London, plenty are under threat and require investment and support to recover.
– High streets are worthy of investment and support, because they generate both economic and social value. Small business and local activities are discounted too often by politicians and policymakers. If the values created by the high street were measured and represented better, they could feature in decisions made by investors.
The future of high street is a hot topic, but the quality of debate has been poor. The body of research available through Adaptable Suburbs and presented in The Past, Present and Futures of the High Street has an important role to play by providing information on how real high streets actually work. It will also help people who use and value high streets to back up arguments about local value with evidence. Active, shared, genuinely mixed use streets have been a common element at the heart of our places throughout urban history. A future without the high street would be unprecedented.