The revitalisation of high streets

24 05 2011

By Harvé Dhillon

I am not quite sure whether it’s my own frustration towards British high streets or the news article I read about the revitalisation of high streets that inspired me to write this. It’s no doubt that we have all realised or felt that the British high street seems to be homogenised, with the same shops, similar characteristics and uninteresting streetscape. It’s not that every high street needs to provide a completely niche shopping experience, neither does the urban designer need to be pressurised in order to create a completely different public realm in every city centre. The lack of identity and experience to the city dweller is experienced when nearly every high street in the country feels its necessary to have similar materials, street furniture and retail outlets.

The benefits of good urban design of high streets are not just an aesthetic issue but can actually positively contribute to the economic benefits of high street retail. It may seem like something that is taken for granted but more than often the design of the high street does not need major regeneration schemes but rather small interventions.

The urban transformation of Kensington High Street in Central London has proven an effortless yet effective approach to the revitalisation of the high street. The reduction of street clutter by mounting traffic signals and signage on lamp columns and removal of guardrails and bollards had meant that the area provides a more attractive environment for pedestrians. In addition the removal of staggered crossings and the removal of traffic islands created the space improve the quality of the streetscape.

Read more about high street urban design and the revitalisation of high streets on http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2011/05/23/how-good-design-can-revitalise-high-street-retail-91466-28742533/ and also the Urban Design Compendium provides guidance about the success of Kensington High Street on http://www.urbandesigncompendium.co.uk/kensingtonhighstreet?ThumbnailID=2#largeimagesection.

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3 responses

26 05 2011
sarahmuscat86

Mary Portas has been recently appointed by the Government to review the future of British High Streets. I was quite curious to learn more about her approach so I did some more research. I thought that her attention to customer choices and tastes is very important, but I wondered if the method she adopts in her TV series Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ is in line with what economists recommend.
A look at the Retail Week’s ‘Manifesto for the High street’ positioned typical Mary Portas methods such as the creation of an identity and working with indies at the lower end of the rank. Contrastingly, provision of free town centre parking for shoppers, taking retail crime seriously and the better management of infrastructure works were ranked within the top 5 priorities.
This reinstates the importance of good urban design schemes and the crucial role these have in solving local economic development issues.

2 06 2011
Lizzie Bird

Was thinking about this and whether actually the recession has diversified many high streets for the better?! With many British high streets are struggling to survive at the moment in light of the economic downturn, with a lack of demand for retail units on high streets that is leading to increasing numbers of vacant units in town and city centres. These centres are then at risk of failing into a spiral of economic and physical decline. Government is concerned with BIS’ the appointment of Mary Portas is a definate sign!

However all does not appear to be lost. The Meanwhile Project (http://www.meanwhile.org.uk) is having great success helping local communities establish vibrant interim uses for existing vacant shops and the wider town centre see their report ‘No Time to Waste… The Meanwhile Use of Assets for Community Benefit’ http://www.meanwhile.org.uk/useful-info/misc/Meanwhile_Project_16pp_sml.pdf. The Meanwhile Project takes it philosophy for temporary use from Lewis Carol’s famous children’s book Alice Through the Looking Glass, “Curtsey while you’re thinking what to say, it saves time”. Examples of successful projects include:

– Cambridge Changing Spaces see http://changing-spaces.org/
– Bradford FABRIC see http://www.creativebradford.co.uk/
– Margate Windows of Opportunity see: http://www.thisismargate.co.uk/read_all_about_it/news/windows_of_opportunity.aspx

2 06 2011
sgibson72

I think a major issue that contributes towards the homogeneity of high streets is the belief that multiple retailer representation is linked to the performance of town centres. People used to think that a town centre wasn’t performing well if it didn’t have a Woolies (Woolworths I mean), but that has all changed now – I suppose Wilkinson’s is the new Woolworths which seem to be everywhere now.

The point here is that many people judge town centres on whether it has a H&M, MacDonalds, Boots and so on. Hence it’s not surprising that the ‘clone town’ thesis was born. Yet I have read a paper that counters that claim with the argument that town centres can be distinctive, even with multiple retailers simply because the buildings that they are housed in have distinctive architecture. Grainger town has its own unique feel, even though multiples predominate in parts. Thankfully, a growing interest in niche retailing is giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to open individual specialist shops, and people are now beginning to judge places by their bespoke offer. Although the reality it seems is that multiples are needed to get the footfall that can support these specialist offers.

In terms of streetscape, Kensington is a good example of how to declutterise a high street and introduce better quality and co-ordinated furniture and paving. Many of these materials come from nationally recognised suppliers (e.g. Marshalls), so there is a risk that Kensington, as inspiring as it is could be copied across many town centres.

The issue of homogeneity in town centres was also the focus of an Journal Article by Ali Madanipour and Tim Townshend who reached an interesting conclusion that even if aspects of towns and cities are becoming similar, local distinctiveness and diversity thrive because of the different values people associate with them.

References:

Warnaby, G. (2009) ‘Look up! Retailing, Historic Architecture and City Centre Distinctiveness’, Cities, 26 (2009) 287-292

Townshend, T and Madanipour, A. (2008) ‘Public Space and Local Diversity: The Case of North East England’, Journal of Urban Design, 13(3) 317-328

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