Brief Encounters: How to save the high street

With high streets dying off, Veronica Simpson explains why and how the trend could be reversed

Words by Veronica Simpson

Do we care about our high streets? Do we feel that these once lively parades of retailers, cafes and restaurants along a town or city’s main thoroughfares have value in creating and supporting a local economy and community? If the answer is yes, there are some tough follow-up questions you should try to answer honestly. When the opportunity allows, how much of your shopping are you now doing online that you could be doing in person? How often do you order takeaways via Deliveroo? If the answer to one or both of these two questions is ‘frequently’ or ‘all the time’, then you are contributing to the destruction of this vital economic and social ecosystem.

The instant gratification of internet shopping has led us down a few questionable pathways, some of which we are trying to correct. Many now understand the ‘true cost’ of our addiction to cheap and speedy fashion shopping – in part, thanks to documentaries such as 2015’s The True Cost, which exposed the havoc the fashion industry’s toxic practices are wreaking on lives and the environment. The rise in sales of vintage and pre-loved clothing (with Vogue declaring 2020 ‘a big year for old clothes’) is a clear signal that people are making more sustainable – and often more creative – choices. Similarly, the awareness that bookshops are under threat from global online discount retailers has caused many of us, even in lockdowns, to switch our custom to local booksellers. A simple email or phone call is all it took to connect me with my favourite independent bookshop throughout the last year, who could usually supply my book of choice within 48 hours, and all I had to do was cycle to their shop to ‘click and collect’ it.

An example of an empty former retail space that could soon be seen across high streets up and down the UK
An example of an empty former retail space that could soon be seen across high streets up and down the UK

The rise of such proactive retailer and consumer engagement led Forbes magazine, in February 2021, to run a piece called ‘How indie bookstores beat Amazon at the bookselling game’. ‘Community, curation and convening’ were the secrets to independent booksellers’ survival strategy, according to Harvard professor Ryan Raffaelli’s report, cited in the article. That passion for books, says Raffaelli, that turns customers into a community can work in other fields too – he cites fashion, pet stores, delicatessens, wine stores, and gift, card and stationery shops.

The extent of the threat to restaurants was revealed in an April Observer article (‘“They’re stealing our customers and we’ve had enough”: Is Deliveroo killing restaurant culture?’) about the big online delivery platforms’ using the data harvested from existing restaurants and their customers – about local tastes and spending habits – in order to compete with their own clientele. This monopolistic behaviour will only intensify thanks to the growth of ‘dark kitchens’. These are windowless container clusters, found usually on urban edgelands, where sometimes existing restaurants but often virtual ones conjured by Deliveroo (and others), speedily and cheaply (and more profitably), expedite online orders. Having opened its first such site – dubbed Deliveroo Editions – in 2016, the brand now has 350 in eight countries.

What kind of world are people facilitating when they feel it ‘does no harm’ to simply order their evening meal or weekend brunch from Deliveroo or Uber Eats? Do they really want to see deserted high streets where the only sign of life is the underpaid Deliveroo driver careening between customers and their nearest dark kitchen? How will they feel the next time they want to celebrate an event with friends or family only to find their local restaurants have all closed down? More specifically, has anyone in the design and architecture sector calculated the cost to these professions if that formerly lucrative business of design-led differentiation dies?

Well, there is one obvious thing we can do to hold off this grim prospect: don’t put your business the way of these online brands; buy in person, buy local. But there are also good people in both the design and local authority sectors brainstorming to keep the high streets afloat. Jonathan Tuckey Design (JTD) is one, currently working with Lancaster City Council and also with the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham – where JTD’s office is based – to dream up alternative uses for shut down shops. ‘London councils are talking about shortening or remaking the high street, reinventing shops as community spaces,’ says Jonathan Tuckey, JTD founder. ‘But I think we need to be more open about how these spaces can change.’

To this end, he and his team have devised a number of proposals for alternative – even temporary – uses that could benefit a far greater variety of people, retaining the architectural qualities and that buzz of daily activity. JTD’s Street Front Living schemes take advantage of the theatrical aspect of traditional retail typologies, proposing conversions to domestic use that still incorporate large shop windows, while ensuring privacy with interior folding screens or awnings. But other uses are envisaged: Tuckey suggests university towns could offer empty shop units as low-rent studios, or even live/work spaces for graduates while they establish themselves in their chosen area of business – be that art, manufacture, technology or services. Flexible hire-by-the-day/ hour/week work spaces in empty units, he says, ‘could become a very viable business post-pandemic for those who have adapted well to working from home but occasionally need respite.’

In March, the mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced a High Streets for All Challenge, seeking innovative partnerships between high street tenants or landlords, retailers and entrepreneurs, with £4m allocated from London Recovery Board’s budget from June.

But landlords and local authorities need to act fast to make the magic happen, and there needs to be a more flexible approach to rental than the currently typical 10–15-year lease arrangements. Online tools could be part of the solution: Appear Here is a new online platform that offers to match retailers with the right ready-to-use spaces on short term contracts.

‘Buildings are always reshaping to meet society’s needs,’ says Tuckey, ‘Mews houses were once stabling for horses and hansom cabs, and now they are homes. Warehouses, once for industry, are now apartments.’ But the bricks-and- mortar solution need to start manifesting itself pretty quickly before it’s too late, when people’s lockdown-motivated online shopping habits become the only option out there.

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