Not long ago, the local high street was at the heart of every thriving community, not just as a place to buy and sell goods, but a place of leisure, social and cultural exchange where the community came together to create spaces of conviviality. But today, many high streets across the UK have gone from boom to bust, suffering at the hands of big chain-stores, the rise of online shopping, higher rents and cash-strapped consumers. However, it’s important to acknowledge that while retail trends are changing, these changes do not necessarily lead to the death of the high street.
As retail advisor Mary Portas puts it, “there are alternatives to accepting decline”. Rather than a tabula rasa development of a fading high street, councils and local authorities can work closely with independent business owners, architects and designers to brighten up and improve an area through an inclusive and direct approach, a process that has been adopted by various councils and authorities across the country.
Enterprise and Skills Minister Matthew Hancock says “small businesses are the bedrock of the UK economy”, accounting for almost half of the jobs created through employing 14 million people in Britain. While chain-stores run the risk of creating homogeneous high streets, independent retailers are beneficial to the growth and sustainability of their local area as they know their clients and understand local trends. And of course, they also have a very good reason to want their communities to thrive.
In Archway, North London, for example, several independent shops and businesses are being treated to a new look as part of Islington Council’s £2 million regeneration scheme. It would be impossible to improve the high street without the participation of independent businesses, and Lyndon Goode Architects has been appointed to work directly with eleven businesses including a kebab shop, charity shop and gift shop to support the revival of the hardy high street. “It’s so comforting to know that your ideas are represented”, said Hakan Topkaya of Archway Kebabs, on what it was like to work with the architects. “Everything is on paper and people are listening to you, it’s a collaborative process”.
Hakan Topkaya talks about working with the practice on his project
As Portas suggests, “high streets will thrive if we re-imagine them”, and it is important to recognise and accept that the role of the high street in our daily lives has changed since its heyday around the turn of the century. While UK shoppers are expected to spend £107 billion online in 2014 and the out-of-town sector is growing rapidly, shopping on the local high street provides a very different experience. Convenience, specialist knowledge and a feeling of investing in one’s community all add value to the experience, something that is lost within the anonymity of big-box retailers.
While the historic form of the high street might seem to have died, there is much to be learned from the past, and much to be built upon too. The city is a ‘palimpsest’ of past forms layered on top of one another, and the crossroads of change that our high streets are currently facing are yet another layer in the urban collage. While failing businesses cannot necessarily be saved by a fresh lick of paint, many will flourish through a collaborative process that enables them to make the most out of what they have to offer, through small but sustainable improvements.
Through a participatory process, the community are encouraged to get involved in the uplift of their locale, which in turn reaffirms a collective identity that has so long been ingrained in the history of the local high street. Back in Archway, the various projects aim to re-imagine the high street through designs that reflect the individual character of each retailer, creatively responding to the ambitions of the businesses and reinterpreting the historic fabric of the local area.
Ian Morris, owner of Map Gift Shop, has been trading in Archway for 20 years, and he explains the unique role that his shop plays within the wider urban fabric. “The way the business is going, rather than us dealing online, is that the shop has very much become part of the community”, he says. “It’s taken a long time to become established here, but we’ve stuck it out and it has paid off, and the regeneration grant is a true celebration of 20 years in the area.”