In many ways they are a microcosm of contemporary society. They reflect what’s good and troubling about our economy, our social differences and divisions, and the way we construct our identity. In the high street, the store tells a story about our world.
Today’s angst might feel like a very 21st century reaction to change, but it isn’t. For nearly a century Britain’s high streets have been a source of worry and concern. In 1938, J.M. Richards, editor of the Architectural Review, lamented the passing of the ‘personal and local character of the shops’ to make way for chain stores.
Fifty years on, John Dawson wrote in the Geographical Journal in 1988 that the changing nature of the high street was a source of concern, and ‘we are not sure whether we will like either how it will change or what it will change to’.
Dawson was writing at the height of the out-of-town shopping centre boom. A quarter of a century on, we are living with the consequences of multiple physical, social and technological changes that affect the way we use our town and city centres, and the worries haven’t gone away.
“The real changes we need involve rethinking how space is used, who has access to it and who owns it”
Introducing a Parliamentary debate on 10 February, Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield, declared that town centres were ‘threatened by all sorts of forces: not exactly evil forces, but forces of change’. His roll of shame included supermarkets, betting shops and takeaway food stores.
Two days later, Northern Ireland’s minister for social development, Mervyn Storey, took up a similar theme. ‘[There is an] urgent need to radically rethink how we regenerate and revitalise our town centres as multifunctional social centres,’ he argued.
There are signs that this is starting to happen. In Bangor, Northern Ireland, artists have worked with the local council to bring a run-down parade of shops back to life. In Falkirk, Scotland, a series of festivals have created a buzz and sense of local pride.
But the real changes we need go much deeper than that. They involve rethinking how space is used, who has access to it, who owns it, and where the economic, social and environmental benefits flow.
Many of the town centre ‘regeneration’ schemes in recent years have created privatised spaces, created to encourage people to spend money and accessible mainly in connection with consumption. My view is that we need to rediscover the civic and social role of urban spaces, creating places that are freely available to all and where access doesn’t favour the well-off.
As well as rethinking who gets to use public space and on what terms, we need to ask searching questions about economic benefits. When people spend their money with local entrepreneurs and producers, that money is more likely to be recycled within the locality, producing a virtuous circle of benefits. When planners and landlords favour the national brands that dominate our town centres, that spending power leaches out of local communities and the opportunities to create local employment and boost local businesses are minimised.
The best way of maximising local benefits is to encourage local ownership – of businesses, of property and of public services. All three are under threat as access to finance, land ownership and service provision become more distant and difficult to obtain.
The decline of our town and city centres has taken decades. It may take as long to reconfigure town centres in ways that generate lasting local benefits.
But in the meantime there are powerful symbolic actions that can demonstrate the direction of travel that’s required. In Todmorden, West Yorkshire, local people are rethinking public space and creating a new narrative for their town by growing and sharing food, reimagining the way the town works through a ‘green route’ highlighting edible growing and biodiversity. In Bristol, street artists have pioneered alternative futures for Stokes Croft, an area neglected for years by the city council and private landowners.
“The best way of maximising local benefits is to encourage local ownership – of businesses, of property and of public services”
On London’s South Bank, Coin Street Community Builders has shown how creating affordable homes for local people rather than yet another bleak office city can bring lasting benefits for everyone, opening up the riverside as a public space and preserving a diverse community in a city that is increasingly the preserve of the affluent.
Such symbolic actions can point towards a new way of thinking of urban space as part of the ‘commons’, the shared resources from which we all benefit and for which we all share a responsibility.
The challenges of town centres are the challenges we all face: how to create an economy that works for all, how to create good places to live, how we construct our identity in a world in which life is increasingly commoditised. There aren’t any quick and easy solutions, but there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful.