Hacking the

High Street

On 30th October, we kicked off our fourth season of Off Base; our platform for creative discussion.

 

This season, entitled ‘Cities Now. Cities Next.’ focusses on how our cities need to respond and adapt to changes in society, technology, resource availability, rapid urbanisation and other factors – and what impact this will have on how we plan, design and build our cities for the future.

View a presentation from Gensler's Owain Roberts - 'Hacking the Department Store' below:

View some highlights from the event in the video below:

We started the season discussing our high streets; their evolution, value and future. In a world where customer expectations have shifted and behaviours swiftly changing, known and loved retail giants have had to approach a customer centric stance with agility and tenacity regarding the experiential needs of modern day customers, or face biting the dust in a tremendous way.

 

Technology, and the changes it’s perpetuated in consumer behaviour, has both hindered and enhanced shopping. This trend, which continues to grow, has seemingly robbed the high street of its community spirit and hub-like standing. With the rise of immediacy and convenience, patience to stand in queues or feel bustled out amongst equally exasperated shoppers has become less and less attractive. This has become more so when time has become an ever more expensive and precious commodity to part with in the fast-paced worlds of city life.

We got off to an informative start when our Gensler cohort, along with speakers Clare Richmond, founder of SpeakTo, and Mark Robinson, property director and owner at Ellandi, opened the floor amongst peers, colleagues and academics to discuss how taking varied but focused approaches could lead to a rise in community spirit, thus bringing back that all important footfall to the beloved high street once more.

 

The announcement of the 2018 Budget is a good first step towards saving the high street – this is, at the very least, acknowledgement that there is an issue. However, is this going to be enough to make impactful change for the long term?

Many of the businesses that this will be of direct assistance to are already priced out of the core high street by both high rents and high business rates. It’s also increasingly difficult for smaller businesses to commit to the longer leases required in many UK town centres. The headline grabbing closures that are now blighting all our established high streets are affecting the premises which are already far in excess of the £51,000 rateable value threshold announced in the budget. This, coupled with the fact that the business rate relief is only temporary means that it is unlikely to be enough to encourage what was a “nation of shopkeepers” to return to the traditional high street.

 

We seem to have forgotten how our high streets can, and should, be used; design that responds to the needs and desires of the people who live there has the power to change that. We need to take a far more holistic approach to tackling the high street crisis and instead of focussing on changes to business rates alone, we also need to focus on issues such as accessibility, planning regulation, licensing (which is not just betting and alcohol) and creating destinations within our high streets and town centers which are underpinned by experiences that provide social vitality, creating an inclusive, pleasurable and stimulating place for people to travel through and visit.

There are so many stakeholders involved in the high street - from government and landlords to communities and tenants. Currently each has their own strategy, each has their own objective, and they’re usually pulling in different directions. A coordinated vision and a common goal is needed to deliver a successful future high street.

Perhaps instead of incremental disconnected policy or tax interventions we should experiment or prototype a more ambitious approach to rethinking the streets at the centre of our communities. We could take two or three of the most problematic high streets in the country and pilot a comprehensive package of changes that explore a new regulatory regime, particularly focused on planning, licensing and tax. Let’s test whether different tactics and redesign can both play a part in high street revival. The high street is not a ‘victim’, it is a ripe ground for opportunity and ownership from the ground up. But in order for this to happen, we must make sure we are giving it a chance to grow.

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