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Struggling town centres must create a sense of place

Many suburban high streets have too much retail space and are often dominated by bookmakers or fast food vendors. And then there are those beautifully hoarded active frontages on new developments which will never attract a commercial occupier.

This space is a waste and drag on local economies, it creates an impression of urban decay and economic decline.

My corner of London has a short high street part of which is due for regeneration, connecting it to the Grand Union Canal, which had been ignored because it was noisy, dirty and dangerous. There have been plans to regenerate it for over 20 years and finally there are signs of something happening – well, the developer has invested in some very striking signage.

At present one shop is vacant because a community project ended. Yet recently we were singled out as having one of the highest retail vacancy rates in London. There are several other retail parades nearby, some serve established residential areas but too many are almost entirely vacant as the units that should animate frontages in new developments are empty. This rapid growth in retail space is a problem, it spreads the available footfall more and more thinly as many of the new developments are small flats and create little additional demand. The one new parade that has almost been successful is next to a transport node and serves a major new development. But even there too many commercial units are unlet (unlettable). It did bring two major brands and has passing trade to a major tourist attraction. Others took several years to reach even 50% utilisation.

‘Quick fixes such as free parking are addressing the wrong issue. If there is a good reason to go somewhere and there are places to park then the cost of parking is less of an issue because the experience is worthwhile’

Town centres are places for more than shopping, in fact the rise of large floor plate and online retailing have already effected that change. High Streets need to provide a sense of place, an opportunity for social interaction and enterprise. Quick fixes such as free parking are addressing the wrong issue. If there is a good reason to go somewhere and there are places to park then the cost of parking is less of an issue because the experience is worthwhile.

Fundamentally, most small town centres have too much retail floor space in small units, spread out over too long a distance and in places that are dominated by traffic. As well as that, upper areas are poorly used and make no economic contribution. To make town centres resilient they need to be more compact and have more space for pedestrians in order to provide places to stop and talk or window shop without causing an obstruction and with high quality maintenance. And the obsession with ‘active frontages’ must end. Town centre should be places where things happen, whether it is a chance meeting with an acquaintance or a semi-formal event.

Crucial to achieving this are people – people who live in the town centre and are engaged with it because it happens around them. Making best use of upper parts of buildings and turning shops in to workshops to give makers and creators a place to pursue their trades is part of the response. There is a careful balance to be struck between seeing redundant buildings turned into homes and losing the space that supports start-up businesses.

The regeneration programme has led to a large stretch of our high street being empty; an office building was vacated in 1996 and has stood empty ever since. Changes in planning rules to give a presumption in favour of meantime uses for major site assembly programmes with fiscal incentives to reward this behaviour could have seen this provide low cost homes or studios.

Our high street is not unusual, save perhaps for the scale of the problem. In a city crying out for homes it is wrong that there are no tools to ensure that no property stays vacant.

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Riki Stevens
Riki Stevens
8 years ago

Tony, your background blurb shows you have experience in “major site assembly” for housing, maker spaces and innovative use of what has been retail space. I’d love to read something concise, on this blog if possible, on strategies for “Presumption in favour of meantime uses for major site assembly programmes with fiscal incentives to reward this behaviour…”
You could give links to info on very technical aspects. My opinion is many more people need to become conversant with strategies for ‘site assembly.’

Tony Hutchinson
Tony Hutchinson
8 years ago
Reply to  Riki Stevens

Riki

That sounds more like a detailed piece of consultancy than a blog.

The Greater London Authority ran a significant project about 3 years ago for “meantime” uses on the Royal Docks – this link will give some background.

http://www.propertyweek.com/meanwhile-london-competition-opportunity-docks/5008941.article

T

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