What is the role of the built environment in the future of our High Streets?

Last week, Louise and I had the pleasure of taking part in High Street Camp, an ‘unconference’ which brought together a diverse group of people from community representatives to regeneration professionals, to explore the future of our town centres and to share ideas and experience to address some of the key issues involved.

We ran two workshops in partnership with Living Streets (a national charity who work with people to create safe, attractive, enjoyable streets where it’s great to walk) to think about the spatial experience of the High Street and consider how the built environment can be used to make High Streets more vibrant and exciting places.

During the workshops, we asked participants to think about the qualities that make a good High Street before taking them outside to observe and experience the case study on our doorstep – Willesden Green High Street in North West London. Living Streets used their successful Community Street Audit tool to get participants to identify what improvements to the built environment would make this place safer, more attractive and more enjoyable for all users. Overall what emerged from these sessions was the importance of ease of movement around a High Street,  an emphasis on the need to give people diversity and variety in the high street and to create safe, pleasant and inviting spaces for rest and interaction.

During our walkabout in Willesden Green High Street

During our walkabout in Willesden Green High Street

Here are our key thoughts which emerged from the workshops and conversations throughout the day:

  • High streets are not just retail space – they respond to a social need and these needs along with many others are mixed and interlinked. The High Street is an ‘experience space’.
  • Design is crucial – We tend to socialise and spend time in places that are pleasant. We need to engineer places in the High Street that encourage people to stop, rest and interact
  • Physical barriers create mental barriers – Design can influence the routes people take and therefore have an economic impact. For example – Queen’s Parade in Willesden Green where before a meanwhile use project people never went because it is inaccessible and across the road from most of the facilities on the High Street
  • Fixing broken signs isn’t going to save a High Street, but it’s a start – There was a scheme on Willesden High Street to improve shop fronts and it was found that it raised the bar generally. Shops that weren’t involved in the scheme started to make their own improvements
  • Involvement is key – A variety of local people need to be meaningfully engaged in the process of improving High Streets to ensure it suits their needs and creates lasting positive change
  • Is there a need for a set of standards to bring a consistency of quality to a high street?

High Street Camp was a fantastic event and we left full of energy and excitement for the future of our High Streets and town centres. We were really pleased to hear groups from other workshops highlighting the potential that design has to contribute to the changing the fortunes of our High Streets. Mary Portas, author of the Government commissioned Portas Review, popped in at lunch which gave Living Streets and The Glass-House the opportunity to challenge her on the omission of the importance of the built environment from her report. (She countered our argument with her experience that she had seen major financial investment in the design of the public realm fail miserably. However we did not have the opportunity to respond that with community involvement in, and sufficient time allocated to the process this is far less likely to be the outcome!)

The now thriving Queen's Parade - Willesden Green

The now thriving Queen’s Parade – Willesden Green

We will be watching the Town Team pilot projects closely and hope to see community led design playing a leading role in making these town centres more friendly, vibrant and successful places!