What’s Vital Now? is an online series that will share voices from different communities, sectors and disciplines, on what we can do to create more inclusive and sustainable places that bring people together while responding to the needs and aspirations of our diverse communities.
By Holly Dyas
Back in November 2019, I attended a Glass-House Reconfiguring Place workshop that discussed how Blackpool’s high street can change for the better. Drawing on this, I want to propose a shift in thinking for how we handle town centres.
We are now demanding more from the places we inhabit as we transition from offline to online. Having a single-use space doesn’t work as well as it used to, evident from the way we use our homes as living and working spaces during this current crisis, to our high streets, where shops are closing their doors because they cannot reach the footfall needed to stay viable. Although we may be moving away from brick and mortar retail, I don’t foresee a point where it will ever be completely removed from the high street and because of this, many shops nowadays are re-defining the way they do business. They’ve realised that they cannot depend on the allure of products alone to bring people into a store. They instead become destination retailers, with a focus on relationship-building and development of experience-based interactions.
Towns can be structured in a similar way, building attractive destinations for consumers. Independent brands can offer unique products that are usually domestically produced, creating a thriving local economy where money spent will be kept within the town. Bringing these shops in requires flexible retail space, which currently many landlords are not willing to accept or risk. One approach could be the introduction of pop-up stores on local high streets. It is estimated the current pop-up retail landscape contributes £2.3 billion to the UK economy each year and is continuously growing in metropolitan areas. However, local towns should follow suit and look inwards to provide opportunities within their communities. Modular pop-up shop boxes that can be installed, and removed, with ease in town centres will give smaller businesses the space to showcase their products without breaking the bank on rent or struggling to fill large shop floors. This semi-permanent solution provides a space for innovation and flexibility, and could enhance existing UK market town high streets that have seen a decrease in footfall.
Nevertheless, more shops doesn’t always equate more people. With the recent news of Intu, one of the UK’s largest shopping centre owners, going into administration, it is apparent there is too much retail space that does not offer anything more than a shopping experience. Our high streets and towns need to capitalise on what makes them distinctive to residents and those farther afield. It was Jan Gehl, renowned urban designer, who wrote that “people attract people”, and alongside a retail revolution there needs to be a shift towards community, culture and independence, creating towns that are for the people not the brands.
Territorialising brand experience and consumption: Negotiating a role for pop-up retailing by Charlotte Shi, Gary Warnaby & Lee Quin, 2019
Holly is a young designer, continuing her studies with a masters in Urban Design and Planning. She has an interest in how our high streets are evolving and how she can enact change locally and nationally.