London’s high streets must ‘ask themselves what they are for’, embrace the local and distinctive, and work hard to revitalise their offer with a changing, adaptable mix of uses, especially if they are of the long, linear kind that are struggling with multiple ownerships.
Those were some of the key thoughts to emerge from London’s High Streets and town centres recovery, a think tank held for the first time in a ‘hybrid’ format last week by NLA, both online and in person at Squire and Partners’ Brixton headquarters.
Squires’ own scheme, said the practice’s director Tim Gledstone, had been a success, not least in providing a new use for an old department store, a typology that the group agreed had seen better days. It had helped to bed in with and boost the community, offering more facilities than simply an architectural practice. And it was this kind of flexibility facilitated by the local authority that could be of benefit across London. Gledstone said its success lay in activating the ground floor 24/7 and ‘curating’ users and community events, offering up space to locals. ‘We're very pleased with being here but most of all, with our communication and activity with the work with residential and the business community’, he said.
Like other local authorities, Lambeth, said Laura Davy of the council, needs a diverse mix and ‘new anchors’ for town centres to tackle vacancy and support small businesses and community organisations alike, bridging the day and night time economies. Against a background of work in Hounslow, Jane Manning of Allies and Morrison added that it was worth looking at the characteristics of the high streets that have both done well and struggled over the last 18 months. ‘You get a sense that, within London, metropolitan centres have been hit hardest and it's perhaps at the other end of the scale the neighborhood parades have seen perhaps the biggest upturn’. Might that remain coming out of lockdown? Certainly, basic factors like the ratio of usable public space have been able to accommodate outdoor dining better than busier streets, while the ‘grain’ of places is another – how flexible centres and high streets are to being ‘unpicked’ and adapted.
Waltham Forest has been successful in encouraging a diversity of offer, said Jonathan Martin of the local authority, not least in its markets alongside high streets with ‘eclectic’ offers, pedestrianisation, and town centre homes. ‘As we go around the borough, we've been looking at how we can really animate those spaces’, he said. It is also concentrating on culture and town square events to get more dwell time and make sure people have other opportunities to go to town centres and high streets.
Perhaps, though, it’s too early to speculate on the effects COVID has had, said Bartlett Professor Peter Bishop, and it’s more about how we adapt to it. But the secret of success at King’s Cross was taking time to work it through with good practices towards long term success. ‘There are no quick fixes’, he said. But long-term ownership certainly helps, along with somebody taking responsibility to make a place work. ‘I some ways the mechanism and the management are far more important than the physical design. It is the curation of space that makes a place work and makes it stand out.’ Those centres that have succeeded have ‘carved out a new niche for themselves’, with small interventions often making huge differences. But we have ‘rediscovered’ our high streets through living more locally – how can we build on that?
Vision and passion is key, too, said Argent Related’s Morwenna Hall, in the relentless task to revitalise places. ‘You have to refresh and create new experiences for people to come, time and time and again, to enjoy themselves. And I think that curation and being able to really provide delightful journeys and experiences for people does come through the privilege of ownership’. In her work at Brent Cross Town it is the fragmented ownership and long high streets without a clear heart that have been one of the main challenges. So it is looking at the right size and scale, sense of arrival and community, clustering areas around the high street amid a ‘massive’ increase in interest in outdoor market space and public ‘breathing’ space. ‘People are really yearning for greenery at the moment’, she said.
Other speakers included Ballymore’s Holly Russell-Kennedy on her work getting under the skin of Edgware, picking the right operators, and building whilst being grounded in the needs of community with a distinctive, authentic brand that sometimes needs work to uncover through engagement and consultation. Ian Mulcahey of Gensler added that the debate everywhere was about villages, neighbourhoods and networks, going through a period of rebalancing where more people might work in the centre and work in the outer boroughs or neighbourhoods. ‘I think that’s a clue as to the way people might be seeking to rebalance their lives.’ Jamie Webb of Benoy, moreover, suggested that looking to Asia might provide some ideas on the way that outside environments are used, or malls with more community facilities. And David Milner of Create Street ssaid that clean, pedestrianised, calm outside spaces where people can meet friends were key, building on the way that everyone has ‘discovered’ the outside since the pandemic struck. The placement of key civic buildings is also crucial, he added. London, though, is much more of a ’15 minute city’ than many of the places Create Streets works with around the country, but there is an opportunity to ‘relocalise’ workspaces. Lisa Fairmaner of the GLA said there is a ‘genuine concern’ about some of the 600 town centres across London that have fallen through the gaps, albeit with mayoral initiatives aimed at helping them. ‘But I think one of the things that we will struggle with is what the town centre is for, and I think that’s going to become increasingly difficult.’ They need to be kept fresh, relevant, and offer something new or something to see, so that people want to keep visiting it, with a new look at the CAZ part of the overall picture too. And finally, Transport for London’s Josephine Vos said there needs to be a balance in a global city of London’s scale between localism and the kind of agglomeration found in the CAZ, not least in order to offer service levels on public transport. London has done better than almost any major city in the past decades in shifting people out of cars, primarily because of increased densities. ‘In areas of 100 people or more per hectare, that’s where you see that it’s the tipping point at which the car becomes less attractive than active travel and public transport’, she said. ‘We just need to keep an eye on all those things to not lose sight of the kind of gains we have made’.