At the time of writing in mid-April, high streets are subdued and shops, cafes and services (both big-brand and independent) quietly edge towards bankruptcy. Covid-19 is affecting every part of the high street ‘ecosystem’, and its economic after-effects and ongoing physical distancing will introduce greater complexity. Its full impact upon high streets is hard to assess, but it is clear that many of the challenges described in “Adaptive Strategies”will intensify.
Despite the challenges, the pre-Covid-19 evidence was highly encouraging, showing London bucking national trends and suggesting an inbuilt resilience that will help the capital’s high streets adapt and survive. For instance, London’s high streets have seen jobs growth of 21% over the last five years– higher than the average growth across London. Their diversity is another core strength, including a diverse mix of uses, with 80% of the city’s high streets occupied by businesses other than retail and leisure.
High streets are places where it is possible to respond on a local level to really far-reaching, wider societal issues. Beyond the economic benefits of commercial diversity,they are shown to create measurable improvements in health and wellbeing, social inclusion and integration, lower carbon lifestyles, facilitating adaptive re-use of historic buildings, and being characterful places that people can identify with.“High Streets and Town Centres: Adaptive Strategies”
offers precedents and examples of the tools we already have to build on these inherent advantages, and illustrates speculative scenarios based on specific high streets in London.
Covid-19 is reminding us what is most valuable and offering glimpses into near futures. The reduction in traffic on London’s streets, heightened by crystalline Spring sunshine, has transformed the air, and while verging on apocalyptic, has also shown us a reality of healthy streets that prioritise walking - that is not just as a mode of movement but an enabler of conviviality, exercise, social inclusion, and experience of the city. Streets are even being temporarily recalibrated to reduce roadways and traffic speed. Interestingly, these are tactics we explore in the guidance in our Stratford High street scenario: where we suggest a “living lab” approach of prototyping and testing temporary road changes, with measurement of outcomes, and adaptation of behaviour.