New London Architecture

London’s high streets: life has never been normal

Thursday 07 May 2020

“High Streets and Town Centres: Adaptive Strategies”, was launched earlier this year, as part of the Mayor of London’s Good Growth by Design programme, when COVID-19 was a sinister but still distant cloud on the horizon. A team led by my practice Gort Scott, alongside WeMadeThat and Regeneris, had worked with the GLA for almost a year to define a framework to guide innovation on high streets. My fellow Mayor’s Design Advocates Dan Hill and Wayne Hemingway brought urban design vision and entrepreneurial expertise, while economist Professor Mariana Mazzucato’s reframing of ‘value creation vs value extraction’ was invaluable in guiding our thoughts.
The outcome is a forward-looking framework to guide innovation on London’s high streets. It outlines the energy and resources needed to deliver public value and provides evidence, precedents and examples. High streets are one of London’s greatest public assets, and at the heart of the work was an invitation for all those involved, in community and business organisations, public and private sectors, to consider what we want from them. 
Through extensive investigation we catalogued the challenges and opportunities facing London’s high streets, including factors such as the continual expansion of online retail, growth of the experience-economy, and the availability of high-quality datasets to inform future strategy and policy. More broadly, we observed shifting work patterns, the evolution of high street services like banks and post offices, and the effects of austerity policies.
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. 
Similarly, the trends around flexible working that preface our Sutton High Street scenario have accelerated, with most businesses rapidly enabling homeworking within a week. Now that it’s been demonstrated, most predict that widespread home working will continue, with positive implications for home workers shopping and socialising within local high street walking distance.
A recent YouGov poll found that only 9% of people want everything to go back to how it was before the pandemic, in terms of personal and social changes. 40% feel a stronger sense of community. People are wasting less, are more conscious of local supply chains, and are noticing cleaner air and wildlife. Going back to how it was before is not an option. 
I hope that the lockdown has been a circuit-breaker to free us from the conception of value measured only as commercial uplift, while freeing us also to recognise the interconnectedness of personal, public and planetary wellbeing. The kind of adaptive, responsive strategies that we advocate in the guidance are a direct response to clearly articulated environmental, social and economic challenges. They ask us to collectively define a mission for each community, with the support of councils, developers, landowners and business groups. These broad mission statements are driven by ambitious goals to achieve measurable targets. 
We face difficult times and may be challenged as a consequence of the pandemic to defend urban life and the physical proximity, collision and touch that goes with it. But I remain convinced that urban life, of which I see high streets as essential infrastructure, is our most sustainable future. 

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