A-Z of Ideas for High Streets and Town Centres

A – Arts districts

In broad terms, two hundred years ago we had an agricultural economy, then came the industrial economy and now and for the forseeable future it is the knowledge or creative economy. Happily town centres and high streets are very well placed to take advantage of this trend as most knowledge economy workers prefer to live and work diverse, higher density, mixed use and mixed income places such as town centres.

In times of limited resources the arts and cultural initiatives are a most appealing community-development strategy. The fine-grained arts district — one that does not reinvent a neighborhood wholesale but enhances the existing community with diverse new development — has grown as an idea in the UK and burgeoned in the US. However they are quite complex entities with subtleties and nuances that tend to develop over long periods of time with multiple organizations and individuals contributing to a district’s character and success. 

Fundamental to this approach is the sharing of resources – ie multi-tenant projects that bring different organisations together in shared space, typically in a converted building and financed by one lead organisation that takes the burden of raising capital off of smaller arts type organisations. As a community development strategy, these kinds of buildings can create a vibrant sense of place, provide a venue for diverse arts and other innovative events, and offer educational and social programs that engage local residents.  

BIDs (Business Improvement Districts)

This is a bit of a no-brainer for struggling towns and high streets in my view. A BID is a business-led and funded partnership that seeks to improve the wider trading environment of a defined commercial area – such as a high street or town centre. BIDs vary in size but typically comprise 300-400 businesses and generate an annual income of c£3-400K by pooling the equivalent of 1-2% of rateable value of all the businesses to fund improvements to the local area – eg cleaner pavements, more security, marketing and festivals. Increasingly BIDs are aimed at making cash saving strategies for businesses by using the collective purchasing power of all of the businesses, thereby striving to make the BID levy cost-neutral to the BID levy payers.

Creative industries

This group of workers and businesses has been defined as the ‘Creative Class’ and estimated to comprise c30% of a developed countries workforce ranging from engineering, education, computer programming, research to arts, design, and media workers. Richard Florida who has led the research of the Creative Class concludes it will be the leading force of growth in the economy, and is expected to grow hugely in the next decade.

One of the best examples of the impact of this phenomenon in my home city of Bristol is the Tobacco Factory which was saved from demolition and turned into a model of urban regeneration. It is now a multi use building housing a Cafe Bar, oriental bistro, weekly market, creative industry work space, live/work loft apartments, theatre companies, dance studio, performing arts school and one of the most exciting small theatre venues in the country. The local high street is characterised by independent businesses that have mushroomed as a result and directly benefit the local economy.  

Design for London

London does not lead the way in all ways but it probably does in many when it comes to creating economic success and lively, vital places. Leading the way in thinking new thinkings about High Streets in particular is Design for London, part of the Mayor’s Office. A typical initiative is High Street 2012 – an ambitious project to improve and celebrate one of London’s great high streets from Whitechapel Road to Stratford High Street, and to provide a lasting legacy from the 2012 Games for local communities. The project aims to create a thriving high street by re-enforcing the distinctive character of the places along the route, by creating places for people to stop, slow down and socialise and by balancing the needs of pedestrians and other road users. A healthier street will be created by increasing opportunities for walking, cycling, recreation and leisure. Social projects and events will bring the street to life before and during the Olympics and ensure local communities benefit from the Games, through boosting regeneration, community pride and the visitor economy.

Ethnic diversity

Ethnic minority groups have a high propensity to set up businesses or be self-employed. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, ethnic minority groups in the UK are far more likely to start up their own business than white people. Asian people, for example, are twice as likely to be involved in autonomous start-ups than their white counterparts; while Caribbean people are three times as likely and Africans nearly five as likely to be involved in a start-up company than white people.

The most obvious manifestation of ethnic led regeneration are ChinaTowns. London Chinatown Chinese Association (LCCA) was formed in August 1978 to serve the Chinese community by responding to the needs of the businesses and residents of London’s Chinatown. Less prominent is the Bangladeshi community however ‘Banglatown’ in London’s Brick Lane was established in recognition of the large Bangladeshi community living in and around this neighbourhood. Banglatown is modelled on the popular Chinatowns found in around the world, has recently gone through a transformation, which has improved its appearance to a more modern look. Brick Lane, is one of the most popular areas in London, mostly known for its assortments of cheap curry houses, situated only 5 minutes from the city surrounded by good transport links has made the whole area phenomenally popular with the creative community. 


Music, food, sport, etc – what’s not to like? The festival scene has exploded across cities in the UK over the past decade. Some of the more interesting and eclectic ones include:

Great town and city festivals of the world are listed in numerous places - for some inspiration check out Frommers www.whatsonwhen.com


Leading light at the moment is clearly Ms Mary Portas following her invitation by the Prime Minister to undertake an independent review on the Future of the High Street – to help ‘bring back the bustle’ to our town centres. ‘With town centre vacany rates doubling over the last two years, the need to take action to save our high streets has never been starker. I am calling on business, local authorities and shoppers to contribute their ideas on how we can halt this decline in its tracks and create town centres that we can all be proud of. In the first 3 months of the review over 1500 suggestions were received. 

Other honourable mentions include the National Skills Academy for Retail provides access to consistent, high quality training for retail businesses, their employees and future workforce, The Retail Think Tank, which was conceived and created to provide an’ authoritative, credible and trusted window on what is really happening in retail. Through its quarterly meetings it develops and publishes thought leadership on the key areas influencing the future of retailing, which are designed to address both the health of the sector and the challenges it faces. More at www.retailthinktank.co.uk/white-papers

Howard de Walden on Marylebone High St, London

Kudos to the most enlightened high street landlord in the country. This is a great High Street story – and there aren’t many! It is hard to believe that Marylebone High St was 1/3 empty in the 90s. One of the platforms to change was the significant lead property owner – Howard de Walden Estate – who had a start position of owning circa 1/3 of the high street.

New management at the Estate recognised that if the traditional values of the High Street were restored, this would dramatically improve the quality of the retail offering and would lift the area as a whole, including the office and residential values of the Estate’s adjoining properties. It was clear the High Street had to attract significantly more shoppers from outside the immediate area. The starting point was to bring in a supermarket to anchor the prime location of the High Street. The Estate chose Waitrose as it was felt it would draw people in from other areas to a greater degree than a Tesco. At the northern end of the High Street a derelict tyre depot had been empty for years was sold on a long lease to the Conran Shop to provide a 25,000 sq ft store which would anchor at the northern end of the High Street, but provide a high quality retailer whose presence in Marylebone High Street could create the reassurance needed to attract smaller retailers for the standard shops in the High Street.

Next step was to improve the quality of the retailers of the smaller shops. Many units were occupied by photocopying shops, travel agents and retailers who had lost their way. Many of these retailers had statutory rights and could renew their leases at a market rent. However with offers of alternative accommodation in side streets were persuaded to move and make way for an injection of fresh retail ideas into the High Street.

After gaining possession of some of the smaller units, many these were extended as they were awkward in shape, damp and uneconomic in size. In the majority of instances, the light-well was covered over and the shop knocked through so that it contained approximately 700 sq ft or so of relatively open retail accommodation, which was far more economical. Dull, rectangular retail units were not pursued despite being what many multiple retailers seem to crave. Some quirkiness and character was retained in shops to create a more interesting retail environment such as The Natural Kitchen and Skandium. Not all of the street needed changing and it was important to look after what was good, such as Daunt’s Books and the ever popular Patisserie Valerie. The tenant selection avoided multiples who frequented Oxford Street just 800 metres away. Retailers who had a point of difference were sought, were exclusive in terms of their merchandise but not price point and would service the needs of the majority of our residents and the local working population. The rest is history.InfrastructureThe great thing about town centres and high streets is that they require relatively little or even no significant further infrastructure relative to most brownfield and certainly greenfield development. Although there will be the invariable resistance from ‘NIMBYs’, additional development and ‘densification’ of existing high streets is a highly economic way for a council to not only improve the supply of affordable residential in their towns/cities but it also acts as significant walkable demand for local shops. Consider; a typical visitor or office worker might spend £5-10 but a new resident within a couple of hundred yards of a high street with a decent food retail offer might spend thousands across the year.  


Joint Ventures (JVs)

As menionted in ‘B’ above it is relatively straight forward to engage business occupiers in a meaningful partnership (including funding it) – ie a BID. It is significantly harder to engage landlords and property owners as most high streets and town centres are characterized by a highly fragmented ownership map with literally hundreds of owners. This is a challenge in bringing meaningful physical regenerative change however there are a couple of approaches worth considering:

Khan (Janette Sadik) – NY Transport Commissioner

Someone once said of New York if you can make it there you can etc… I figure the same about this city in terms of successfully making their streets more relevant to people using the place on foot rather than driving through at +30mph. In other words ‘livable’, bike & pedestrian friendly but still relevant to and accommodating to all modes including the car. She has introduced low-cost innovative concepts, thinking outside the box and drawing on successful street designs from around the world to come up with a NYC model that is already changing the way the city feels. If you’re tired of reading this A-Z try this great video for a little inspiration around turning NY’s highways in to people friendly streets.  


Why are 80% of the world’s most ‘liveable’ cities in Canada or Australasia (as measured by The Economist?) They must be doing something differently and are clearly worthy of much closer inspection. Regularly occupying top-spot in the Economist’s rankings is Vancouver. A stunning city that has transformed itself in the past two decades.

Regeneration professionals refer to the ‘Vancouver Miracle’ how Vancouver has the fastest-growing residential downtown in North America – since the late '80s the idea of living ‘downtown has become so feverish that developers now market lifestyle as much as units…selling the cultural premium that's based on the neighbourhood and equally relevant to families as singles.

People typically live in beautiful but small appartments with good views that give an expansive feel. Shops tend to be ‘just next door’ as is coffee culture and eateries. This vitality has been sudden. Development in Vancouver's central city has escalated at a pace far exceeding the expectations of city hall and is 10 years ahead of its original schedule with 80,000 people living in the downtown peninsula and growing.

Meanwhile Uses

Meanwhile is the temporary use of vacant buildings or land for a socially beneficial purpose until such a time that they can be brought back into commercial use again. It makes practical use of the ‘pauses’ in property processes, giving the space over to uses that can contribute to quality of life and better places whilst the search for a commercial use is ongoing.

The idea is best articulated by the Meanwhile Project;­ ‘Meanwhile is a philosophy, a policy and a programme of work. As a philosophy Meanwhile is based on the belief that empty properties spoil town centres, destroy economic and social value, and waste resources that we cannot afford to leave idle. Vibrant interim uses led by local communities will benefit existing shops, as well as the wider town centre, through increased footfall, bringing life back to the high street and making better use of resources overall’.

Meanwhile is referenced in the Government’s 'Looking after our town centres' document. As a programme of work, the Meanwhile Project has been providing practical and financial support for a wide range of meanwhile approaches in towns throughout the country, as well as technical advice, manuals and common tools to help anyone who wants to do something positive in the meanwhile.