A-Z of Ideas for High Streets and Town Centres (Part II - or N-Z)

Post date: Dec 20, 2011 9:20:13 PM

Welcome to Part II or from N-Z of Ideas. As I finalise drafting this second half A-Z I am conscious of an infinitely higher profile review of our high streets has been published by Mary Portas and BIS. Hopefully I've unearthed a few ideas in addition here.

N: Neighbourhood Placemaking (and CNU)

The Congress for New Urbanism is the leading organisation in the world promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions. For nearly twenty years, CNU has promoted ‘New Urbanism’, ie places where people can live, work, shop, and interact with their neighbours. The most sustainable neighborhoods tend to exhibit high levels of walkability, a sense of place, social cohesion and stability, and neighborhood resiliency amidst changing economic and sociopolitical conditions and include:

Adopting these sorts of principles in plans for town centres and high streets would at a stroke create a platform in terms of planning and development that would be of huge benefit economicaly, socially and environmentally. More at www.nrdc.org/cities/smartgrowth/files/citizens_guide_LEED-ND.pdf.

Old (ie Heritage)

Integrating and promoting heritage buildings into regenerative town centre schemes can help create popular, successful urban quarters with real character, where people want to shop, work, live and or follow leisure pursuits. As English Heritage rightly contend, historic buildings:

A great example is the Tobacco Factory. Equally impressive and also in Bristol (if not a high street but the principles are the same) is Paintworks – the website offers great photos of before and after showing how a place can be made that is really attractive for the creative and knowledge industries.

Even if the place you are seeking to regenerate doesn’t have a wonderful old tobacco factory or similar that’s crying out to be refurbished, don’t be too hasty to seek developers and gap funding to knock everything down and start again. That sort of large scale redevelopment requires premium tenants to occupy the newly developed space paying premium rents. That by definition cuts out small, emerging, independent local businesses seeking to start or grow a business on a shoestring. This is something that Jane Jacobs pointed out in her seminal work fifty years ago (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) but is still an underappreciated principle of good towncentre revitalisation.

Another Bristol example, where a distinctly average building has brought extraordinary positive change to a high street is Hamilton House on Stokes Croft in Bristol – one of the saddest, plainest, buildings anywhere yet has been brought to life by a unique combination of local arts, culture, enterprise and leisure uses - and all on a shoestring budget.

Public Realm

Gehl Architects – pre-eminent amongst public realm designers and central to the turnaround of numerous towns and cities around the world. Melbourne’s city centre amongst many other major successes. Key recommendations centred on improving the pedestrian network, making gathering places of excellent quality, strengthening street activity by physical changes and encouraging more people to use the city. Key recommendations that have been enacted and helped the city become one of the most liveable places anywhere (officially according to the Economist) included:

For more on Gehl in Melbourne: http://www.gehlarchitects.dk/files/pdf/Melbourne_small.pdf


Retail academics suggest there are two core strategies for success. Either be a low cost leader or be ‘differentiated’ – ie an alternative ‘niche’ offer. This applies equally to town centres as it does to individual shops and is territory that traditional centres are infinitely more suited to making their own in contrast to modern out of town shopping centre.

This issue has been taken up by the New Economics Foundation who coined the term 'clone town' – their concerns that traditional local shops have been replaced by swathes of identikit chain stores, making high streets up and down the country virtually indistinguishable from one another. Retail spaces once filled with a thriving mix of independent butchers, newsagents, tobacconists, pubs, bookshops, greengrocers and family-owned general stores are becoming filled with faceless supermarket retailers, fast-food chains, and global fashion outlets. Their response to this is a manifesto that includes community veto of chain stores, rate relief for small retailers, local competition policy, mandatory code of conduct for supermarkets, local money flows’ analysis, local retail plans (which cap the size of supermarkets), support for Community Development Finance Initiatives (CDFIs) and Community banking.

Although there isn’t a handy list or website referencing quirky high streets the Academy of Urbanism’s annual awards is a very useful reference, with ‘best streets’ with recent winners including Steep Hill, Lincoln; Northern Quarter, Manchester; Exmouth Market (pictured), London; Princesshay, Exeter; Coin St, London; St Pauls, Bristol; Grey St, Newcastle; Skipton High St, Portobello Road, London; etc. 

The capital of quirky in the US is probably Austin, Texas. Keep Austin Weird is the slogan adopted by the Austin Independent Business Alliance to promote small businesses. The book Weird City,discusses the cultural evolution of the "Keep Austin Weird" movement as well as its commercialization and socio-political significance. The Austin Independent Business Alliance is among at least 75 local groups affiliated with the American Independent Business Alliance, a national non-profit that supports and connects pro-local community-based organizations.   


The positive contribution of residential development to high streets and town centres is often overlooked. Residents are frequent shoppers, helping to sustain the local day and night time economy spending many thousands of pounds more than visitors and tourists. Sustainability goals are also supported because large proportions of residents walk or cycle to their work place and other city centre attractions showing reduced reliance on the private car.

Numerous sources confirm the benefits for anything from neighbourhood to city centres of introducing more residential development. The renaissance of Melbourne’s city centre included an 800% increase in the decade to 2002. Over a similar period the UK, Manchester’s grew by nearly 300%. In addition to the buzz and vitality a populace living close to a centre can contribute very significant demand to support struggling businesses and services. In addition residents living so close to centres and by definition key public transport links will have a more sustainable footprint thanks to reduced reliance on cars. 

Whilst high rise is not going to appeal to all it is important that minds are opened to mid-rise (ie c4-7 storey) development in and around high streets and town centres. Many British high streets were built on a two storey model which is generally not enough to support many local businesses and create the buzz and vibe at ground level that most people want. A densification to something approaching inner Paris - eg this Montmarte image below - would benefit local businesses and provide an opportunity for thousands more homes to be provided relatively easily (in terms of mimimal infrastructure and avoiding greenfield) in our key cities.  


Specialty and Independent Shops

We referenced the work of landlord Howard de Walden on Marylebone High Street. Delving deeper into their approach for the sort of retail occupiers they sought is illuminating. First of all when fitting out shops, dull, rectangular retail units were not pursued despite being what many multiple retailers seem to crave. They sought to retain or even create some quirkiness and character to help stimulate a more unique and interesting retail environment – see as examples The Natural Kitchen and Skandium. Clearly not all of the street needed changing – it was important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and to look after what was good, such as Daunt’s Books, Patisserie Valerie.

Major multiples were avoided (ie they sort of user found on Oxford Street a meret 800 metres away) Retailers who had a point of difference were sought that were exclusive in terms of their merchandise but not price and would service directly the needs of local residents and working population – in short the vision of a friendly urban village.

Working with professional advisors on tenant mix can be challenging as most agents are geared to doing deals with multiples and have no real understanding of what works for the small retailers. Constant dialogue with residents, spouses, friends and anyone else who has a local, informed view, about which new retailer would fit into Marylebone High Street was key.

A unique mix of specialist and independent shops will generate significant positive press reaction – in the case of Marylebone after a while it generated such momentum it negated any need to promote the Street. The street has confounded traditional retail theory by creating best value, not by letting to blue chip multiples but by doing the very opposite and creating a community and genuine urban village.

Tangible Turnarounds - Melbourne

How do you go from 'An empty useless city centre' (local news paper The Age commenting on its own city in 1978):

To world's best in 2011:

And at the same time halve domestic and non-domestic rates payable: 

Exemplars of town and city centres that have turned themselves around are useful if for nothing else other than inspiration and confirmation that it can be done. Particularly interesting are the ones that have relied on working with the existing grain of their place (as opposed to large scale demolition) and one of the best examples of this is Melbourne. Against common conceptions Melbourne does not rely on especially superior weather, but instead relies on careful management of the public realm; re-introduction of active ground floor uses wherever possible; promotion of entrepreneurial small/medium sized food and other leisure uses; arts and culture in the centre; and catalysing major investment in city centre residential accommodation.

In particular the ‘Melbourne Lanes’ have been a key part of driving success and creating the right 'vibe' at ground level. These alleys - used until recently for no more than garbage storage - have been reintroduced as intimate, human scale ‘eatery corridors’ underpinned by the authenticity provided by re-fitting or retro-fitting existing buildings rather than whole scale clearance and demolition. The result has been Melbourne’s dramatic rise up the ‘World’s Most Livable City’ charts as measured by the Economist. However most striking about the past decade of these surveys is the prominence of Australian and Canadian cities who make up 7 out of the top ten. The question has to be asked what are they doing to make such a difference? We'll be looking at this in more detail later. 

Urban Village

Urban villages are seen by many to provide an alternative to the predominant pattern of 20th century urban development, especially urban sprawl and aim to:

Proponents believe that urban villages provide a potential alternative to the social ills that characterize modernism in cities, such as freeways and high-rise estates. Certainly much of the thinking behind urban villages will prove to support vital town centres.

Village Well

Village Well are an Australian place-making consultancy and one of the reasons the country’s cities are so ‘livable’ and Melbourne is #1 (see ‘Turnarounds' above). Based in Melbourne they describe their work ‘over the past two decades, Village Well has refined and developed unique processes of analysis, engagement, innovation, research and project management that enable us to tap into the potential of the community and discover the essence of a place that directly informs its development and use. After all, the community that lives, works and plays in a place knows it best’.

Village Well are more in touch with the idea of localism and community than anyone I have come across but are able to match this soft touch with robust methods. Their placemaking model has been proven on many projects ranging in scale and complexity. The model allows them to consider all aspects of a project from global perspectives to individual values, across time and cultures to deliver succinct principles and recommendations for all project stakeholders to understand and implement. Their core stated aims are to keep it simple and actionable – and that starts with a good strategic model with which to organise thoughts and create an action plan. Most elements of the model will be self explanatory, but to elaborate briefly by;


Investing in walking environments can support local economies by increasing footfall, improving accessibility and attracting new business and events. Research shows that investment in the walking environment is likely to be of equal or better value for money than other transport projects. Retailers and residents express a willingness to pay for improvements to the walking environment, while good quality public realm increases the value of both residential and commercial property. Research also even shows that residents of walking friendly neighbourhoods are less likely to be depressed or to have poor mental or physical health.

Currently in the UK, policy is changing in favour of more pedestrian orientated places. Places like Exeter provides an excellent example of the manifestation of these policies when properly implemented in their city centre renewal – ‘Princesshay’ has drawn favourable comments and awards from English Heritage (‘remarkable as much for the thoughtfulness of its urban design as for the inspirational quality of most of its architectural components’ and for ‘the adoption in Exeter of best practice principles for the regeneration of historic cities’) and the British Council of Shopping Centres who awarded the scheme ‘Supreme Gold Award’ in 2007.

Central to the scheme’s success has been the promotion of reduced car parking provision for city centre residential, relying instead on better public transport and ensuring that purchasers of apartments in the centre had most of their key needs satisfied without having to resort to car based travel. At its heart the development is a mixed-use scheme that meets sustainability objectives by minimising trip numbers and distances, addressing social and economic vitality and recognising the city’s heritage.

X-Y-Z – pronounced ex-iz

...and short for existential. Ok I may be getting a desperate here but amongst other things existential is defined as ‘based on experience’ – and this really is the ace that high streets and town centres can pull from their sleeves to start the fight back against the internet and out-of-town development.  Town centres and high streets have inherent advantages in this regard, best articulated by ICIC (Institute for Competitive Inner City) – which has been responsible for helping seemingly lost causes to not only get back on their feet but to thrive. The best example in the UK being Shoreditch/Hoxton in London, a hotbed of hi-tech innovation that is framing itself as Tech City, the cluster has grown from 15 to 300 organisations in only 3 years and is roundly backed by central government to become #1 in Europe for these key industries. 

PS - here's ATCM's just published 100 ways to help a High Street - http://www.100ways.org.uk/