How a cohesive design strategy could improve the high street

Times are tough for local high streets but Prosper’s Senior Design Consultant Thomas Day considers how a cohesive design strategy could revitalise areas holistically and provide a vehicle for positive change.

We’re familiar with the newspaper stories of how our local high streets are dying, hollowed out by edge-of-town retail parks and shopping centres, and from buying habits moving online. The steady decline of traditional retail here is certainly evident - with over one fifth of town centre shops closing in the last five years.

A key role to play

Our high streets may be in crisis, but still have plenty to offer. Humans love to socialise and naturally congregate somewhere central, so town centres are integral to our local communities. People have a strong emotional connection to where they live - deriving pride, ownership and identity from their local centres. They also boast individualism, as well as historical and cultural assets, that shopping malls can’t compete with.

High streets provide a different type of experience too: Shopping centres and retail parks create a great experience but visits tend to be more purpose driven, whereas a trip to a town centre can be more leisurely and serendipitous. Shopping centres realise the benefits of making themselves more experiential, and are doing so, yet the high street has got a head start. As Norwich BID's "Head out not Home" successful summer campaign illustrates.

Need for reinvention

However, town centres urgently need to reinvent themselves to regain appeal, especially as many have become more disparate over time. There’s certainly an evolution in use and function of town centre space - more cafes and restaurants, leisure, community and wellbeing facilities, as well as residential replacing some retail. 

It’s also about raising the appeal of what’s already there, in terms of the units themselves and the wider physical landscape. That’s why I think the strengths that Prosper brings to a shopping centre environment via our Retail Design and Delivery (RDD) process, could bring the same level of quality if those strategies were applied to a high street environment.

Benefits of a Cohesive Design Strategy

Applying an overarching design vision by looking at town centres as a holistic entity, can help lift and revitalise high streets and pull the wider community together. Leaving individual lease owners and tenants to their own devices, leads to mixed results, or worse, no progress at all.

By partnering with us as a retail design team, relevant parties can also tap into our awareness of the latest retail trends and best practice. As an objective outside party, we can also challenge tenants to help to deliver the best outcome.

This approach could also deliver an improved streetscape for those who use or pass through an area - e.g. pedestrianisation, lighting, decluttered signage and seating areas -  but without the costs and disruption of a full regeneration project.

Learning from success in London

This thinking was inspired by the success of Greater London’s Better Streets Campaign - a series of multiple small-scale improvements across the city before the 2012 Olympics to improve streets, public spaces, interchanges and junctions, and local town centres such as Richmond, Harrow and Wimbledon. 

The Mayor for London’s office funded such improvements by offering tenants grants towards re-doing their signage and shopfronts, on the condition they use a nominated architect or designer. It showed how a wider design strategy can be successful applied to different scales and needs - right down to a parade of local shops.

London’s Regeneration Team has also showcased potential solutions with its High Street Stories. In Croydon, a commonality in visual language was applied to the South End parade of shops to strengthen the sense of place. In Walthamstow, Blackhorse Lane was reinvented as a community celebrating its manufacturing heritage with a public access workshop, new landmarks, signage and murals to emphasise the area’s individualism while also giving cohesion.

Prosper’s own placemaking work with Transport for London at Old Street Station also shows how applying considered design and wayfinding can give a small scale area a stronger identity.

Bedford and the Portas Pilot

Though it’s great to see these success stories and what can work, there are also ongoing challenges facing high street regeneration, as seen in smaller regional town centres like Bedford.

Bedford was one of 12 towns to receive £50,000 in the Portas Pilot scheme to improve its centre. The cash was a bonus for the town’s existing Business Improvement District (BID) but was not enough to effect significant, long-lasting change.

The money was invested in business training, mobilising the community and supporting the ‘Bedpop’ shop initiative that showcased local makers and entrepreneurs in a vacant unit. Due to its popularity, the initial 6 week run was extended to six months, showing how pop-ups are a flexible, accessible way to bring more exciting, changeable and individual retail offering as we’ve spoken about here.

Changing landlord and tenant behaviour

Bedford’s experience also highlighted urgent issues to address, such as high rents, inflexible leases and landlord behaviour. Some local authorities are now compelling landlords to fill units realising the negative effect of empty shop units.

Some tenants also need to reconsider their offering in these challenging times for retail. They may be initially reluctant to invest in improvements so need to see the potential return and how changing perceptions will benefit them.

Entrenched traditions such as opening hours also need revisiting, as shutting at 5pm on weekdays and on Sundays no longer fits with shoppers’ modern lives, or compete with more flexible players in today’s retail environment.

Achieving results with multiple parties

With high streets being a complex picture with multiple landlords and tenants, managing that is another challenge. Delivering cohesive design within shopping centres - or town centre revitalisation projects like Lexicon Bracknell - is easier when all units are under one landlord who can compel tenants to stick to design guidelines.

Local Authorities can control some of this through their own planning systems but it depends on how developed their overall strategy is. Planners already have guidelines for shopfront design, especially in conservation areas, and a process in place. But these need revisiting alongside a long-term development strategy so things are not disjointed. Also some planning officers apply rules more rigidly than others.

Related factors that negatively impact town centres also need to be considered, such as high parking charges, public transport provision and rising business rates. Yet local authorities are very busy and underfunded, which constraints them.

Funding issues

With local authorities so stretched, funding is a big stumbling block for town regeneration. That’s why Brighton and Hove City Council took a different approach to save and restore the historic Madeira Terraces lining Brighton east seafront, by launching a crowdfunding campaign.

The aim was to raise money but also show public support for the project before applying for £4m Heritage Lottery funding. The work will be phased as funding is secured, so the first three arches will form a pilot project to provide a robust business case for restoring the rest of the terrace (151 arches in total). An estimated £24m is needed to repair the entire cast-iron structure.

Woolwich - a model for high street rebirth?

Given the challenges above, no wonder many in the retail world are excited by the recent news that the UK’s biggest property development and investment company - British Land - has just purchased a large chunk of Woolwich high street. 

Being under one landlord, it will certainly inject much needed funds, as well as design cohesion, while hopefully maintaining the individualism and unique experience of a local high street.

This is one of several investments British Land has made recently in locations along the Elizabeth Line - London’s new Crossrail route - with other purchases in Ealing and Paddington. But the question is whether only high streets like Woolwich and Bracknell, which show lots of potential near an affluent area, will attract investment for these big retail property players.

There’s a danger that the most neglected regional high streets elsewhere in the UK will fail to attract funding to improve and will fall further behind. What’s clear is that the issue of saving our high streets is complex and wide-ranging so there will not be a one size fits all solution. But looking at and learning from what is working - or not - in retail today is a good step forward.

Thomas Day

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