Can anyone save our high streets?

May 15, 2012

I’ve just (finally) read the recent article in the Guardian, published 29/4/12 (beautifully illustrated by Patrick Morgan) – basically an series of interviews with six experts who propose solutions to the future of high streets. The wackiest proposition is that "psychotherapy [should be] like a visit to a hairdresser". With all due respect to Alain de Botton, but religious worship is not yet so redundant that it can be replaced with therapy. There is also a proposition by an artist contributor to effectively give up on high streets altogether by converting them to playgrounds. Despite agreeing with the essential role of high streets as centres of sociability, this negating of their essential role seems to ignore thousands of years of history of urban form.

Two of the other propositions are of particular interest. Jane Shepherdson (chief executive of Whistles) points to the importance of town planner involvement in high streets. Her suggestion that by planning a five-year strategy to manage the mix of independent and chain stores by offering a range of rents seems in line with past successes in Marylebone high street, for example.

The architect David Adjaye has an essentially spatial proposition – following the success of his libraries (‘Idea Stores’) in east London), to ensure that public buildings are brought back to the high street (see image). It is undoubtedly the case that the spatial location of the non-retail town centre activities is vital for ensuring that retail and on-retail work synergistically to create an interdependent mesh of activities and relationships between town centre users.

David Adjaye Idea Store, Whitechapel High Street. Image from http://iamnotanarchitect.wordpress.com/.

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