10 things you might not know about high streets: 1. The high street is not dead

April 5, 2013

This is the first in a series of short blogs devised by the Adaptable Suburbs project team to get across some of the preliminary findings of our 3.5 year project.


High Street Loughton – then and now – showing view towards post office (*Left-hand image from Percy Ambrose: ‘Reminiscences of a Loughton Life’)

1. The high street is not dead

There are too many myths floating around about the apparent death of the high street. It is true to say that it is undoubtedly going through change, but then again high streets have always changed. Back in the 1930s there were concerns that the coming of the department store would be the death-knell for traditional shop, but of course history has proven that not to be the case.

No one is saying that the loss of major stores such as Woolworth’s is a trivial matter, but to equate the health of the high street solely with the number of closed shops is to over look the fact that the high street is a much broader (spatial – as well as economic and social) entity, which when functions well, it can weather difficulties such as the current recession by adapting itself to change.

The current discourse of the apparent ‘decline’ or ‘death’ of the high street is premised on an image of the ‘high street’ that has arguably never existed. Our research shows that change and continuity are both part of the story of town centres and a historical reading of such environments finds that they are remarkable more for their persistence and adaptability than for the apparent dramatic change that the current concerns would suggest is occurring. As others have said recently (e.g. http://www.demos.co.uk/blog/anationofshopkeepers), alongside the very sad loss of jobs (and it is not coincidental, the loss of longstanding businesses is particularly upsetting – part of a very British nostalgia for times gone by) are very interesting new models of town-centre type activities emerging, including sites of production, workshops and small businesses, local work hubs and so on (as can be seen in the interesting work by Nesta and Design Council CABE for their ‘Compendium for the civic economy‘, as well as the work of Gort Scott with Matthew Carmona on High Street London).

One of the aspects we feel should be better understood is what makes some high streets able to weather change whilst others are less resilient. From an urban design point of view, we are studying whether this can be attributed to morphology, built form diversity, accessibility and connectivity, the flexibility of use classes and so on. Alongside this we need to understand better how the spatial context gives opportunity to different overlapping social networks to emerge and thus sustain local centres over time. This is what the next phase of the project will be working towards addressing.


One Response to “10 things you might not know about high streets: 1. The high street is not dead”

  1. […] of workplaces. This is partly inspired by my UCL colleagues and their series of blogs ‘10 Things You Might Not Know About the High Street‘. So here we go. Staring with my favourite myth: ‘the office is […]

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