RIBA ‘Silver Linings’ report envisions a new role for the high street for an active ‘third age’

October 27, 2013

A new report out this week by the RIBA ‘Building Futures’ think-tank provides a vision for a future of an ‘active Third Age’ and the possible impact it might have on the built environment.

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The report’s findings are very much in tune with the work of the Adaptable Suburbs project and indeed the about-to-commence ‘Street Mobility’ project at UCL, which will be researching the impact of ‘community severance’ on older people. (The connection is  not entirely coincidential, as the Street Mobility project’s PI, Dr Jenny Mindell, was an expert advisor on the RIBA’s report).

I highlight here some of the key recommendations of the report:

  • For Housing: the authors maintain that the current ad hoc changes being made to housing to adapt to new social needs (such as extended families living under one roof) demand a revival of the old mansion block housing form. In this way, ideas developed by the co-housing movmeent will enable families to expand within a single unit, sharing facilties and enabling co-dependence between older and younger members of the same family (as well as independence for the individuals within it).
  • This links neatly to the report’s observations regarding the relationship between the home and community. They maintain that this type of home will be rooted in “an increased emphasis on the relationship to nature, inviting the tending of shared gardens and the communal growing of food” – thus extending the private domain into semi-private and semi-public domains with new “multigenerational neighbourliness and wider support network that can open new opportunities to address the spiralling cost of both childcare and elderly care.” This may be a rather optimistic vision, but it is important to note how our own research suggests the importance of a spatial interrelationship between the residential hinterland and the public domain of a neighbourhood; namely, the high street.
  • The report dedicates a whole section to ‘The High Street Revived’, which, we would agree wholeheartedly, highlights how “by their very nature, high streets developed centrally so people could walk to them” and this natural walkability will be increasingly important in a low-carbon future. The report maintains that high streets will no longer be retail focused (in fact, our research shows that they never have been). Instead, they have the potential to incorporate new forms of social and communal functions: hosting local services and supporting functions such as playgrounds next to a local crèche or school, to support the daily presence of old and young and with the added benefits that intergenerational contact can provide.
  • The revival of the high street as a social hub means – the report states – that we can start to see its embedded potential to be a place for small businesses to start up, for new services (such as 3-D printing) to be provided, for libraries to be used as lifelong learning facilities and so on. Indeed – I would argue – the high street is envisioned as the heart of a new form of many of the small-scale non-domestic uses that we have observed in our surveys of London’s land uses over the past 150 years.

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