The long-term value is in meeting the community’s needs
This week I took part in a fascinating Hacking the High Street event, hosted by the architect firm Gensler. Great ideas were shared, different perspectives offered and focus on key challenges presented. What struck me was how this debate still evokes equal measure of passionate engagement with a tangible sense frustration that the answer to the high street dilemma is still so elusive. It’s a complex problem, involving multiple stakeholders, rapidly changing markets, no clear single answer and a confusion of where responsibility lies – and where long term opportunity exists.

In the 10 years that I have been involved in high street regeneration, the demise of the high street has become a universal concern clearly reflected in the Chancellors recent gesture to reduce business rates. But is simply throwing money at this problem sending the right message in the long term?

Pity is not a good long-term motivator
While there is no one clear answer, there is a need to rethink our narrative.

The reason the high street is such a highly emotive subject is because it’s central to the community, an extension of our homes. We need it to be a place of vibrancy and connectivity, to give us a sense of belonging and place. However, as it is no longer the bastion of local and convenient shopping, there remains an urgent need to consider not only its generic purpose but to invest in understanding underlying challenges and opportunities, within the local context to begin to frame a viable future.

In the past the reflex response has been to place the onus on customers in a demand for them ‘save it’ as if it were a snow leopard or blue whale. This pervasive victim narrative does nothing more than risk accelerating the likely demise of the high street, and fails to recognise the capacity within the community to address and meet its own challenges. If we only ever treat the high street as a place for shopping we are limiting its options to be of value. How we view the high street, our relationship with it may not be the only problem but it is at least an area that can be addressed immediately. Whilst I have very great sympathy with the anxiety around the loss of shops, growing vacancies, I don’t think we help its chances of survival by suggesting its only hope is in being ‘protected’ and ‘saved’, and it’s certainly not viable. Pity is not a long-term motivator.

Equally, expecting local authorities to provide the solutions and drive change is putting too much responsibility in the wrong hands, and the wrong place, and misses the real opportunity that exists.

No one wants to live in a ghost town, and that is the opportunity.
The reason we keep getting this wrong, is paradoxically the reason we should have hope. We earnestly want to help, save and restore our high streets to former glory, but we can’t go back, so where do we go? Look to what the primary function of a community once was and start from there. We recognise the huge impact our communities can have on our wellbeing – but let’s not confuse this with just shops and shopping. There are some fantastic high street businesses, but not all are viable, the fact of their existence alone shouldn’t justify their survival. It is unwise to expect blanket support for something that has lost its value, and failed to move on. Behaviour is not changed by demanding it to change, or because someone somewhere wishes it. People engage with what they value, and universally we value safe, connected communities, with sense of place and wellbeing, with an opportunity for involvement and support.

Instead of the relentless focus on saving all shops on the high street we should consider what is needed within the community, now and future, and how existing resources could begin to meet these needs. The focus should not be solely on meeting customer needs but community needs. That is where the ‘brand’ advantage lies for our high streets, and where our focus should be.

On the far side of complexity lie simple human truths that bind us
People want to live in a vibrant, place, where they connect and belong, where there is energy, hope and sense of place. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated or populated with top brands but does require meaningful engagement. In every community I have ever worked I have seen the possibilities of a proactive grassroots response if the conditions allowed. We now need to create those conditions.

Where there are people, there is hope, and opportunity to build something viable. Whatever the demographic make up of a community there will be people or businesses capable of driving a new narrative and act as catalysts for change. Whilst each community has different challenges and opportunities we are all bound by the same human requirements without which we descend into isolation. We should be brave and bold, reframe the function to reflect the need and the opportunity of the surrounding community, and be ready to engage those who live and work in the area, not asking what they want but discovering what they could offer.

Business; beyond the counter
As a starting point, existing businesses who have a vested interest in increasing footfall, have much potentially to offer. Their hidden advantage is that their customers are already on side, and would be willing any effort made to reengage and revitalize, to work. Businesses have the potential to add value to their community if they instigated new energy and engagement that invited people back, not with offers of discounts but with offers of connectivity and through creating a sense of place. The key is to build ownership . There is a plethora of successful grassroot initiatives and enterprises that demonstrate the extraordinary impact people can have when given the opportunity to do so, we now need to trust and invest in creating these conditions, and recognise we have what we need in our communities we just need to release it.

So sod this downbeat, woe-is-the-high- street narrative, lets kick start this conversation infused with a sense of possibility and hope. Let’s focus on energising our high streets in this complex and uncertain world by equipping the community to meet their own challenges and aspirations supported with an inspiring, exciting vision to power their community’s future with renewed sense of purpose.