Back in 1929, Charles Kettering, chair of the General Motors company commissioned research – “Keeping the Customers Dissatisfied”. The premise of this report was to explore how to maximise revenue by maintaining a constant level of dissatisfaction in customers, creating an insatiable well of need for stuff. It could be argued that this marked the beginning of the consumerist world we know today. In this world our high streets suffered, unable to offer the range, price, product, or the convenience their larger, more sophisticated competitors were able. No longer local and convenient, what could the high street businesses offer?

A grassroots approach to high street regeneration

In 2007, I set up a grassroots approach to high street regeneration where the focus was less about meeting customer needs, and more about meeting community needs. Any student of Maslow will tell you that vital in the wellbeing and resilience of human species is the need for connectivity and sense of belonging.

The Crouch End project approach was premised on this simple fact and the recognition that, local businesses were in prime position to respond to community needs, offering real time engagement and reinstate sense of place. It was a novel idea, and a successful one and revealed the huge hidden potential within the community. Importantly, it relied less on money and more on changing behaviours. Through small consistent acts of engagement, we created both platform and space for people to meet and reconnect with the high street community. The project proved my theory, it didn’t take a lot to make a massive difference, just something different to be done.

An opportunity for high streets to be at the forefront of post pandemic reconnection

Stockton-on-Tees council’s recent proposal to bulldozer part of their local high street and create a riverside park, reflects the challenge for high street survival, and demonstrates they too are looking ‘beyond the counter’ to the role the high streets can play within the community. A role that reflects our emerging need to restore our sense of togetherness and relationship within and around our community.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we will see that our dissatisfaction now lies more in this disconnect than in our desire to buy stuff. This is the opportunity for our high streets to be at the forefront of this reconnection, and a platform for revealing and connecting the many hidden talents, resource, skills, and support that exist within.

There is a myriad of ways these connections can be made, it could be in park space, better business/community engagement programmes, learning forum’s, support systems, creative hubs, using space differently or just becoming a platform to create renewed sense of place and hope. Never more have we needed our high streets, the backbone of our recovery to ignite our sense of belonging, be the catalyst to our communities becoming more resilient and capable of taking better care of ourselves.

Creating a place of connectivity not just a place for consumerism

In setting up the Crouch End grassroots regeneration project, the answer even 10 years ago was to circumnavigate the attempt for local high street businesses to meet the sophisticated growing customer needs. Instead, we needed to focus on how the high street businesses could add value by becoming community connectors. The success of this project demonstrated that being able to connect people, offer a sense of belonging and a feeling of being valued was highly engaging and important to people. An added dimension to the role of businesses on the high street.

Instead of focussing on improving consumerism, maybe the new value, and the greatest opportunity is to look at how we can improve the lives, possibilities for our communities, and through this build stronger communities, better able to care for themselves. I applaud Stockton-on-Tees council for at least looking beyond the counter, into what might really help build stronger community, and meet the needs of those who live and work there. Their bold vision illustrates the hugely significant role the high street community could offer, one could be led by business and one we are all likely to value beyond just buying stuff.