How can we transform our high streets?

Sophie Bowerman, Associate Partner at Axiom Architects, reflects on the priorities needed to achieve sustainable and multipurpose network of neighbourhoods.  

At Axiom Architects we are thinking about the future of high streets and what the built environment may look like as the way we live radically changes. Our high streets are shifting to serve as multifunctional nodes in a network of neighbourhoods, each with unique identity and requirements. A thorough understanding and engagement of which, is fundamental to successful change.

To become these more agile local centres, home to a diverse catalogue of uses, requires physical adaptation and how we sustainably redefine them, tackling the oversupply of retail space and heavily retail focused infrastructure is a complicated challenge. Planning restrictions, fragmented ownership and leases, sceptical landlords, not to mention physical constraints of existing stock; core positions, structural arrangements, and accessibility, all need to be addressed.

Convenience provision will still be an important offering of these places and the presence of retail will continue to be key to business success driving online surges. To unlock the future, we need to envision the physical form and delivery of retail spaces differently.

Reduced footprints, pop ups and shared occupation are new ways to envision retail. With these changes, site use can become more efficient and diversified, creating higher occupancy rates and income opportunity, simultaneously eroding previous barriers to entry for many by enabling lower rates and shorter leases.

Changing retail and a greater diversification of uses can reduce rear servicing demands and allow relocation to on-street. The rear zones can then, when coupled with permeating existing building stock, be repurposed, to become extensions of the street with secondary frontages, hubs of new activity, adding a new dynamic to the centre.

Diversification doesn’t need to make existing uses obsolete. Programming complimentary uses can drive footfall for one another. They do, however, have varying physical requirements and so flexibility and multifunctionality are key components to the design of these places. We must design for longevity and sustainable growth.

Intensification of uses must come with plenty of appropriate high-quality amenity and public realm. Our high streets are public places facilitating cultural and social exchange and should be boosting our wellbeing. They too, are now expected to offer leisure and experience, activity and exchanges that are unrealisable online and are a growing consumer desire.

But how to make this happen? A catalogue of future typologies and parameters that unveils previously locked up equity can incentivise stakeholders for development while simultaneously ensuring the delivery of a collective structural goal.

These adaptable accepted blueprints for programming uses, maximising efficiency and increasing capacity, illustrate options for the typical typologies of the high street and town centre; retail parades, department stores, shopping centres, or multi-storey car parks.

This strategy goes hand in hand with new planning mechanisms, and a flexible planning context, one that is equipped to work locally, as well as new infrastructure adjustments, and stakeholder consultation.

Ultimately, the outcomes local to each town will have varying emphases’ respondent to local needs, be it on establishing itself a business services and knowledge economy, a more housing focused scenario, where the centre must importantly be able to accommodate the increasing population or perhaps geared toward retail recovery, where the centre recovers a role as a place where shopping and related leisure activity return as the primary use.

The bottom line to this is that change needs to be of high urban design quality, led by local requirements and driven by establishing strong partnerships in order to achieve a truly sustainable future, and to mitigate the ‘casualties’ of change.