Local government has a central role in both high street demise and revival. Why would people come to a high street anymore when they can get everything it offers for less money, without having to pay for parking or risk getting (parking) fined for staying too long, and when they anyway have more choice at home online?
Parking needs major reform. Local governments are drunk on the income they gain from parking, with estimates that they will earn up to £1 billion in 2019/20. This is simply insane. There is no common sense in taxing and penalising people at the rate of £1 billion a year while this tax is contributing so much to the long term decline of a more sustainable (and ethical?) income stream of corporation tax and PAYG from high street businesses that actually have customers.
But the biggest problem local governments create with their reliance on parking income, is that it is a massive incentive for people to spend less time on the high street. There isn’t any point having a high street if people don’t have the time to use it, lest they get fined for overstaying their parking limit. There could not be a better analogy for council’s being addicted to parking income than smokers. Just like smokers, local governments forsake their healthier and more sustainable future, by enjoying the benefits of the immediate gain they get from their quick hit of nicotine – all the while feeding the cancer of long term high street decline.
Moving on from parking, Local governments need to be more like Melbourne – continuously ranked as one of the best cities in the world – in their thinking about sticky places. “A good city is like a good party”, says Jan Gehl the famous urban planning professor responsible for Melbourne’s transformation from a ‘neutron bombed’, ‘ugliness’. “You know it’s working when people stay for much longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves.”
Key to Melbourne’s transformation was the creation of sticky points. Melbourne looked to the wide boulevards of Paris and the piazzas of Rome where outdoor seating and communal engagement were integral allures. Now Melbourne has the highest ratio of street furniture per person in the world, and Swanston Street has more pedestrians than Regent Street – in a city one quarter the size of London. Think this would never work in the cold winter climate of the UK? Melbourne’s winter weather is not much different to southern England.
UK local government’s need to encourage high street businesses to move out onto the street. Think street furniture, think florists displaying outside, fruit and vegetables on display outside and be prepared to give away 50% of pedestrian walkways to create these sticky points – no matter the compromises this will cause.
Maximise the benefits of the high street by giving people what they can’t get at home sitting on their computer – human interaction and a sense of community. As Jan Gehl says, a key metric of high street success should be stickiness – the amount of time people spend hanging around.
High streets also have to look like places people want to go to. They need to be visually appealing, look safe and fun at the same time. Greenery, decorations (not just at Christmas time) and spaces people want to enjoy are all part of it. Here is some inspiration:
- Funchal in Portugal
- Lyme Regis High Street
- A French fruit and vegetable display
- Urban seating
- Colour usage
- Maltby Street
- Northumberland Street
- Outdoor cinema and bars
- Urban beaches in Paris and Poland
- And perhaps most interesting – parklets
If this sounds expensive and beyond the resources of your local government, then get the community involved. There is a huge reservoir of community goodwill and free labour waiting to help you. Businesses on the high street will help you – it is in their interest. Go to the nearest university and ask design or architecture students to submit ideas – they will do it for free because it gives them experience. They are all just waiting for you to show leadership and give them some direction.
Also, think about how you can develop your town center to connect green spaces back to the high street so the link between the two is symbiotic. What unused or hidden spaces does the town have? What spaces are underused? Every town will have many spots just waiting to have stickiness added to them.
What theme or attraction can your town become known for? The best dining outside of London? The best parklets and community spaces in the UK? The most decorated high street? The coffee capital of the UK? The most independent shops of any high street? ‘The garden town’? Pick a theme you think your town can deliver and then do everything you can to make it happen. For example, if you want to be the foodie capital of the UK, then encourage landlords with empty shops to split them in half and rent to two different cafes offering completely different cuisines. Provide grants to new businesses to setup. Whatever you do, it needs to be taken seriously and it needs your leadership.
Encourage events. If there is a sacrifice to make between traffic flow and having a community event on the high street, choose the event every time. Events also do not have to close traffic. Make public spaces free to innovative or cool attractions. The Covent Garden ice rink itself took up almost no space, but the impact of something like this in a small town would be dramatic.
Lastly, street trading should be classy not ugly. Ugly repulses visitors and low quality traders is an overall detraction. Borough Market is successful because it is selective about the traders that get a license and it expects a high level presentation from its traders. Compare these images and see which ones you think will attract more visitors.
Repulsing: Redhill Market
Inviting: Borough Market
Attractive: Uniform, decorated and not ugly tents