RETAIL RENAISSANCE Part 5: Rebirth Of Shophouses & Neighbourhoods 4th June 2021
At the end of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, the Renaissance emerged as an opportunity for new knowledge, techniques, and icons. Leaders were those who pushed into uncharted territory, disrupted the status quo, and created a vibrant culture of creativity and experimentation. With the UK high street decline reaching a fever pitch, it is time for a change.
A radical new vision will be required to redefine the role that high streets play in our lives.
While the future remains uncertain, people still crave enjoyment more than ever. Our recent research across leisure, retail, wellbeing, and hospitality, heightens this sentiment. Changes in consumer behaviour combined with the impact of technology and the effects of the pandemic have also rapidly affected the speed of change. Below, we explore the issues behind this retail apocalypse and the emerging solutions.
Rebirth Of Shophouses & Neighbourhoods
Analysts, campaigning bodies such as Shelter and politicians across the spectrum suggest that the UK needs 300,000 new homes a year to meet demand; yet we rarely get near building even 200,000. There has been a lot written about converting unused retail space into housing; in fact, if you go back 300 years, that’s exactly how our high streets used to look. They were a healthy mix of retail, production and housing, co-existing comfortably within the same environment, similar to the shophouses of SouthEast Asia.
As retail demand has grown (particularly in the 1980’s), the mix of housing vs retail has become completely distorted. For this balance to change, it is necessary for town planners and local architects to reimagine the perfect street and consider how to transform unused shops into private dwellings. A word of warning, though if the new housing isn’t affordable, we’ll simply swap empty shops for empty houses. We have more shops in the UK than we will ever need, we were once a nation of shopkeepers, but not anymore.
On the topic of town planning and the rediscovery of local centres, there has been a growing demand for what many call the 20-minute neighbourhood. This is where everything one needs is within a 20-minute walk or cycle from where they live. Whilst this concept is not particularly new, it has taken a frontal position in the development of individual neighbourhood experiences.
A great example is the case of Minimes Barracks in Paris reviewed in Bloomberg, showing an area being transformed through the idea of the ‘15-minute city’ – from parking lots converted into gardens, with public housing apartments, offices, independent stores, artisan workshops, a day-care facility, health clinics, and café all in one place. This fits with wider plans to turn Paris into a ‘city of proximities’ as seen with the ‘Paris en Commun’ mayoral campaign.
Similarly, in the UK, Waltham Cross launched one of Britain’s first 20 min neighbourhood’s, focused on stopping people from using their cars and shop as well as socialise more locally through their ‘Mini Holland’ scheme. The program started back in 2013 to improve cycle routes and public spaces across the borough. Specifically, the likes of parking were prioritised for residents in those neighbourhoods and visitors to those neighbours. Parking is not there to facilitate anything else. To get more people out, walking and cycling, the Waltham Forest community noticed more cohesion and community ownership flourish in these low traffic neighbourhoods.
This type of urban planning fuels the potential to decentralise towns and rediscover local living. “Reimagining our towns not as divided into discrete zones for living, working, and entertainment, but as mosaics of neighbourhoods in which almost all residents’ needs can be met within 15 minutes of their homes on foot, by bike, or on public transit” as described by Carlos Moreno, scientific director and professor specialising in complex systems and innovation at University of Paris 1, Bloomberg, 2020.
Between global warming, the pandemic enforcing lifestyle changes and the rising debate around globalism, many countries and leaders from Barcelona, Seattle, London, Melbourne, and Milan, for example, aim to re-develop planning strategies towards a more local way of life, where people can invest their time in richer experiences that benefit their wellbeing rather than commuting.
After all, the shift in the structure of cities will also mean that individuals themselves will be more resistant to shocks, according to Richard Bentall, a psychology professor at the University of Sheffield, who studied the mental health and social impacts of Covid-19. The sense of belonging promoted by 15-minute cities, he says, could make us all happier (BBC, 2020).
We’re now seeing London’s Recovery Board reunite various government members to issue the High Streets for All ‘Challenge’ to support London’s diverse communities, public institutions, and businesses to form active partnerships. The mission is one of 9 agreed missions to help the UK recover from this unprecedented crisis and explicitly focuses on ‘delivering enhanced public spaces and exciting new uses for underused high street buildings in every London Borough’. The challenge aims to reveal that the UK high street is more than retail; it also has significant social, community and cultural value.
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