The high street is dead. Along with a string of cultural totems, from paid-for music to linear television, the traditional “town centre” has been disembowelled by the digital revolution.
Are they still worth saving? Efforts to revive the High Street follow the same desperate themes – a splash of paint, a mix of shops, some landscaping and fingers crossed.
Does anyone shop any more in places where parking is difficult, the main thoroughfare is shared with cars and the choice is limited to pound shops, nail bars, Starbucks and chuggers?
And yet our High Streets are our town centres – the waist in the hour glass where all roads lead. Centuries of feet, wagons, cattle and cars have shaped the geography of our environment to put them centre-stage. A tremendous resource on the wane.
A colossal 50,000 jobs have been axed in the first half of the year as retail workers bore the brunt of hundreds of store closures and two daily newspapers – the Mirror and the Daily Mail – simultaneously launched a campaign to save the High Street.
But is it just too late? Perhaps it’s time to upend all traditional notions. Abandon commerce, except for the essentials, and prioritise people.
Make the High Street work for the community
Make these places live up to their name as High Streets. These should be ambitious civic realms, tackling another consequence of the digital age – disconnected communities. Clear out the vehicles for a start – make them places where people encounter other people in knots and clusters.
Fill the shop spaces with hot desks, coffee shops, swap shops, council offices, post offices, delivery centres, health centres, art galleries, police stations, classrooms, crowdfunding pitches, barking market stalls for local talents and start-ups.
Imagine an amphitheatre where everyday community government in its chaotic glory meets to discuss issues of the day, unprompted, unguided, welcoming one and all.
Imagine a protest meeting about some unwelcome skyscraper where the planning officer nips out of his neighbouring desk (in the “shop” window) to take questions and offer explanations – democracy at the basic level.
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Where retirees learn coding and, in turn, teach others about what they have learnt in their life, be it geography, metalwork or double-entry book-keeping – the general level of well-being raised, like boats on the tide.
Imagine a place where people, who have an shapeless lunch hour or an empty day, congregate, without a plan but sure that something will be happening to spark their involvement and engagement, assisted by Games Maker style champions.
Citizens go to eat a sandwich and end up as an impromptu extra in a scratch performance of Twelfth Night or they meet a man who once rode a horse in the Grand National, or pick up a wine rack made from Thames driftwood.Noise and bustle where once there were kebab papers, filthy shutters and chuntering cars.
The High Street not as a sign of decline but the shimmering epicentre of civic pride. A sense not of place, but of belonging. In a world of isolation – togetherness; in a world of fracture, co-operation.