One of the best things about the current exhibition about high streets at the Lighthouse in Glasgow is the way it looks creatively at the possible futures for the high street as well as indulging nostalgia with artefacts and film clips from the past.
The thinking behind those suggestions was that we need to see the high street first and foremost as a social space where people can go to do things they want and that add value to their lives, not just to shop. The idea of the ‘agora’ was to reflect the ancient Greek marketplace which was not only a commercial space but also a civic and cultural one.
I spent most of yesterday in workshops organised by Architecture + Design Scotland exploring just how these ideas could start to transform our high streets, and what was preventing them happening.
My presentation was on the theme of 20 things you can do in your high street without shopping’ – all of which are already happening or could do so with minimal effort.
But start to put them together and to layer in other activities, including public services and business start-ups, and you have the beginnings of a recipe for a place that rebuilds the character of a town, maximising the value created by the people who use it rather than extracting that value.
What’s getting in the way? A lack of coordination and shared vision is a key issue raised by participants in the workshops. Property owners, retailers and local authorities all pursue their own agendas, despite mechanisms such as town centre management and business improvement districts that are intended to bring people round the table.
One difficulty is that it can be hard for a local authority to tell the difference between positive coordination, which animates and populates space, and risk-averse control, which prevents activity in the name of avoiding harm.
It can also be hard for investors and landlords, many of whom own property they never intended fo have responsibility for, to see that the days of regular rent rises and a steady income are over. They have been slow to imagine anything other than the traditional model of property ownership. But as some town centres teeter on the edge, the commercial value of many of these investments is becoming precarious. Owners can’t just wait for a tenant to turn up that will pay the ‘right’ price.
So these owners, reluctant or otherwise, need to get involved in rethinking the use of their properties. They need to understand that non-commercial uses are not unprofitable – they bring diversity and footfall into town centres, shoring up the commercial activity that still exists and creating space for new forms of business.
Similarly, local authorities need to understand that thinking differently is a sign of progress, not of failure. I’ve come across council officers who are afraid to admit the scale of the issues they face because they’re worried it will flag up their town as ‘failing’. They’re averse to every risk apart from the one staring them in the face: that failure will happen because they do nothing.