The human being is an intelligent, adaptable, and complex creature. Having met our basic need for food and shelter, we thrive on challenges, excitement, experiences and opportunities. We pursue fulfillment and inspiration on the one hand and, on the other, crave comfort and security at every stage of our lives.
Above all else, we are creatures with feelings and emotions in everything we do and everywhere we are. It’s odd, therefore, that areas at the heart of our everyday lives – our High Streets and town centres – are so often soulless, impersonal and even intimidating environments where any emotional engagement is likely to be at best cool or, at worst, fearful. It’s little wonder that such areas can so easily become associated with social breakdown, economic decline, disenchantment and incivility. Why has this happened and what can we do to redress the balance when we consider the potential for large scale or localised regeneration?
There’s no simple explanation (or answer) due to so many environmental and economic variables at play, not to mention complex community dynamics and the impact of the digital revolution. However, it is in no-one’s interest to perpetuate what’s gone before and idly watch our town centres continue their downward spiral. Regeneration is not about the tactical deployment of sticking plasters to address an ailing environment. It’s about revitalising, encouraging, attracting, enthusing and inspiring. It’s about change. And it’s about maintaining relevance to the needs of individuals and local demographics.
When we think of our town centres, our first thoughts these days are invariably just task related – shopping or working. These are, after all, functional environments where any efforts to massage our emotions are simply a commercial imperative of retailers promoting their wares. That wasn’t the case in years gone by, when our town centres were truly at the heart of personal interaction and involvement. They represented the heartbeat of the local community, a hub of diverse and sociable engagement, social opportunity and emotional stimulation, as well as shopping!
The digital revolution, more than anything else, has changed all of that. The online world has also changed the way we behave and manage our increasingly hectic lifestyles; and the convenience and immediacy of internet shopping has had a huge impact on High Street retailing. The seemingly ever-growing number of vacant premises offers clear evidence of this impact. That’s not all, though. The reduced footfall has also diluted or extinguished the peripheral social interactions of years gone by. Our High Street therefore resorts to type and is just an area with a purely functional purpose devoid of meaningful emotional engagement.
Contrast that with what we think about the places where we live. Here our first thoughts are invariably from a much more emotional perspective such as comfort, neighbourliness and enjoyment. True, our houses and flats are firstly structures that provide roofs over our heads and places for us to cook, eat and sleep. But, for most of us, our own house or flat is not just a structure. It’s a much more complete environment where functional necessity sits within a swirl of emotional influences – it’s somewhere we call home.
It used to be a similar story on the High Street where there were countless opportunities for social exchange and community cohesion – a vibrant, dynamic and emotive environment for stimulating our senses and providing the interactions for a more fulfilling life. Of course, we can’t turn the clock back. But what we can do is to look at ways for injecting diversity, personality and opportunity by harnessing regeneration opportunities in a way that makes our High Streets and town centres not only relevant for today’s society but also accessible, attractive and inspiring for all corners of the local community.
Such an approach is not conceptual idealism. Nor is it financially impractical. It’s very much a reality. Indeed, when multi-disciplinary teams work together to deliver diverse regeneration initiatives, the results can deliver outstanding benefits for local communities – and, in turn, the greater footfall and community engagement helps to foster new business ventures, a new entrepreneurial spirit, new ideas, new connections and new opportunities.
A recent regeneration project in Waltham Forest provides clear evidence of such a regeneration success story in a densely populated suburb and is now heralded as an example of best practice by the Greater London Authority (GLA). Here, the Wood Street regeneration programme breathed new life into a struggling retail environment and, at the same time, reinvigorated the local economy and community. The £1.8m project delivered over 50 shop front improvements, a new children’s playground and new art installations. It also included the formation of a new business forum, a dedicated website and new training opportunities for local businesses. The result has been a 48% uplift in footfall to the area, a 22% rise in visitor satisfaction, increased community activity and mobilisation and a staggering 50% increase in overall sales for participating businesses.
What’s reassuring is that both central and local government recognise the value of such a holistic approach to regeneration and the importance of keeping our town centres and High Streets as places to visit. The Local Growth Fund, GLA funding and the Heritage Lottery Fund are just some of the many different forms of investment that are available. And the recommendations within the Portas Review have also helped to reduce at least some of the red tape and financial burdens on many High Street businesses.
Working with experienced partners and engaging directly with the local community, organisations and social enterprises throughout the regeneration process, the implementation of far-reaching and sustainable regeneration programmes now becomes a practical reality.
Whether its business incubators, play areas, pop-up shops, shop front improvements, way-finding art, cycle schemes or new parking management projects, a more holistic and collaborative approach to regeneration offers unprecedented opportunities. And, there’s now a real desire to address the blight of redundant buildings and unloved predevelopment sites by taking decisive steps to ensure they are put to meaningful use. So we do have the tools, the means, the ideas – and, most important of all, the will – to rise to the challenge and ensure our High Streets and town centres are, once again, the jewels of community life and emotional engagement in the 21st century.
Sam Neal is project director (major projects and regeneration) at the Project Centre. Her previous role was as the London Borough of Waltham Forest’s programme manager for physical regeneration.
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