A quick stroll through any town or city high street should give you a window into an area’s urban soul. A cultural snapshot that shares clues about a place’s history and values, a temperature gauge of popular retail and lifestyle trends. But more obviously, as a sign of the times, it’s also an indication of the health of the economy.
In a post-COVID landscape, changing values, lifestyles and fortunes will have created chasms within so many towns and cities across the UK. Consumer needs and expectations are outpacing the retail sector and while change has been a long-time coming, it has started to gather urgency. This change is now compelling those connected to urban planning and management to not just reimagine what is next for our town centres, but to take swift and decisive action to reshape them.
Moving away from a traditional retail-dominated model, towards the development of spaces with more creative and diverse uses is now essential. Uses that are not only economically viable and sustainable, but add meaning and value to the communities they serve. Here we explore how, as a catalyst for change, health, wellbeing and community initiatives have the power to revitalise high streets with tangible, long-term economic and social benefits.
Past the point of no return
Our once-bustling town centres, structured around a retail epicentre, have faced a gruelling series of blows in the 21st Century. Firstly, via crushing competition from a growing and strengthening e-commerce market and secondly, the cruel reality of a global pandemic, inhibiting in-person sales and reducing footfall and spending. Today the state of play reveals the reality of this decline, with 142 million sqft of vacant retail space (12.6% of all retail units) and more than 40% having been vacant for three or more years.
But all hope is not lost for the UK’s urban heartlands. While reducing land values and an increase in vacant commercial spaces are driving conversations about the future of a post-COVID landscape, they are also providing opportunities for these spaces to evolve. Town centres have a critical role to play in the health and wealth of local communities and with collaboration, considered planning and creative design, can add economic and social value to the spaces people work, live and socialise in.
While this type of change can be complex and there is never a perfect solution, there is a perfect storm. Before us stands the opportunity to reshape and refocus our urban centres; creating inspiring and revitalised mixed-use spaces that are a physical embodiment of the diverse communities around them.
The changing face of the high street
For decades, high streets have been judged and defined by the brands that fill them, providing familial markers of quality, or a lack thereof. To their detriment, this has led many town centres and high streets to become homogeneous spaces, lacking individual charm and character. A gradual decline in footfall was in effect long before the pandemic and it is anticipated that it will fail to reach pre-COVID levels even when restrictions are eased.
While the high street is still a destination for shopping activity, consumer adoption of online purchasing is impacting the viability of some retail functions. Today’s in-person shopping habits are now heavily influenced by a culture of convenience and a desire for a more personal experience that cannot be replicated online – behaviours that have been cemented by repeated lockdowns as a result of the pandemic.
A re-evaluation of values
But people aren’t just voting with their feet – today’s consumers are making more value-driven choices, with greater awareness of social and environmental issues impacting where people choose to spend their money and what they expect from the businesses and services they interact with. The decline of our high streets can’t simply be pinpointed to the increase in online shopping — the impact of societal changes are key to understanding the evolution of our town centre spaces. What will attract people back to the high street are businesses and services that reflect the contemporary values and aspirations of the communities they serve.
Less revolution, move evolution
For businesses to be viable to the changing demands and expectations of consumers, our high streets need to find meaningful ways to attract people back to these spaces – encouraging them to spend not just their money, but their time there too. To create the footfall that these businesses need requires a rebalance, rather than a complete redesign. With this newfound balance, opportunities for alternative uses broaden. The viable future of our high streets will be flexible spaces that offer a vibrant, dynamic mix of retail, leisure, public services, residential and work to better suit the rhythms of modern life. A mix that also delivers long-term economic benefits that help local communities to thrive.
Health and care as a catalyst for change
As discussed in our first article of this Town Centre Regeneration series, the demographics of the UK are shifting and altering the structures of our society – from the availability, appropriateness and affordability of housing, to the challenges for the NHS of an ageing and increasingly unfit population. Within the mixed-use urban centres of tomorrow, health and wellbeing services have a critical role to play in a balanced commercial and community ecosystem.
Currently, 50% of all GP appointments are used by those with multiple long term conditions, and while it’s too late to reverse the health implications for many of these people, what we can do is help prevent future generations from facing the same health outcomes. Part of supporting people to keep fit and well and tackling health inequalities is the ease of access to health and wellbeing services.
As a tri-factor solution to our struggling high streets, ageing population and long-overdue investment in appropriate housing stock, the development of Urban Health and Care Villages at the heart of towns and cities make sense. This type of purpose-built infrastructure unites fit-for-purpose accommodation with amenities that offer high-quality living standards. These amenities could include restaurants, pedestrianised public spaces, boutique-retail, libraries, leisure centres, wellness and healthcare services, among many others.
A re-energised town centre has the potential to create positive environments for older people. By enabling older people to live independently for longer within appropriate housing, providing convenient access to services and a community that enhances their wellbeing, many of the current burdens on public services could also be eased.
Regeneration inspires regeneration
The creation of Urban Health and Care Villages can deliver wide-ranging benefits to stakeholders across towns and cities. As discussed, relocating older people to urban centres gives them improved access to vital services and amenities, helps to tackle the devastating impacts of loneliness and affords them greater independence as a result of well-designed spaces. Those with a commercial interest such as land managers and business owners benefit from greater footfall, increased spending and revitalised urban spaces. While for local communities, they offer employment opportunities, access to improved services and amenities and a more connected community.
While individual investors may be able to bring singular entities into a town centre location, the power of Urban Health and Care Villages lies within the scale of the concept. The impact of regeneration has the potential to be lost within a piecemeal approach. However, with expanded and collaborative redevelopment you can deliver vibrant, purposeful community spaces that attract the widest possible demographic mix. They can also deliver the greatest short and long-term economic advantages.
For every £1 invested in the infrastructure during the construction phase of an Urban Health and Care Village, £2.50 would go back into the local economy, kick-starting spend that will also be added by building occupiers for long-term benefit.
Data calculated for Prime by an external specialist exploring the short-term economic advantage of Urban Health and Care developments.
The relocation of health and care services and later living facilities into urban spaces can be an inspiring catalyst for regeneration, not least because they instantly become a driver for footfall. Unlike previous examples of health service relocations where facilities occupy the shells of vacant retail space, these new purpose-built health and care developments would be integrated within wider regeneration schemes that enhance the appeal and function of an area. Relocating primary care and outpatient services into urban settings not only frees up vital hospital space, it also helps to increase access to services and tackle health inequalities.
“A town centre location should be the most accessible to the largest proportion of a community and supports walkable neighbourhoods. When visiting for a medical appointment in a town centre, it is more likely a patient will combine the journey with a walk around the town centre than if it were in a peripheral location on the edge of town.”
While this won’t be the right answer for every town, ensuring any new option meets the needs of the local community and is a bespoke solution is essential to its viability. With community buy-in driving success, these spaces can function as an anchor tenant. In pulling people back into towns, it’s possible to create spaces which offer a renewed sense of ‘destination’, from which community and commercial confidence can grow.
When it comes to the long-term economic future of our town centres and the need to breathe life back into them, diversity is key. Successful towns need to attract a breadth of society by offering retail, housing, workspaces, education, health services and leisure amenities that meet the divergent needs and lifestyles of individual communities.
The availability of many traditional department stores, for example, offers the opportunity to rethink how these spaces could split into functions that benefit both the asset owner and the community. From food halls and collaborative working space to key-worker housing and pop-up shops, planners and investors are reimagining how these spaces can be used and are devising creative solutions that offer a better fit for 21st Century living.
“Our work on town centre visions has always foreseen mixed-use, inhabited urban space. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, our research anticipated the ongoing reduction in retail, the rise of local independents and the need for localised, collaborative workspaces. In addition, we also identified clear ambitions for increased public realm and green space and for health care to be located in the centre. What the pandemic has done is speed up these trends and promoted localism and walkable neighbourhoods.”
By devising safe, purposeful and vibrant urban spaces, you empower communities to live, work and grow together. A change that can positively contribute to the long-term wellbeing and resilience of both individuals and communities. However, without community buy-in, these bold ambitions are difficult to achieve.
One of the more positive aspects to come out of the pandemic has been a renewed sense of community spirit. From an army of volunteers helping with food banks and vaccination schemes, to the businesses that pivoted their production to supply PPE. Millions were forced to switch commutes for communities, and for the first time in a long time, people feel more connected to the places they live. There is now a growing recognition of the important role communities have to play in the sustainability and success of towns centres and high streets.
With the current model of retail domination failing, landowners with empty spaces on our high streets need to open up to alternative and creative possibilities and many of the answers to the challenges they face lie within their local communities. Empty shops are the ideal platforms to enable grassroots community initiatives, small-scale businesses and social enterprises to flourish. A format which is successfully growing pace and drawing people back to the high street and engaging with them in a way that adds social value and meaning.
Regeneration schemes across the UK are being championed by initiatives such as the Meanwhile Foundation — a charitable organisation that supports people to make valuable use of vacant urban spaces. From an arts and cultural venue in a Croydon shopping centre to low-cost office, studio and workshop space for creatives and entrepreneurs in Wembley – these community-led initiatives show the viability and long-term economic advantage of embracing a broader offering on the high street. Online retailers are also exploring creative initiatives on the high street, as demonstrated by eBay’s Retail Revival scheme in Wolverhampton. It combined a pop-up shop with online sales support and digital skills training to generate more than £7 million in sales for local businesses.
A guiding light to steer the ship
Taking any initiative from an aspirational vision to a reality that delivers lasting social and economic change is a daunting prospect that feels like leaping into the unknown. But striving for better doesn’t have to be done in isolation. Taking on board Prime’s Principles for Change, real success lies within collaboration and commonality. When those who are motivated to make change a reality replace isolated and disjointed initiatives with unity around a shared purpose, transformational action on a greater scale is achievable. The greater the collaboration, the greater the ripple effect for town centre rejuvenation.
Whether you are a local authority planner, landowner, community-spirited volunteer, business owner or health care manager, it’s in everyone’s interest for town centres to be successful, inspiring and purposeful spaces. But behind a shared desire there must also be champions; people with the skills and motivation to not only unite stakeholders around a common cause but to keep the ship on course. People who can devise long-term, sustainable solutions.
Town centre stakeholders will bring both complementary and competing requirements, and while initiatives of this scale can be complex, our high streets cannot wait for solutions that solve every issue at once. Instead, to escape the decline of our town centres, it’s time to get comfortable with embracing imperfect answers. Those involved in the evolution of town centres must be prepared to make bold, creative decisions that communities can get behind – and so many of those decisions champion health, wellbeing and community as a strong catalyst for change.