London’s Town Centres and High Streets

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Upper Street © Agnese Sanvito

London’s high streets and town centres are fighting back; armed with BIDs, a move to create more residential and mixed use environments, transport improvements and pop-up shops to lure people away from their laptops.

Those were some of the key principles to emerge from a half-day conference at NLA last week, kicked off by British BIDs chief executive Dr Julie Grail. We are, said Grail, in a period of ‘rebalancing’ for the high street, with ‘experiential and eateries’ the prince, and residential the highwayman. But with 200 BIDs now in operation, change has come about in the last two or three years amid a real culture shift. ‘There’s a huge customer expectation now in town centres’ said Grail. ‘We now expect to see places branded’.

GLA senior project officer on regeneration Adam Towle said that London’s 600 high streets are a ‘vast phenomenon’, and if they were placed end to end they would stretch 500km, from Store Street to the Scottish border. They are also a considerable employer, home to 1.5 million jobs – 35% of all jobs in the capital – and ½ of London’s developable land lies within 200m of a high street. The GLA is funding and helping deliver physical projects, from pocket parks to 580 shop fronts, which will be improved, aided by the mayor’s high street fund.

Certainly, according to research conducted by GL Hearn, there has been a focus on retail planning applications in central London, with all but seven boroughs seeing major application growth, said its development planning director Ben Wrighton. But London has been systematically under producing the levels of housing it needs to sustain it as a city, said Kevin Logan of Maccreanor Lavington, whose founding partner Richard outlined the Leegate scheme the practice is working on in Lea Green, Lewisham, for St Modwen, mixing small high street retail, a supermarket and mansion blocks around its edge.

Local authorities have a curatorial role in creating vibrant town centres, said Guy Nicholson, cabinet member for regeneration in Hackney, involving retail alongside other sectors such as manufacturing, while the DCLG’s Miranda Pearce said the two years since neighbourhood planning powers came in had resulted in over 1200 areas designated, and 30 plans now in place. ‘Neighbourhood planning is about business and communities working together’, she said.

Make Architects’ John Prevc outlined the work the Future Spaces Foundation has done, including a recognition that we need to reconcentrate public services in and around the high street, high streets should be mobile-enabled and have multi-channel approaches to retail and there should be a flexible use of space mixing retail, leisure and work. ‘Retail is a symptom of a rejuvenated high street, rather than the solution itself’, he said.

Transport also has a key place to play in this scenario, not least because Transport for London intends to capitalise on the 4.5 million journeys made on the London underground every day. ‘If you understand who uses the station and what they want, why not give it to them in the most convenient format’, said Graeme Craid, TfL’s director of commercial development. ‘We should be thinking about the role of the station given the numbers we have got’.

At places like Old Street station, a number of pop-up shops have emerged as a result of the work of Appear Here – meanwhile consultants who act like an Airbnb for the retail trade, said founder and CEO Ross Bailey. Somewhere along the line, retail got lost when it became all about the transaction, said Bailey, and yet 80% of people buying an Apple product, for example, have an in-store interaction. The work at Old Street has generated media interest from magazines such as Monocle and Harpers, but also an 80-90% rent increase. ‘Today, people want to be able to curate their own lives’, said Bailey, ‘We want to help you curate moments’.

-       David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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London’s Town Centres and High Streets

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As demand for housing in London continues to grow, what role do London's town centres have to play in delivering housing intensification and a more diverse economy? According to a recent GLA report, London is forecast an additional 1.9 million people in London by 2036, posing the challenge of where to house them and where they will work, as well as how London will provide for the increased consumer expenditure this will bring.

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