High street places: doing a lot with a little

This 2020 book chapter published in Design for London: Experiments in Urban Thinking (edited by Peter Bishop and Lesley Williams), and written by Tobias Goevert and Adam Towle, looks at how a more incremental form of urbanism (a network of small-scale interventions) was enacted to regenerate high streets and town centres in some of London’s most deprived areas. Case studies are provided throughout.

Date added 19 October 2021
Last updated 19 October 2021

This book chapter looks at how a more incremental form of urbanism (a network of small-scale interventions) was enacted to regenerate high streets and town centres in some of London’s most deprived areas. It begins by discussing the history of London’s high streets, explaining how "London’s high streets have been at the centre of its economic, social and civic life since they were first established along Roman roads such as Watling Street, Ermine Street and Portway Street” (p. 75). However, over time, they became damaged by building roads for car-users, further compounded by the rise in out-of-town retailing and retail sheds in the 1970s and 1980s, and 21st Century shopping trends such as online shopping and inner urban shopping malls. The 2007/2008 global economic crisis brought about further challenges.

As the authors suggest, this 'perfect storm’ of forces for change has led to some London’s high streets starting to lose their sense of identity and place distinction, with some suffering from appearance issues and poor quality public realm, alongside some empty retail space being converted into low quality housing with relaxation of permitted development rules.  

The report next proposes a 'methodology for town centre and high street regeneration', developed by the Architecture and Urbanism Unit, and Design for London. This regeneration and renewal strategy revolved around adopting an 'incremental urbanism’ approach to nurture high streets "back into healthy centres of community life” (p. 80), which involved active community engagement, eschewed ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategies, and moved beyond cosmetic fixes (e.g. hanging baskets). As the authors explain, incremental urbanism is based on "deep research and community dialogue and works within the system to positively distort its outcomes. It is patient and subtle” (p. 82) and involves small-scale interventions that incrementally build on one another.

To further explain this methodology, the report proceeds to provide detailed overviews on several real-life projects in London using this approach, such as early 'opportunity centres’ in 2002; the Mayor’s 100 Public Spaces programme; TEN: Town centre enhancement in North London; SEVEN: Housing Intensification in Seven South London Town Centres; design-led regeneration in Barking Town Centre; the Making Space in Dalston programme; the High Street 2012 project in Whitechapel Road; Crossrail Atlas; The Outer London Commission; and the 'Good to Grow and Ready to Go’ high street strategy, that other places may draw insights from.  

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