Proposing the lower bounds of area needed for individuals to social distance across a range of town centre environments

This working paper draws from retailing, crowd science and operational research to develop a method for identifying the minimum amount of area an individual needs to socially distance in shops, markets, shopping centres and public urban space, when there are other people present. Areas are calculated for both static space (where people are seated, standing or queuing, for example) and dynamic space (where people need to walk freely).

Date added 17 August 2021
Last updated 17 August 2021

This paper was commissioned by the Professional, Research and Data Group, within the High Streets Task Force to explore the very practical problem of capacity for social distancing, in light of COVID-19, across a variety of typical town centre environments. The aim is to provide guidance for place managers and business owners as lockdown eases, and as establishments are allowed to reopen and footfall comes back to town centres.

It has been created by independent experts on behalf of the High Streets Task Force. It is not intended as Government guidance, and we have not sought approval for it to be so.

Current GOV.UK guidance asks employers to define: “the number of customers that can reasonably follow 2m social distancing within the store and any outdoor selling areas. Take into account total floorspace as well as likely pinch points and busy areas.”

It goes on to say: “Shopping centres should take responsibility for regulating the number of customers in the centre and the queuing process in communal areas on behalf of their retail tenants.”

However, no further guidance is given regarding how to calculate the number of people that can reasonably follow social distancing in these environments.

This is a complex issue that will also require the careful management of people once they are in a space, coupled with self-discipline and compliance from the public. As well as the size of the floorspace, the layout and positioning of goods, entrance and exit points, and point of sale arrangements will have a large impact on what the final capacity may be for an individual retail environment.

In addition to individual stores and shopping centres, most town centres consist of other types of environments where social distancing will also need to be managed. These include locations where retailers are located in other managed spaces – such arcades and markets – as well as the general town centre area; the streets, squares, and public spaces that make up a town centre. Of course, town centres also consist of other environments, such as transport hubs and greenspace – but these are outside the scope of this paper. Instead, we develop a methodology for establishing occupancy levels for three town centre environments, in dynamic space (where people need freedom of movement) and static space (where people may be queueing).


In static space, where people do not require freedom of movement, 4m2 of area is required per person.

In environments where people require freedom of movement, the following lower bounds of area are required.

  • In typical high street store space (individual retailers under 500 square metres), each person requires 10m2 of dynamic space
  • Larger retailer or managed commercial space (individual retailers over 500 square metres or commercial space where a number of stores trade together): each person requires 11m2 of dynamic space
  • Public urban space: each person requires 12m2 of dynamic space

It is important to explain that these calculations do not account for the specific characteristics of individual places. Those responsible for each of the environments must undertake their own assessment of their spaces.