Older people, town centres and the revival of the 'high street’

This 2021 academic article focuses on the role of older people in the revitalisation of high streets and town centres. It explores whether the 'age-friendly cities' concept can be further utilised in reviving town centres, post-Covid19. The article covers retail change on the high street; the multi-functional high street; usefulness of the age-friendly cities framework; and the importance of empowering older people to shape their high streets and town centres, as consumers, workers, entrepreneurs, and residents.

Date added 5 July 2021
Last updated 5 July 2021

This article focuses on the role of older people in the revitalisation of high streets and town centres; reconceptualising older people as a solution to the crisis of the high street, as opposed to one of its problems. It specifically explores whether the ‘age-friendly’ cities concept - a movement recognising the need to make towns and cities more accessible for older people - can be further utilised in reviving town centres, post-Covid19. Three key questions are addressed through the paper (p.11):

  1. Can age friendly communities/cities provide a framework for planning and evaluating a solution to rejuvenate town centres and their high streets?
  2. What roles of, and activities by, older people will deliver rejuvenation of the high street?
  3. What are the implications of adopting an age friendly community/city approach in post COVID19 policy and planning contexts?

The authors begin by outlining some of the longstanding challenges faced by town centres and high streets, including the decentralisation of schools, cinemas, football grounds, and retailing from town centres; the rise in online shopping; and external crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. With the above in mind, the article next argues that high streets and town centres need to be reimagined as places not only for retail; but also providing other important community functions, including for older people, such as health and social care; green spaces; leisure and entertainment; and hospitality offer.

Finally, the article investigates whether the World Health Organisation’s Age Friendly Cities Framework is useful for ensuring that older people have more of a say in the future of their high streets and town centres. As the authors explain, the framework is structured around eight key areas (p.15):

  1. Outdoor spaces and buildings
  2. Transport
  3. Housing
  4. Social participation
  5. Respect and social inclusion
  6. Communication and information
  7. Civic participation and employment; and
  8. Health and community services.

The article critically questions if the framework takes into account the diversity of the older population; is dynamic enough to consider changing people and places; relevant to smaller spaces of towns such as the high street; how sustainable it is to changing wider circumstances; and whether it is sensitive to differences between high streets and town centres. Before putting forwards some potential applications of the framework in reimagining our high streets, focusing on four key components:

1. Multifunctional high streets

Given the impact the pandemic has had on employment in our towns and cities, high street functionality can be broadened beyond retail to other activities older people value, to expand activities offered and the employment base. Older people should be recognised for their multifunctional contributions to the economy, as consumers, residents, entrepreneurs, and workers.

2. Age-friendly design

It is important for high streets and town centres to be designed with the health and wellbeing of older populations in mind, to ensure their continuing engagement in society. Taking into account the idea of the 20-minute neighbourhood, accessible shops can be in close proximity to residential areas to foster mobility, independence, and social interactions.

3. Inter-generational co-production

It is important to empower older people to have a role in shaping the future of their town centres and high streets, through engaging them in collaborative decision-making, alongside a diverse range of other high street stakeholders.

4. Flexibility and resilience

Strategies for bringing older people into the heart of town centres, through housing schemes or enhanced multi-functionality, need an organising framework (such as AFC) focused around local engagement and citizen empowerment. As well as ensuring flexibility and resilience in the face of external and sometimes unforeseen threats, like Covid-19.