Potential solutions to fixing high streets in England

While Americans have worried about Main Streets for decades, a similar concern has arisen in England about their high streets. A recent panel, including sociologist Richard Sennett, proposed some solutions – of which one journalist was quite skeptical:

In Tuesday’s Guardian, a panel comprising a politician, an academic, a policy wonk and two campaigners offered the high street a range of solutions. The politician, Labour’s Chuka Umunna, said almost nothing at all: “Shopping can become an experience where conventional retailers can complement the success of online retailing.” Sociologist Richard Sennett favoured a mixture of pop-up art venues and pop-in medical centres and government bureaux: “A vibrant high street must be more than a place in which to shop.” Others wanted cheaper rates to attract young entrepreneurs and, in the words of Anna Minton, “a new genuinely productive economy based on making, caring and exchanging goods and services”.

A lot is to be hoped for. None of it seems likely. A new ironmonger’s in a prosperous north London high street is one thing, but think of the dead shopping streets in almost any old industrial town: what a fusillade of pop-ups would be needed there! The future of these streets is surely the fate of the village I grew up in, where every shop but two was demolished or became the ground floor of a dwelling. It would be hard now to imagine that commerce (“That’s a penny for your liquorice and tuppence for your sherbet”) ever existed in these TV-lit rooms.

This is a pessimistic take and doesn’t really engage with what the panel said. Here is what Richard Sennett said:

The high streets of 50 years ago were all about retail commerce. Small manufacturers and craftsmen had gone elsewhere in the post-war city; planners – those bureaucratic bogeymen – thought to make the centre of the city tidy. But the high street inevitably then became vulnerable to an even more efficient, mono-functional retail space, the shopping mall. High streets “fought back” by imitating these out-of-town competitors; Oxford Street became a poor cousin to Bluewater. Of course the law of the capitalist jungle ruled: chains like HMV paid bigger rents than little shops, but the character and environmental quality of the central city eroded.

I am convinced we can reverse this trend, first by making high streets more truly mixed in use. They should house elder-care centres and medical clinics, government bureaus helping the public and pop-up music or art venues. A vibrant high street must be more than a place in which to shop. But, equally, the capitalistic beast must be fed. Horrific to our Conservative masters as it may be, the state should pay commercial rents to locate its own activities on high streets, and it should give small businesses tax breaks, even special loans, to allow them to return and survive as high street enterprises.

If we think of high streets as a “commons”, which like the old agricultural commons knit the entire community together, we’d think about them as places, in sum, which the community should support. Which means subsidy.

Sennett’s ideas sound like a mix of New Urbanism, Jane Jacobs, and plans in many American communities where civic buildings and residential units were located in downtowns to try to boost foot traffic and help bring about a 24/7 culture rather than a 9-5 culture. And why can’t there be a little art to try to bring in “the creative class” and others? But, even if Sennett’s plan is generally good for communities, it is likely to be a little (or a lot) different in each unique place which faces different current conditions, different histories, and different visions for the future.

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