Many of us have spent much more time in our local neighbourhoods this year. Joe Wills explains why communities should be at the heart of reshaping high streets and local centres in the age of coronavirus.
One of the defining experiences of 2020 in London has been the change in the way we use the city. As Londoners stopped travelling into the centre during lockdown, many of us found our worlds restricted to our immediate neighbourhood. Remote working, furlough, the closure of shops, pubs and restaurants and a fear of public transport have all resulted in empty city centre streets with people staying much closer to home.
These changes are having a profound effect on the economic geography of the city. The ecosystem of businesses in the centre which rely on a concentration of employment is suffering as a result of the decline in commuting. The accompanying shift in activity to high streets and town centres outside of central London has prompted much discussion about the extent to which these changes will become longer-term and structural, or whether they are only a passing feature of the present crisis. Making a judgement about this will be central to how the city attempts to recover, and require careful thinking about what role we want town centres and high streets to play in London.
Reconsidering the role of our local high streets and town centres has been on the agenda for some time. Even before coronavirus, many of our high streets were already struggling. Changes in consumer habits, the legacies of poor planning, challenging rental practices and local tax regimes have all been recognised as rendering the retail-dominated model a thing of the past. It is likely that the pandemic will accelerate these trends, and with it, the need to act. Indeed, in recent months we have seen big brand retailers announcing thousands of job losses.
Some cities are already acting. Famously, Paris’ 15-minute city model aims to have all the amenities necessary for city living within 15 minutes of home, including workplaces. And the London Plan (which sets out how London should be developed) does have elements of a ‘polycentric’ approach, with an aspiration for successful town centres alongside a strong core.
Thinking about the role of our high streets means thinking broadly. Some economic activity might move away or change, like retail, but its about more than just economic activity. High streets were once also the social and civic centre of a neighbourhood, before mass retail began to dominate, and that could still be their future.
These ideas about our local centres have captured the imagination of many because they recognise just how important neighbourhoods are for our quality of life. Fundamentally, they are places of identity, of connection and community, as well as economic exchange. This point was proven powerfully earlier this year. At the beginning of lockdown, we witnessed a massive outpouring of local mutual aid, with neighbours volunteering their time and energy to support other neighbours. Polling at the time showed that 40 per cent of Londoners felt that there had been a stronger sense of community in their local area, and less than 10 per cent of people nationwide said they wanted things to go back to how they were before the crisis.
As we move through different stages of the pandemic, there is a risk that this growth in community connections and energy could dissipate, without a means to harness and encourage it. Prior to the crisis, Centre for London had called for new governance mechanisms to give community voices a genuine seat at the table, and play their part in looking after the places which matter most to them. This is more necessary than ever given the scale of the changes we are living through.
The good news is that decision makers are increasingly keen to involve communities in reshaping our local centres. The government’s High Street Task Force has called for attention to be paid to leadership and governance in transforming the high street, as well as broadening the services and amenities on offer, beyond just retail. Similarly, the London Recovery Board has made both a strong civil society, and 15-minute cities, explicit missions.
The question then becomes how to do it? Centre for London are leading on a research project which aims to answer exactly that. We will be investigating how communities can shape their high streets and town centres to become resilient, sustainable, and inclusive centres of local civic, social, and economic life, and what practical changes will be needed to get there. Please keep your eyes peeled for details as the project progresses.