Thriving high streets and fire pit moments: a glimpse into the future of our town centres

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As 2021 offers hope for a return to normal life, high streets and town centres will become a focal point for everyone looking forward to safely getting together with friends and families again. Andrea George, director of town centres at Bruntwood Works, explores how the pandemic has shown town centres are vital community hubs for people to connect, and outlines how we should focus the redesign of the high street around people as a future model for town centre planning

George: communities must be at centre of
plans to reinvigorate town centres

Town and city centres are at the heart of communities, and the connected ecosystem of retailers, leisure operators, businesses, community groups, residents and visitors is what makes these locations unique. But as local communities continue to grow and their needs change over time, it’s vital high streets evolve with them. In the past, this has involved a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to improving town centres. Now, it’s important that regeneration is done in partnership with the community.

Our experiences over the past 12 months have added a fresh perspective on what we value most about our community spaces – there’s nothing like working and living in the same four walls to make you appreciate open space and connecting with other people. Plans to refresh town centres were in motion before, but the pandemic has accelerated that need to bring back the ‘local’ to our towns. So how do we harness this experience and apply the lessons learned during the pandemic to reorient the town centres of the future? And how do we repurpose empty space for the modern bricks-and-clicks retail model of today?

Ensuring that communities are at the centre of plans to reinvigorate town centres is the most important factor in transforming their future. This is something that’s really shone through in our long-term partnership with Trafford Council, particularly in the results of a recent public consultation to reimagine Stretford town centre. The local residents, stakeholders and community groups are passionate about the future of their town, and we were overwhelmed by the volume of valuable feedback we received on the local shopping centre, Stretford Mall, as well as the wider area.

This feedback and local residents’ ideas have directly shaped the masterplan for the area and are a true reflection on what the community wants from their town centre, and we continue to invite feedback from local residents on the proposals. The plans form a holistic approach to regeneration – taking the entire area into consideration, not just the high street – and they offer a glimpse at what local communities are calling out for across the UK.

A blend of complementary retail offerings

Retail remains a key thread in the fabric of town centres, and it’s important high streets are home to the right mix of offerings to suit their local community. Encouraging footfall will include cultivating a blend of brands and independent shops that complement each other, and – most importantly – offer customers and the community the sort of retail mix that match their needs, tastes and buying habits. 

The key is unlocking the immense potential of space on the high street. In Q4 of 2020, the proportion of shops across the UK left empty had risen to 13.7%. It’s critical we repurpose empty large-scale retail units – like the ones left behind by old department stores such as Debenhams – into a mixed-use space where consumers can engage with their town. This can include a blend of workspace, food, drink and pop-up retail, boosting the day and evening economy. It’s the hive effect; we’ve seen from the popularity of Hatch and Afflecks in Manchester that footfall is attracted to blended concepts that offer a mix of pop-up shops, street food, craft beer stalls, wellbeing and fitness studios and more, all under the same roof. 

Thinking about new ways to maximise the use of space is vital. In today’s world, click-and-collect orders and returns are gathering momentum, particularly when delivery slots are scarce, and this growing trend for bricks-and-clicks retail has the power to drive footfall to quieter locations. It’s about providing a balance of the essential and the spectacular, and it’s our job to ensure that the high street is set up for that. 

In our plans for Stretford, we’re planning to wind the clock back and transform Stretford Mall from a 60s cookie-cutter shopping centre back to the bustling King Street high street which can tell the story of the community again, complete with butchers, bakers and convenience-led retailers that suit the needs of the local residents. We’re looking at creating a Makers Yard hub at the heart of the town, which will bring together high quality independent local traders and a vibrant evening market, to create a thriving 24/7 town centre. 

A living, breathing high street boosted by nature

Creating green, attractive and welcoming open spaces is also essential to a renewed high street – both for customers and businesses, for whom location is everything. In Stretford, we’ve established plans for a green biodiversity corridor that stretches from the library to a new park in the heart of the town centre, with new public squares to provide enjoyable, outdoor spaces. The natural environment is known to stimulate positive cognitive benefits, and in such an unsettling year, it’s not a surprise that wellbeing is front of many people’s minds and will continue to be as they return to the high street. 

There can be no doubt that once life returns to some semblance of normality, gathering in open spaces – weather permitting – will become a priority for residents looking to socialise and reconnect. We saw this last summer, when an easing in lockdown restrictions allowed communities to flock to outdoor retail and leisure hubs, such as Hatch, an outdoor community of independent retailers, restaurants and bars in Manchester. Average dwell time was longer than ever, with friends and family making the most of catching up. Fire-pit moments like these are a sign of things to come and post-pandemic town centres will be hubs of activity that revolve around open spaces and bring people together to share an experience.

Connecting the community

The success of the high street also lies in how it interacts with the surrounding area. Revitalising the high street will require consideration of the entire area and a holistic approach to regeneration in partnership with the community. 

Working with Trafford Council, we identified 27 acres of land covering five local neighbourhoods – Victoria, St Ann’s, Lacy Street, Stretford Centre and Stretford House – that were integral to our Stretford Masterplan and Area Action Plan. By focusing on an entire area rather than just one street, we can work to improve the infrastructure so that the town centre is as accessible as possible. 

For Stretford, this also means freeing up access to the Bridgewater canal and providing a more scenic space that utilises everything the area has to offer. Our plans will see waterfront bars, restaurants and leisure space line the canal and create a true urban oasis on residents’ doorsteps.

Part and parcel of that includes new homes and living space to match. As such, we’ve focused much of our plans on mixed-use development, creating 800 new homes including affordable housing.

Insight-led, community-owned

Our consultation with the community began a long while before the pandemic in 2019. Even with the lockdown restrictions, thousands of Stretford residents voiced their feedback, which goes to show how much local communities are invested in the future of their town centres and offers a template for future regeneration projects in satellite towns across the UK.

Taking an insight-led approach like this is the essential first step to revitalising the high street, the town centre and the entire community. By understanding and embracing every step of the consumer journey – where people like to live, work and drink, and how they access these places – we can form multi-faceted masterplans. Once plans are in place, key to seeing them through will be establishing long-term partnerships between the private and public sectors and local communities to realise shared goals.

We are currently at a crucial turning point for the future of retail with the purpose of our places – shops, offices, public spaces – gradually taking on a new shape. As high streets and our town centres evolve, it’s up to us to consider how we can change with them and create a seamless transition for the community. If the evolution of this ecosystem is nurtured successfully, our high streets will survive and thrive like never before. 

(A Retail Times’ sponsored post)