Falling consumer confidence and the collapse of major UK retailers such as Wilko are raising concerns about the future of Britain’s high streets.

Both major British political parties have proposed solutions to this challenge at their recent annual conferences. The Conservatives announced a £1.1 billion package to revitalize high streets and towns that have been “overlooked”, while the Labor conference included a panel discussion on the future of high streets.

This focus should come as no surprise. Main streets have traditionally exemplified the historical, cultural and economic vibrancy of British communities. Nowadays, however, they are characterized by modest footfall, dilapidated buildings and boarded-up windows.

Efforts to revitalize main streets should consist of making them more individual and unique, based on local characteristics. This quirkiness could be used to attract visitors interested in seeing something new, rather than repeating the same shops and establishments on every high street across the country.

But all too often, when discussing the problem of Britain’s dying high streets, the crisis and decline in retail is seen as the fundamental challenge that needs to be addressed. While the prosperity and vitality of Britain’s high streets now relies heavily on shoppers, making space for organizations with a social purpose could lead to more lasting change.

Help the high street thrive again

The “death of the high street” is usually attributed to the rise of internet shopping. In reality, however, it reflects more serious weaknesses in the shopping center model that has guided the development of these streets since the 1940s.

Over the past three decades, the growth of mass production and consumption has allowed global corporations to thrive on our high streets, sell products to a global market, and make distant places look and feel the same.

Instead, the identity of high streets should be in the hands of local communities. They could initiate new uses for empty spaces to create a more authentic high street experience. To do this, locals need to ask fundamental questions about their shopping street: what is it actually used for, what makes it successful and what social and economic functions should it fulfill.

Developing high streets for the local community means ensuring accessibility regardless of income, age, ability or social background. Local authorities may also be empowered to purchase land at a price below market value to address the problem of overpriced and underused high street buildings.

These spaces could be used by the community to provide social services including housing, community-led initiatives, health-related activities such as fitness classes and the accommodation of small local businesses – not just commercial retail. This would shift the power over how to save high streets to a model where the community decides what is best.

There have been a number of modest steps in this direction, including opening up vacant properties to community groups and encouraging various forms of temporary, often low-value commercial activity in central areas. For example, work is currently underway to develop a health center in an old Debenhams store on the main street of Bangor in Wales.

Shopping streets don’t just have to be about shopping. Harry Wolverson/Shutterstock

Create authentic shopping streets

From a social perspective, community-led initiatives on high streets can also help to preserve, pass on and develop the identity of cities. Social identity creates a sense of belonging and promotes pride and social cohesion among citizens. Tourists and investors can also be attracted when a strong social identity makes a city unique and interesting to visitors.

This type of authenticity is important not only for the identity of the local community, but also to attract visitors who may spend money. This shouldn’t be the focus, but of course it helps the local economy.

The authenticity of the community is based on culture, customs and traditions. This means that products and experiences such as events, food and artwork are made by local people according to their customs and traditions. Of course, in a time of increasing change in our communities as they constantly reinterpret themselves, what is considered fictional at one time might be seen as authentic at another time.

Protecting the historic essence and genuine character of urban spaces such as main streets plays a crucial role in preserving their distinctive identity. On the other hand, authenticity and community identity are dynamic. Community-led initiatives can be used to develop and share an evolving vision of what a high street should offer locals and visitors.

Fortunately, the decline of high streets has led to some appreciation of the important social functions these areas perform. Main streets can – and should – encourage social interaction and civic engagement, not just business activity, so that they not only survive but thrive. In some ways, this vision of the high street harks back to a time before the mall model dominated our cities.

Source : theconversation.com

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