Featuring ‘High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis’

Drawing from ‘High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis’ depicting London Oxford Street.

New book by Payne, Rudling, and Montague explores the troubled past, uncertain present, and bright future of UK’s high streets in 100 case studies.

Published by RIBA in July 2023, the book ‘High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis’ presents the findings of a 2-year research project funded by the Royal Commission for 1951’s Built Environment Fellowship.

In 240 pages, co-authors Vicky Payne, David Rudlin, and Lucy Montague explore the past and present crises of 100 UK high streets, and set out practical recommendations to rekindle the ‘diverse, characterful, independent places that existed before they were homogenised by big retail’.

Backed up by hard data from Experian, the stories of high street success and decline are brought to life by plenty of anecdotes, images, and characterful drawings.

Drawings from ‘High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis’. Left: High Street in Frome, Right: Aldi

The narrative unfolds in three chapters:

  1. The roots of the current high street crisis
  2. A diverse picture for the future of retail
  3. The future of the high street considering different spatial scales and types of places

Acknowledging 50 years of economic and social upheaval, the authors ultimately present the high street as a place of resilience with abundant opportunities ahead. For example, by understanding the failures brought on by large-scale, purpose-built configurations exemplified by ‘big box retail’, we are compelled to champion more small-scale, flexible models for the future. And by reflecting on the troubles faced by tourist-dependent destinations during the pandemic, we are advised to create more integrated, mixed-use neighbourhoods.

“If you are considering making or taking a space on the high street, think about how that place might evolve over time. Flexibility builds resilience.”

Vicky Payne

One interesting observation, shared by co-author Vicky Payne in conversation with Property X-Change, underscores the disparity between the performance of tourist-rich destinations and residentially-dense areas during the pandemic. Where Camden’s footfall rates declined significantly due to the absence of tourists, Barnsley was sustained by day-to-day activities from local residents, who’s needs were effectively fulfilled by the diverse use of spaces.

“High streets are inherently well-connected places, and it makes them ideal locations for everyday amenities like schools, grocery shops, and medical centres.”

Vicky Payne

The book concludes by presenting six key trends to watch over the coming years, followed by eight recommendations to support the continued evolution and relevance of the high street. Suggestions are directed toward national government stakeholders (e.g. reforming business rates), local authorities (e.g. approaches to tackling vacancy), and others responsible for shaping town centres ( e.g., reassessing spatial configuration). However, we still think that everyone with a vested interest in high streets should pick up a copy!

About the Authors

Biographies, taken from ‘High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis’.

David Rudlin is a leading urbanist and author of the book Climax City, winner of Urban Design Group Book of the Year in 2020. He was a director of URBED for more than 30 years and is now Director of Urbanism at BDP. He is also a past Chair of the Academy of Urbanism and won the Wolfson Economics Prize in 2014. Together with Vicky Payne he has recently completed the National Model Design Code for the Government.

Vicky Payne is a planner and urban designer working as Strategy, Research and Engagement Lead at the Quality of Life Foundation. She has extensive consultancy experience in strategic planning and urban design, including work with URBED on the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework and National Model Design Code. She is a regular contributor to the 50 Shades of Planning Podcast and has written for professional journals and her own blog.

Dr Lucy Montague is Senior Lecturer at Manchester School of Architecture and Programme Leader of the MA Architecture & Urbanism. She researches widely across urban design and has particular expertise in research with, for and through practice. In 2019, Lucy founded the innovative URBED+ for research, advocacy and public engagement in urban design. She has previously held positions at The Bartlett, Huddersfield and Edinburgh, and worked internationally for consultancies in masterplanning, regeneration, retail and residential.

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