Highlights from ‘Housing & the High Street’

How does housing fit on the high street? At the end of 2022, Gort Scott facilitated a PX Forum to explore this topic with a range of experts and stakeholders. Here’s what we learned.

The intense 90-minute discussion explored a breadth of issues associated with delivering housing on our high streets, from a policy level to the scale of every individual resident, operator, and visitor. The participants were inspired by real case studies and invited to share personal and professional experiences. This summary sets out the key insights and recommendations that emerged.

Setting the scene

Town centres and high streets are where London’s incredible mix of people and activities come together. In the past, these places have often been viewed through the single lens of commercial use, but that’s rarely the case today. Instead, developers are increasingly seeking to create a diverse offer, integrating residential and commercial functions side-by-side. Additionally, we’re seeing a drive towards greater levels of density to secure or improve a project’s financial viability.

As a result, certain residential-led block typologies, which are relatively untested in London, are now shaping many of the city’s town centres and high streets. Where historic blocks were made up of numerous buildings sharing servicing areas and amenity spaces, new blocks are often fused into a single, high-density edifice with intensified servicing and amenity requirements.

More homes require more service space, and more service space requires more real estate. There are several ways to deal with this reality, the most common being:

  • Basements – the whole ground floor becomes an expensive ‘active frontage’, considering cost and carbon, with a lack of street hierarchy.
  • Ground floor services – ensues slim spaces that are difficult to let and occupy by varied uses, and which hardly benefit the social or economic life of streets.

Furthermore, it is worth considering the quality of life that residents of dense high street developments may experience, considering the challenges that arise, regarding microclimate, over-heating, outdoor space, air pollution, light pollution, and noise.

Considering these challenges, it is worth asking: Is there a fundamental land use distribution and density problem? And can it be resolved through building typology and technical design, supported by policy and planning?

High Street block diagrams
Illustration by Gort Scott.

Key takeaways

1. A High Street is not a town centre – calling for high street specific development guidelines

London is often presented as a city of high streets, distinct by linear forms and connective functions. Yet in recent years, the forum participants have discovered a lack of focus on this typology in policy documents, such as the New London Plan, which have instead focused on the development of ‘town centres’. Although the two are closely related, they may require entirely different approaches to design and management. Furthermore, high streets that are located outside of town centres are left without the regulatory support they may require.

To address this issue, the forum called for policy makers to put forward design requirements tailored to deal with the high street typology. For example, to avoid inhospitable ‘canyons’ created by continuous tall buildings embanking on the high street, local plans might help direct residential developments to blocks immediately behind, thus maintaining both the high street’s integrity and its population base.

3 Discussion High Street shaped by use
Discussion – High street shaped by use.

2. Setting the bar high – calling for stricter planning application requirements

High Street planning applications should reflect the importance of high streets in bringing together communities and unlocking a wealth of opportunity. The forum participants did not feel that planning authorities were always equipped with the right documentation to make an informed decision.

Additional information which could be required for high street planning applications includes:

  • Creation of, or compliance with, a locally unique high street strategy.
  • A ground floor strategy with specific uses integrated into the viability assessment.
  • A workspace strategy with specific commitments.
  • Requirement that all drawing information shows its neighbouring context, demonstrating how the uses and design of the proposal will support, reinforce and enhance the high street socially, economically, commercially, and environmentally.

The forum participants also acknowledged that Planning Officers need to be supported to understand what high-quality strategies look like and that they should request more information when needed.

“Imagine a policy ingredient that would encourage developers and architects to draw the public realm and buildings as if they had something to do with each other. What a crazy idea!” 

Julian Lewis, East

 3. Beyond cappuccino culture – calling for a tailored, inclusive curatorial strategy

Developers and designers have a responsibility to engage with local and future high street residents to identify meaningful uses for ground floor units. Too often, expensive coffee shops occupy spaces immediately below affordable homes, creating a significant gap between the high street’s economic and social purpose. In addition to excluding people from their own neighbourhood, this situation puts retailers at greater risk of business failure.

The forum participants all agreed that there was value to creating a strong narrative for a development’s purpose, rooted in local needs. While we all know the property market is changeable, designing for specificity, with in-built flexibility, is still far better than designing with nothing in mind. Practically, you may want to start by looking for a unique anchor tenant.

“The right kind of developer can justify loss-leading ground floor uses on the residential… but you do also need things, like a post-office or supermarket that appeal to everyone and aren’t necessarily ‘cool’ that enhance the place.”  

Neil Murphy, TOWN
8 GS Team
From left to right: Precious, Susie, Fiona, and Jay of Gort Scott.

4. Home sweet home – calling for quality housing

The environmental and acoustic performance of high street buildings, which incorporate both commercial and residential uses, should be a key concern for policymakers, developers, designers, and residents alike.

Reviewing an example of a recent post-occupancy housing evaluation, the forum participants found that close to three in four residents reported feeling unhappy with the temperature and noise control in their home. Additionally, their chances of suffering from air and light pollution are greater. Such results do not bode well for the future of housing on the high street – nor do they suggest a great quality of life for our high street communities.

This is a challenge which must be addressed through a variety of means, ranging from the scale of material choices to the assembly of entire districts. Furthermore, developers and architects may increase the quality of place by thinking outside the red line, integrating building, public realm, and service design. For example, at Aberfeldy’s neighbourhood parade, Morris and Company have transformed the servicing street behind the parade into a managed ‘play street’ linked to the school on the other side of the road, with residential doors fronting onto it.

Thinking outside of the red-line: Play Street behind Aberfeldy High Street integrates the ground floor retail servicing, residential above and the school opposite. Images: Morris and Company.

Selected Precedents

  • Bermondsey Square, East: Example of a high street development made up of a series of mixed-use buildings around a public square, with a market, hotel, offices, and retail (including supermarket), and housing. 
  • Aberfeldy High Street, Morris and Company and Poplar Harca: Replacement of an existing parade with housing above and extensive engagement alongside business incubation and meanwhile strategy.
  • Fish Island, Haworth Tompkins / Pitman Tozer: A mixed-use neighbourhood centre with successful mixed-use building typologies – the uses could potentially do more to integrate with the needs of local residents.
  • Wolverton Town Centre, Town: Regenerating Wolverton’s town centre on the site of a 1970’s shopping centre by reintroducing the historic street pattern, fine-grain plots, and density.
  • In many European Cities, it is normal for light industrial uses to be underneath housing. For example in the 1950s/60’s redevelopment of Rotterdam.


  • Esther Everett, LLDC
  • Fiona Scott, Gort Scott
  • Julian Lewis, East
  • Neil Murphy, TOWN


  • Jay Gort, Gort Scott
  • Mark Brearley, London Metropolitan University
  • Matt Griffiths-Rimmer, Hadley Property Group
  • Miranda MacLaren, Morris and Company
  • Precious Ndukuba, Gort Scott
  • Prisca Thielmann, Maccreanor Lavington
  • Ramsey Yassa, Director of Nooma Studio
  • Sinéad Conneely, Simple Works Engineers
  • Susie Hyden, Gort Scott
  • William Haggard, CarverHaggard


  • Susie Hyden, Gort Scott
  • Eleonora Usseglio, Gort Scott

Edited by Camilla Siggaard Andersen & Tabitha Harvey-Crowe

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