Requiem for the High Street + Short Cambridge Guide
The traditional heart of British retail is dead. Rather than artificially resuscitating it with low taxes and cheap parking, we need to reinvent our town centre as more than places to buy stuff.
Note: This is an expansion (read: unedited version) of the article as it appeared in ICON (Issue. 124).
Walk down almost any British high street and you’ll see shop windows whiting out like the eyes of a dying cartoon character. Familiar retail names are blowing out like a fusing switchboard. Woolworths, Jessops, Comet, Borders, Virgin Megastore. Some of them have even, given the strange zombie world of bankruptcy, gone bust twice. And as they do, there is a collective wailing and gnashing of teeth. It’s as though something fundamental is disappearing before our eyes, as though a part of the intrinsic nature of our cities is dissolving into nothingness.
Before moving to Marylebone (London) I was was a long-term resident of Cambridge – which, coincidentally, is ranked as Monocle’s most liveable UK city. I could not agree more with this observation. I dare anyone to walk from Cambridge Wine Merchants on Bridge St. to the Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington St. via Trinity Lane, King’s Parade and Market Sq. without marvelling at the architecture, intelligence and breath of the services on offer. For less than a mile’s walk you could have your morning flat-white, get fitted for a suit, attend a lecture or two, buy some books, clothes and / or jewellery, watch a polo match, taste cheese from Languedoc, indulge in a slice of home-made Red Velvet, buy your evening’s wine, choose to dine from a variety of French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian and Indian restaurants, and still have time to admire Monet, Manet and Renoir. More importantly you would be able to do all these things at independent businesses, not your usual high street chains.
The Grand Arcade aside, Cambridge’s success boils down to consistent revitalisation, frank elitism, intelligent management from the University (which pretty much owns the city), and a desire to support both tradition and entrepreneurship. A micro-example of what Cambridge has done can be seen on Marylebone High Street. Consistently revitalised by the main local landlord, Howard de Walden Estates, the high street has been turned from a once-shabby area of central London into an elegant street – a hidden wonder of W1 – which carefully manages its mix of boutiques, small retailers and intelligent residents.
Unlike Cambridge and Howard de Walden Estates, the UK government responded to the crisis in the only way it knows how: by signing up a TV celebrity for a quick fix. It has hired Mary Portas, once Topshop’s retail ‘wizard’, then TV’s ‘Queen of Shops’. UGH! As adviser to the government on high streets, she authored the 2011 report suggesting that empty shops be turned to gyms, crèches and bingo halls, and that a ‘National Market Day’ could drive customers to veg stalls across the land. Now 27 towns have won bids to become ‘Portas Pilots‘, each receiving a grand sum of £100,000 to fix their ailing high streets. Initiatives include evening markets and stalls for £10, contributions to business rates to encourage entrepreneurship and provide affordable car parking (only 10p all day on a Sunday in Braintree!). I’d welcome the latter in Soho. A year on, however, Portas’ pilots are ‘still struggling‘.
The idea of Potemkin retail reached its apogee during the G8 summit in Northern Ireland this year. Empty shops were spruced up to give media and delegates the impression of bustling, functioning high streets. In Belcoo, the windows of a former butcher’s shop were plastered with stickers depicting a packed meat counter of the kid you might find in Belgravia. Over the road, another empty unit was made to look like a thriving Ümea-like office supply shop.
The Department for Communications and Local Government explains the issues as it sees them: ‘High streets are recognised as important hubs of social interaction and cohesion, as well as providers of local jobs. They’re a visible indicator of how well, or how badly, a local economy is doing. But our high streets and town centres are facing serious challenges from out-of-town shopping centres and the growth of online and mobile retailing.’
Well, yes. Of course internet shopping is changing the way we shop. It’s not only convenience but the unfair advantages of being able to dodge tax linked to actual physical space. The big internet retailers often locate the site of their transactions in low tax zones. Without retail premises, they also avoid business rates. Internet retail disrupts the way we buy and simultaneously circumvents the traditional flows of local economies and council revenues. And of course, the wider economy will affect things too. As wages stay flat, so too does consumer confidence – and retail remains in the doldrums.
It’s true to say that there are pockets that rebuff the prevailing conditions. Like Marylebone, walk down the high streets of London’s richer or more fashionable areas and you might think you had been transported back into some kind of idealised 1950s scene. Here tiny shop after tiny shop with their brightly painted fronts display a range of cute specialisms. Cheese shops, cookware, knick-knacks that defy categorisation. My more frugal and liberal friends have argued that these are gentrified fantasies, nostalgic re-runs. More like heritage centres, they are make-believe places re-enacting a hazy idea of the high streets we’ve long lost, places where we can occupy a dreamy flashback to the idea of community that the high street represents in the popular psyche. Much as I like these type of high streets I do, somewhat, agree with my friends’ observations. The only real problem is that these places don’t sell anything we all need. For that we have to go to Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Tesco (as one’s bank account dictates).
Is the high street really something that can be fixed with a lick of paint and a couple of new benches? Or is it a symptom of a larger shift in the nature of our cities? A reverse in the polarity of cities wouldn’t be unique. Every generation sees a shift. The inter-war suburbs, for example, provided an escape from the slums of the industrial city only for the very same slums to become the homes of baby-boomers returning in waves of gentrification. We might argue that it’s not the city itself that changes but the way we think of and use it.
With this is mind, perhaps the crisis on the high street is only really a crisis if you look at it from one direction. What exactly are we mourning when we lament the collapse of the high street? Are we really mourning the idea of the centre of towns filled with people buying things, handling cards and cash over counters in exchange for stuff? Is it really such a disaster that we might not be waddling down high streets with plastic bags stuffed with new things we barely need?
The holes in the urban fabric are as much an existential crisis as they are an urban problem. Cities are an image of society, projected into a material and spatial entity. It disturbs us on a fundamental that the core of our civic identity might be disappearing. These vacated town centres seem somehow to be a product of our own internal hollowness, as though the city itself were mirroring our own private psychological implosions.
Is reality such a disaster that we might not be waddling down high streets with plastic bags stuffed with new things we barely need.
Our despair is only heightened by the fact that we conflate retail and society. Powered by complex cocktails of coffee-derived fluids and strangely sweaty-yet-dry muffins, transaction after transaction, exchange after exchange makes it feel as if we are participating in the public life of our communities. Never mind that these transactions and exchanges are simply abstract electronic transfers mediated by global payment management systems.
If the old model is over, we need to imagine new ways of concentrating places where we can come together: new users, new rituals and new ways to pay for them. The developer Cathedral is working on projects for new communities in places including Canning Town, Bromley and Deptford. Richard Upton, its chief executive, explained that the growth of the private rented sector provides a new basis for imagining how and why community, living, retail and a whole range of other activities might coalesce. He argues that if a developer retains the freehold rather than selling its apartments as fas as it can, then the way that value is created changes. The long-term viability of a development as a place becomes important. Simply put, the happier people are in the place they live, the lower the running costs for the developer. The more successful the life within it, the greater the value created. He cites examples such as Cadbury’s Bournville, a place where 19th-century altruism (not the Comtean sort) combined with industrial progress.
What’s important in attitudes like Upton’s is that the high street is seen as part of a holistic idea of the city, not an isolated incident. Rather than ‘fixing’ the high street, it suggests re-conceiving it. In his example, the higher value of residential can support the lower value of commercial space. But in turn, the quality of life that the commercial space offers can bring a ‘halo’ effect to the value of the residential. This idea suggests that afar wider spectrum of activities and services could fill the voids in our town centres. Something far richer, more inclusive and democratic and, importantly, riskier than the stuff we are currently lamenting and trying to patch up. Certainly more exciting than traipsing around Woolworths wondering why pick’n’ mix would rub shoulders with sieves and DVDs.
The US is a place where the idea of the empty centre is practically written into the constitution (all the while reaming of white clapboard Main Streets). With a few exceptions, it is obsessed with the supposed freedoms of suburbia. This leaves its trace on the dispersing centre of the American town, leaving empty big-box retail buildings of the the recent past. In places, these former shops have become schools. The Westminster Hall in southern California, for example, has a community day school rubbing shoulders with a Macy’s and JC Penney. And this non-traditional school environment provides a place that better suits non-traditional students. This suggests that traditional planning definitions of ‘mixed use are blander than we currently imagine. A more radical and denser mix of uses could defibrillate local economies while forging a new sense of community and place.
In William Morris’s science fiction novel News From Nowhere (1890), the Houses of Parliament have been converted into a manure store. At first, the idea of the seat of government shocks our time-travelling hero. But it’s explained to him that manure, in the post-industrial agrarian fantasy of Morris’s novel, is such an important substance that it’s far from a joke or insult. It is this kind of shift that we need if we are to re-imagine the possibilities of our town centres.
In fact, there might be a time when it’s hard to imagine we gave so much important space to retail. Instead, it could (should even) be those things that really hold us together that sit centre stage. Public facilities, so often isolated from the communities they serve, could become public in the urban sense. Hospitals, due to historic planning legislation, have been islands adjacent to their constituency rather than connected peninsulas. Schools and universities have also, for perceived issues of safety and ease, management and control, remained distinct from the cities around them. As their borders merge, a more symbiotic relationship is established: the city becomes the classroom and the classroom becomes the city. Stellar examples of such relationships can be witnessed at Oxbridge with Oxon. and Cantab., Geidai with the Ueno area, Eton with Eton and Windsor, CNSMDP and Sorbonne with Paris, the UoL colleges with London, etc.
The high street might not have a future as a place just to buy things. Instead, with imagination, it could become a place to engage, to learn, and to really participate. A host to the real mechanisms of society rather than places we go to buy the sensation of participation.
Having recently moved to Marylebone I still miss Cambridge (like, a lot!). As a sort of thank you to Cantab. for all the good & bad memories and to new students about to start university at Anglia Ruskin or Cambridge; I give my Best of:-
Area: Granchester (especially the Orchard Tea Garden in the summer).
Cafés: 2nd View Cafe (2nd Floor of Waterstones, cheapest pot of Earl Grey in Cambridge and wonderful staff, especially Laura), Fitzbillies (best Chelsea buns in Great Britain)
Hotels: Hotel du Vin (pick the Balfour suite), Hotel Felix (best room service).
Make-out spot: Balcony at Galleria, bridge at King’s college, Christ’s college Fellows’ garden
Music: King’s College, Kettle’s Yard.
Overall for students: Mill Road has all the best room, studios, shops, cafés and restaurants you need as a struggling student.
Secret: Hufeland’s (an amalgam of five groups) H’s – as it’s known – is an invitation only international private dining club that meets bi-monthly at a member’s house for food, wine, music and debates – annual, end-of-year, dinners at Mosimann’s).
Wine: Cambridge Wine Merchants (I suggest the King’s Parade store where you can chat about wine, food and photography with co-founder / owner Brett Turner).