17/01/2012

By Laura Billings, Director, Social Spaces

Over the Christmas break I read the Portas Review into the future of our high streets - and I agree with the sentiment expressed that high streets seem to be an often under-used or under-respected asset; and that in order for high streets and communities to thrive that we need a mix of commercial retail, with other cultural and social experiences; and that we would benefit from people making the shift from consumer to more active co-creator.

However, I found myself questioning some of the methods or solutions proposed - and here is some of my thinking why.

Representative 'Town Teams' to create shared vision of high street

I like the idea of a group of passionate people working together for the benefit of the whole high street. Bringing together retailers, building owners, Council and residents to collaborate and develop new possibilities. But I think that as we make the shift to 'co-creators' we are learning new roles, and new ways of working together that are unlikely to happen spontaneously in a classic meeting or planning setting.

As Portas notes later in the report "quite often it is only the noisy minority that contribute" which can sometimes be an issue with small groups claiming to be representative of a whole community. We've seen the positive impact of leaving things 'unfinished' so that people can contribute in meaningful ways - perhaps if the whole vision is completed and curated by a small representative group this may hamper wider involvement and co-creation.

I think that because we need a more sophisticated shift in thinking and acting, we need to move past getting people together to problem solve, and employ both new meeting techniques and some creative ways for people to engage in different ways. See Tessy's post for more on the differences between representative and creative collaborative paradigm.

Serving a community's needs and community consultation

The report states that the role of a town centre is to serve a communities needs. But what if the role of a town centre were to be an asset, a resource for a communities aspirations, and a source of inspiration? It also says that people should be consulted on town centre development - with big corporates putting money behind a campaign to get more people involved in town planning.

Getting more people involved is something I would agree with - but again I think that it needs to be more nuanced than traditional consultation (we listen and go and design what you want, then bring it back as a finished product for you to consume). What if instead of 'consulting' local councils were there to encourage and facilitate involvement, create connections and help make ideas a reality.

Community use of vacant properties and short term 'meanwhile' uses

While I agree with the need for high streets to enable innovative, creative activities I think that hosting this solely in vacant or temporary spaces is perhaps not the best way forward. Why are we reducing the social uses to short term animation and temporary spaces? If we acknowledge that the high street needs to be a 'dynamic social place with a sense of belonging' we need to give people time to get to know each other, give the social elements time to bed down and be a permanent part of the mix.

And by viewing the social simply as a colonisation method that can then be transplanted by 'real' business and full rates when it's successful in bringing in more people, new ideas and connections - begins to price the social out again, and keeps the current competitive profit driven model at top of hierarchy, potentially loosing the extra social value found in supportive co-creation methods.

Social as a secondary effect of economic activity

The report says that the high street is social space: people interact by chatting in the market place, or sharing an enjoyable consumer experience. Social connections and the positive benefits from this are seen as an important secondary effect of shopping on the local highstreet. I wouldn't disagree with this - knowing the name of my local green grocer feels like something important to my sense of place (but I'll be honest, in a decade or more of local shopping I've not made new friends through the experience, because a straight transactional relationship is not really conducive to this).

So if the secondary (perhaps unintended) social benefits are clearly a valuable thing then why are we stopping there? Imagine the secondary effects of a truly co-created high street experience - what if people had the opportunity to meet over baking, growing, building, making. Building lasting relationships through shared activities - rather than chance greetings over transient commercial transactions.

The individual's role to shop locally

The report highlights our responsibility to 'meet, trade and shop in high streets' in order for them to thrive. I don't disagree - I personally chose to support local businesses as much as I can and feel much happier about my contribution going to Hassan and his family up the road, than the bottomless pockets of Tesco. But as noted above, I think that this consumer model that we know so well reduces us to simply economic players in the town centre.

It is our role to be there and shop. We aren't expected to, and largely don't have the opportunity to create, or build it. We are there to consume - and it could be argued that is is this pattern of behaviour that created the out of town shopping phenomena, largely responsible for the decline in high street success, in the first place.

Shops can be more than just shops

I read through 55 pages to find the bit that most interested me, right at the end... There is a suggestion that an ideal would be "big shops being more than just shops" and the examples cited are book shops in cafes, or a running club meeting point in a sports shop. And perhaps a 'swap shop' for different skills, and work hubs.

This sounds more like it to me... we need to bring back the social to the highstreet in an integrated, co-created way. From the grass roots up, skillfully facilitatied by those who know their way round the red tape and systems - be that local authorities, landlords, or retailers.

What's the alternative?

I think that if we are a bit braver in our expectations of the high street, more critical of the impact of our current repeated patterns of behaviour, and made the best of our opportunities to reimaging the assets and resources contained in it, we could begin to create a much richer social space together. If instead of another service that is provided for us to consume, (albeit by a new wider group of players than previously) we could be genuinely involved in the creation of social, cultural, and educational experiences.

Instead of reducing the social to occasional spaces or secondary effects, I think we should aspire to create a truly integrated social high street. Putting it into practise

Mary Portas ends by recommending that several trials and pilots are initiated to take this report forward. If anyone would like to offer a highstreet to start putting this into practise, do contact me at Social Spaces - we'd be more than happy to get stuck in!


This article originally appeared on the Thriving Too blog. You can follow Laura on Twitter @laurabillings

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