Every time I read about another initiative to try and rejuvenate retail on our high street, I can’t help but wonder whether politicians and other policy makers are missing the point. Of course, retail has long played an important role on our high streets, but there is much more to a these spaces than just shopping. High streets are the lifeblood of a town; they can bring communities together, and so we can’t approach the issue of their decline without this at the forefront of our minds.
For this reason, I was pleased to be invited to join the newly formed think tank, the Future Spaces Foundation, at the end of last year. The Foundation aims to explore the factors that affect the way we live and work and the impact they have on the spaces we live in. Our first report, The Future of the High Street: Living, Learning and Livelihood in our Communities takes a fresh look at the high street debate, looking at what happens when you shift the focus from retail to putting people and communities first.
Through my work with the Crib Youth Project in Hackney I have long seen the benefits of empowering young people, and I was pleased to see that my fellow panellists, who came from fields as diverse as psychology, economics and arts and culture, were in agreement with me that this should take a central role when planning our future high streets.
The group concluded that rather than a focus on reviving retail, policymakers should instead be looking at rejuvenating a knowledge economy on our high streets, with educational facilities for young people playing a central role in this. Re-engaging young people in semi-formal education, helping them develop skills which maybe they did not absorb during their school education not only provides them with employment opportunities but also provides a purpose which, without such facilities, can be lacking in communities and subsequently cause fragmentation. It can bring tangible economic benefits for the wider community too – in Stoke on Trent alone, one of the example cities an economist tested this theory on, we found that a focus on a knowledge economy could boost the city economy by up to £30 million over the next ten years, and over 600 new jobs could be created.
Educational facilities can bring surprising additional advantages too -we must not forget the impact that these types of spaces can have for the cohesion of local communities, especially amongst young people. I have seen this first hand with an old primary school on Pitfield Street in Hoxton that was transformed for young people. It was open for about six years before private investors bought the space and turned it into university accommodation. We found ourselves with a different space which could hold just 20 or 30 young people, compared to a previous capacity for 200-300. This affected the community a great deal. I am not sure if it is a direct correlation but gang activity peaked in 2004/2005, shortly after the centre closed . Young people no longer had place to go to and we were working from the project manager’s house.
The Foundation also proposed the formation of a youth panel at the consultation process for any new development on the high street, in order to ensure their needs and views are listened to. This is an initiative that gets my full support. Young people are full of ideas and energy, and communities and decision-makers more broadly need to harness and utilise this. Engaging young people right from the start of any planning process really helps to ensure that the spaces we plan will serve the needs of today but also those of tomorrow. Failing to do so not only jeopardises the potential for our future spaces being fit for purpose but also disenfranchises young people.
I am pleased to see that so far the report has garnered a good deal of interest from the media and people in the built environment industry, but there is still further to go. When we talk about ‘future spaces’ we must consider how the young people of today will live and interact with their surroundings in the future. When we are talking about the empowerment of our communities we must include young people in the processes and decision making that will shape these places. The high street is a prime example of this – and I think it is this approach, and not one focused on retail, that could provide at least part of the solution to the problems that our town centres have been facing for far too long.
Emeka is a founding member of the Future Spaces Foundation. Find out more about the Foundation and download the high street report at http://www.futurespacesfoundation.org