As the carnage on our high streets acquired rocket boosters during the pandemic it became even more apparent that we need to be thinking differently about these critical urban spaces. So what are the key place-based intervention factors that can help to guarantee a future for our high streets? This is the question I asked in a recent study discussed in this and the next blog.
Beyond a movement economy and centrality paradigm
Traditional shopping streets often go back centuries, fed by what Bill Hillier christened the movement economy. As people moved along natural movement corridors, the optimum position of some land parcels in an emerging urban street network allowed the establishment of functions that relied on passers-by and the business opportunities they presented. Over time these functions were reinforced and commercial streets emerged with some becoming destinations in their own right.
Whilst the growth of car-based urbanisation in the second half of the 20th century and of the internet in the 21st has progressively challenged this place-based movement economy, it was the arrival of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020 that broke it (at least temporarily). Figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics show that e-commerce grew in a single year (2020) from around a fifth of total sales to over a third. Society quickly found that technology could be used to sustain people in their homes, allowing many to work, shop, eat out (at home), entertain themselves, and even access many public and health services without ever venturing beyond their front doors. These trends have the potential to significantly undermine the dynamics that have driven urban growth for centuries, including on our high streets.
We often perceive high streets as places that are all about the shopping. Yet a characteristic of traditional high streets is that they have evolved to become super-diverse places where retail uses are only a part of the total mix which is spread both vertically up the buildings that front onto high streets and horizontally into the hinterland of the urban blocks. Retail, nevertheless, remains the ‘public face’ of high streets, often in the form of an active and continuous frontage. A move away from physical retail significantly changes the experience of these streets, removing, and in a sense privatising, many previously active frontages.
Moreover, access to good quality shops seems to be particularly important in people’s sense of pride and community, in the UK coming first amongst the issues that boosts subjective well-being, although also first amongst local place factors considered most in need of improving. What seems clear, is that if the outlook for traditional shopping streets is to improve, then a new basis for support may be required that is not dependent (at least not to the same degree) on movement and centrality.
The sun model of shopping choices
To understand this, it is necessary to understand the different reasons people choose to make the shopping choices they do. Reviewing discussions from a wide range of international blogs, fora, popular news reports and industry news sites, revealed nine critical factors. These can be represented in a sun model that conceptualises the relative significance of factors for physical versus online shoppers.
Factors coloured yellow strongly inform the choices of online shoppers and are the reasons why online has become such a powerful disrupter of traditional shopping habits. Factors in red remain influential in helping to retain a physical customer-base, although only the first two – immediate and social – are what might be seen as ‘positive’ factors (the non-technological engagement of some shoppers typically stems from necessity rather than choice). Factors in orange inform the decisions of all shoppers, but darker orange is likely to be more important to physical shoppers. Cost, in lighter orange, is always a factor in any purchase decision, but by enabling shopping around with ease, cost drives consumers to shop online more often than it keeps them in bricks-and-mortar.
Examining the model, it is clear that no single outlet (as opposed to retailer) – whether online or off – can offer everything, and indeed no mode has a monopoly on any of the factors represented in the sun model. Instead, they offer combinations of qualities. At the same time, the areas of greatest strength for online outlets – the four ‘C’s – tend to be very direct and tangible, against which traditional retailers struggle to compete. In this respect, it is no accident that physical retail advantages are reminiscent of a setting sun in the figure, albeit that the challenges encompassed are nothing new.
For decades before e-retailing took off, discussions focussed around the perceived negative impact of out-of-town retailing on traditional hight streets. Looking at them physically, those changes can be viewed as part of a journey from mixed, integrated and place-dependent urbanism to separated, disintegrated and non-place urbanism.
Thus retail boxes set in amongst extensive free car parking on the edge of cities offered a stepping-off point towards the same four ‘C’s that define the online retail experience – convenience (for those with cars), greater choice (given the size of many of these units), greater certainty (given the stock on offer) and reduced cost (given their economies of scale, lower rents, and lower overheads).
Outlet vs. place factors
Arguably all these advantages have been super-charged in the online world whose sun is relentlessly rising. Early evidence from UK shoppers in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic demonstrated a preference for the car parks and larger more spacious footplate formats of out-of-town retail over the more crowded spaces of town centres. In the long-term, however, it may be exactly their place-based differentiation from the online model that will allow traditional shopping streets to adapt and survive. By contrast, out-of-town, which is much closer in type to online, could suffer more severely in the ongoing cull of retail. Pre-pandemic evidence, for example, indicated that out-of-town retail was in a steeper decline than traditional high streets.
This reveals a critical conceptual distinction relating to the scale at which the factors and associated challenges of physical retailing need to be addressed. The sun model can be divided between factors (on the left) that are predominantly determined within individual retail outlets (singular or chains) and those on the right that relate to the particular marketplace – be that the internet at large, or the particular town or city centre. Setting fiscal taxes and incentives aside, it is within the latter place factors that the public sector (and large private retail investors e.g. owners of shopping malls) can hope to influence the future of their particular marketplace. Outlet factors, by contrast, reflect either the simple realities of the channel used to shop (e.g. you can’t touch things on the internet but you can be certain to purchase most products with a few clicks of a mouse), or are factors determined by the particular retail model pursued (e.g. the employment of polite, helpful assistants versus the availability of good technical descriptors online).
Faced with this, governments (national and local) might adopt one of three strategies:
- The Darwinian strategy of letting the fittest survive with natural evolution adjusting provision in line with consumer choices made within a free market
- An interventionalist strategy in which fiscal incentives, active planning, public investment and collaborative engagement with private interests are used to proactively support physical retail
- A mixed model in which intervention is more limited and focusses largely on smoothing undesirable social and environmental impacts.
In England where the aftermath of the pandemic has resulted in an estimated 25% over-provision of retail space nationally, current policy approaches, at different times, seem to support both the first and second strategies, although not, yet, as a coherent approach to the third. I explore these in the next blog.
Professor of Planning & Urban Design
The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL