Not every town needs multiple department stores – they are a product of a homogeny that has characterised our retail spaces for too long
We recently brought together occupiers, funders, developers, planning consultants and designers for our Retailers’ Therapy event – a title that hints at the mood in which many are currently reflecting on the sector. When planning a retail roundtable, there is a risk that – amid the media onslaught – the conversation spirals into despair, with the demise of high-profile retailers becoming a bleak forecast for all of our high streets and shopping centres. This was far from the conversation we actually had: although change is clearly in the air and cautionary tales were told, there was also a clear sense of opportunity.
Firstly, when looking at the distress in the retail sector, it’s perhaps important to highlight an obvious fact – there’s just too much physical retail space. The world has changed and, with it, so have the habits and psychology of shoppers. Research into the extent of the oversupply, coupled with an understanding of what people want and what communities need, can free up the conversation around retail. This change in perspective can push us to think more laterally about weaving together a rich mix of mutually supportive uses.
When retail was king, community assets were pushed to the periphery of towns to maximise space for shoppers
The disappearance of numerous household brands has not just created holes in our high streets but has also, behind the visible retail space, left “gap sites” in the surrounding townscape. These voids were once filled with deep-plan buildings, now mostly oversized and outdated, which address the high street but, from other sides, turn their back on the town.
Instead of thinking of how to swap retail spaces like-for-like, more developers, architects and councils are thinking of ways of repurposing these gap sites to weave together retail, residential, workplace and community amenities, anchored around high-quality public spaces. The civic quality is the pivotal factor in this reappraisal of retail, acting as a glue that – when done thoughtfully and well managed – can help bind retail together with other uses.
But this kind of reimagining of the high street and shopping centres is not a prescriptive formula and involves an understanding of what people want and the town or city needs. We can push this reappraisal of the high street further than just including homes, workspace and leisure facilities; there is also an opportunity to incorporate important community services within the repurposing and restructuring of major retail developments.
In times when retail was king, community assets were pushed to the periphery of some towns to maximise space for shoppers. But is this an opportunity to bring healthcare services and council offices back into town centres? These staple civic facilities could be a useful neighbour for retail, positioning leisure and community services together to create a density of activity. Not every town needs multiple department stores – they are a product of a homogeny that has characterised our retail spaces for too long.
Not every town needs multiple department stores – they are a product of a homogeny that has characterised our retail spaces for too long. If we get this reappraisal right, the old vision for retail will be replaced by fresh perspectives on how to engage and attract people in a way that also enriches our town centres.