By Kate Hardcastle, retail expert and commentator
I write this as I sit enjoying a crafted coffee in a busy independent cafe in South Toorak, Melbourne, Australia. Gazing through the glass, I can see a busy cinema and retail hub of cafes and stores – no generic coffee chain or bland retail in sight.
Specialist services fill the side streets: dentistry – ironically next to a boutique patisserie – a nursery and day play centre, and health and beauty therapists. Repair shops, tailors and dry cleaners blend into the mix, but most heartening is the vast array of sports facilities – tennis courts and footy fields, with neighbouring outdoor skate park and play park.
It’s alive, vibrant and successful. It’s been the place I stay in Melbourne for over a decade, because I love to research and understand how it works and how people engage with it. People-watching at its finest.
We need to make our high streets more human. The over reliance of retail must cease as we find new and fresh ways to invigorate our towns and cities.
We have an isolation epidemic which effects all the generations – who find themselves without all the wonder and purpose that community can give.
We have an obesity crisis – and a need to educate and demonstrate the good that exercise and movement can bring, and help to support families to make it an affordable part of their lives.
Many places have lost their identity, relying on a generic format, rather than having the confidence to celebrate the unique identity and local qualities.
Our local authorities are time and cash poor, with reductions in budgets and more work to do – but can be over reliant on the quick fix of raising funds through parking charges and fines, which has driven many out of the high streets and helped to make their transference to online shopping speedier.
We have had significant churn in the role of the High Streets Minister (five in six years) and the fluidity and sometimes the lack of focus on the right ideas and investment has seen things go backwards at a time where there should have been significant investment.
The bricks-and-mortar retailers who trade in high streets have an unrealistic set of rates to pay that don’t give them as much opportunity to invest as our high street offer.
Yet many of the retailers have failed to move at a quick enough pace, not recognising the retail evolution ahead, many have over-expanded – taking too much space in too many places and have not invested in times of healthier profits to a level that was needed.
It all seems a far cry from what I am seeing in front of me here In Melbourne.
There are actions we can take and changes we can make to start delivering a better outcome for our lifetime and future generations.
Firstly, we must accept that there will be a constant evolution of change. We should not look to a completion of a regeneration project, but indeed we must challenge how it can be flexible enough to adapt over years to accommodate new trends.
We have to build the place around the people who use it. We must ask for their opinions and thoughts more, bringing them far more into the heart of each development. Too many ideas are designed in the isolation of an office space.
It must be done collaboratively. I live by an ethos of ‘building bridges and not thrones’, yet we often see each sector working independently of each other.
We know the high street of tomorrow will be about activity, experience, retail and services – but where is place for the great innovators of each sector and industry to meet and share plans and create collaborations.
We must realise that if we want people to be more active, it may take more ingenuity.
If sport and activity hasn’t been part of your family life, it may not be something you are immediately drawn to. Therefore, how can we present opportunities and places to experiment and try movement in an inclusive way to all?
Let’s be bold and brave with the next steps.
Let’s be inclusive and ask to collaborate more.
Let’s offer quicker and lower cost wins for the high streets while some of these bigger scale developments come to life. And as we wait for them to come to life, let us keep sharing and communicating with the intended user on what is to come – so we don’t disengage another generation.
I’m 10,000 miles away. I’d like to look up in a coffee shop soon with as much joy and community around me at home, enjoying it with my family.
Regenerating the high street through physical activity:
ukactive is urging the main political parties to commit to addressing high rates of retail vacancy on the high street by changing the restrictive aspects of the ‘use class system’ to encourage fitness and leisure operators to open on the high street and primary business centres.
To get involved, click here.