Whilst there are pockets of affluence in London, many high streets and town centres have become run down. Unfortunately many high streets are also through roads, which can be choked with traffic or create barriers, making them unpleasant.
The economic decline of the high street and town centre has become a prominent issue in recent years, along with a realisation of their social worth to local communities. But many have been caught between a trade-off between motor traffic and a people-friendly environment, usually to the detriment of the latter. This has meant local businesses have suffered, with a knock-on effect on the locality as a whole.
The role of the Internet in transforming shopping habits makes it ever more important that our high streets are full of life. Town centres and high streets need to be more than simply shopping centres. They need to be places where people want to spend time, meet friends and acquaintances, enjoy social activity and have access to a variety of services.
To build liveable town centres, we need to prioritise people over motor traffic, creating space that can be enjoyed by the local community and that encourages walking and cycling. This can create lively, pleasant places that are economically viable and socially vibrant.
Achieving a liveable high street or town centre
The first step to creating liveable high streets is to see them as ‘places’ rather than ‘routes’. This means the priority formerly given to the throughput of high volumes of traffic is subordinated to the requirements to make a high street a pleasant and attractive place to spend time. High streets are destinations where people will spend time and the allocation of space needs to be proportionate.
There should be plenty of amenity space (such as café culture on the pavement) and space for easy walking and cycling. Liveable high streets and town centres are places that encourage people to visit by foot and by bike, as the prioritisation of walking and cycling over motor traffic is part and parcel of the solution to making them better places to be. Many reviews and studies have demonstrated that people who walk and cycle to high streets have a significant and often underestimated economic impact for local traders.
Benefits of liveable high streets
Vibrant high streets improve quality of life, support the local economy and enhance the environment by reducing the need for travel. Creating more pleasant shopping environments will benefit many businesses; for example, cafés and restaurants may be able to offer more pleasant pavement seating. Many businesses will benefit from the additional passing trade from cyclists and pedestrians while an Australian study recently found that allocating space to bike parking rather than to car parking generates a higher economic return per square metre.
What might this mean at ward level?
Depending on the current situation and the type of high street, it might mean:
• Making the town centre a 20mph zone
• On high streets that are also main roads, with high motor traffic volumes, introducing protected space for safe cycling.
• Removing through motor traffic from a local high street where there is an alternative route
• Replacing motor traffic space with amenity space, such as café tables on pavements