The impact this year of two national lockdowns, a constantly shifting tier system, increased homeworking and the growth of online shopping has completely assaulted our already declining high streets. Here, Sophie Thomas-Lacroix reflects on what 2020 has taught us.
As your local bakery flips to sell dried pasta and toilet roll, pizzerias become take-out windows and cafes shift into DIY shops, the 2020 high-street is in a constant state of change. We straddle a fault-line in history. Amid a global pandemic, where physical consumption is paused and socialising is limited, the value of our high-streets and public spaces is being questioned.
For years, media narratives have mourned the decline of high-streets in the face of suburban supermalls and the boom of e-commerce. But in the throes of an unthinkable year, our local high-streets have proved an agility and resilience not afforded to their larger city counterparts.
Look to Oxford Street for instance and we can see retail giants that have remained shut for most of this year. Crushed by diseconomies of scale, their centralised management has proven too detached, the chain of command too slow, the corporate infrastructure inflexible.
Stifled and surveyed, these large-scale indoor environments are not only less appealing in a world still reeling from the spread of an infectious virus, but they also provide no connection to the public life that we crave. With a connection to the ‘local’ is also a connection to the personal and the independent. Within the ‘private supermall-type’ retail offer, not only do we lack the opportunity to create relationships but also to come together over wider issues. They won’t connect us to our global challenges, or to each other.
With more Londoners living and working locally, there is potential to create a more participatory, inclusive and community-focused economy. Original image by Sophie Thomas-Lacroix.
As our domestic spheres have constricted and the virus has reoriented our relationship with the rest of the world, we have been prompted to urgently reassess what we value and where we want to spend our time. 2020 has seen a call to arms; a swell of previously underutilised skills, creativity and resources, mobilised for mutual support and community benefit.
The civic fabric of our communities has fostered an essential solidarity and responsibility; people have stayed at home, lost income, self-isolated, refrained from stockpiling, supported each other, and even pooled supplies to help those in need and bolster key-workers. Daily actions premised in empathy and generosity. Our localities have provided a life-line.
The revival of the local high street can be seen not as a nostalgic predilection for the past but as a vital, mercantile, space of exchange. In this time of crisis the high-street becomes an extension of the civic; a place that facilitates sociability, human interaction and a participatory democratic experience that goes beyond the user as a customer or the citizen as a consumer.
Led by the adaptable, the grass-roots and the independent, unexpected new options for our urban centres have been revealed. Resilience has become dependent on flexibility and 2020 London has provided the perfect testing ground for bottom-up appropriations of the city. A move away from multinational chains and supermalls to a smaller-scale independent-led adaptability; a move back towards the origins of the high street – to market stalls and independent vendors.
The pandemic has revealed a supplementary praxis for using our high-streets that adroitly – through minimal extensions of planning and building codes – has allowed social and civic life to operate within redundant spaces, niches and time windows to meet real and urgent needs.
The ‘15-minute city’ concept could offer a solution for how we revive our local urban high streets and town centres. Original image by Sophie Thomas-Lacroix.
In the same way that vacant pubs have pivoted to sell home essentials, could vacant carparks flip to become green amenity space for locals? Could abandoned offices become affordable housing? Could the networks left behind, sustained by a shared endured experience, play a critical role in strengthening our communities and neighbourhoods? Could the canvas of our high-streets provide a platform for greater equity and enhanced social capital in our societies?
This year has offered divergent values to those currently accepted in our urban centres. As we enter a brave new world can this solidarity sustain our high-streets and a renewed appreciation for the micro-economies that surround it? Could this be a move towards a new, more local, civic life, grounded in empathy and generosity?
Within both the urgency and temporality of this moment lies a disruptive trigger, one that can, for a moment in time, generate alternative possibilities for the future of our public spaces and high streets.