Which City?

Monday, 20 June 2011

Thinking about shopping...but in a good way

I confess I do like to shop, especially with my teenage daughter whom I have brought up in my image.And like many people these days I shop for pleasure not just for practicalities. It may sound frivolous but the leisure or social aspect of shopping is a loss just as much as the economic aspect when high streets struggle. Julian Dobson's tweet of last week's Guardian article about the changing face of the high street started me thinking about this, and I have been thinking all week.

Of course shopping is about trade, food and drink, clothes and commodities, what we need and what we desire. But it's also about interaction, who we meet, stopping for a chat, lingering over coffee. I sometimes shop on the internet and it's quick and convenient, but impersonal. High streets are moving more into the personal territory of selling what can't be delivered electronically - haircuts and manicures. We may be able to buy goods and services without human contact, but shopping in the high street is a social activity, so we need reasons to go out and socialise.

Large thriving centres will adapt, the riskier places are smaller centres, villages with declining populations, low work areas where money is scarce. Last week Radio 4's You and Yours featured thriving community shops making use of volunteers and selling what Winifred Robinson called 'chi chi' goods whilst the Joseph Rowntree Foundation presented images of shops which were holding communities together by a thread in its launch of the exhibition of work by CRESR at Sheffield Hallam. Both these examples demonstrated how much meaning local shops have for their communities beyond a place to buy things.

We need shops, local shops we can walk to -  but if we're not buying they'll close. If we can get it cheaper on the internet, if it's easier to drive out of town, high streets will continue to decline. How do we stop it? Here's a few ideas:

Multi-use shops - some great examples in York. Our local card shop in Clifton Green has a little tea shop at the back which is loved by mums picking their kids up from school and The House of Avalon is a ovely  charity shop offering teas, vintage clothes and hairdressing.

Encourage landlords to allow creative use of empty shops - art installations and pop-ups shops can work really well in keeping spirits up but for more sustained use, encourage thinking about shop-sharing thorugh joint leases or sub leasing. For larger shops explore how these could be let on a mini-department store basis as shops within a store.

Public services can create footfall - council departments with real customers should come out of the town hall and on to the high street

Don't encourage doctors, dentists and pharmacists to relocate into purpose built soulless one stop shops on the edge of an industrial estate when they could occupy a string of premises on the main street

Don't worry too much about the loss of shops and the rise of cafes and hairdressers - it is better to bring people in to meet even if they can't spend. If they keep the habit of the high street, they're more likely to spend when the money comes back. 

Pleasant public space is worth the investment socially and economically - green space, inspiring streetscape will draw people in and keep them coming, not just to buy but to be together.

I hope Mary Portas looks at more than the clothes rail - high streets are about profit, but they're also about people. If they thrive, so do we.

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