How walking cities are boosting the UK high street

At a time when it seems that the traditional high street in the UK is struggling to survive, there is increasing evidence to suggest that encouraging bike and foot traffic can have a positive effect in helping to revitalise inner city areas.

The increasing “walkability” of city centres is giving the high street an espresso shot by leaving people free to linger and graze without the worry of wondering how long they have left on their parking ticket.

High street blues

The UK high street is in trouble and has been for a number of years. According to the Centre for Retail Research, more than 11,000 major high street outlets have ceased trading since 2008. The world recession, new internet shopping habits, out-of-town mega-malls, increases in city centre business rates and decreases in wages all have a part to play in this. But so also does what people actually want from their high streets. In recent years, we’ve concentrated on the high street being a place for shopping and work, but look up at the clues and you’ll see that there was a time when our city centres were used differently. There are buildings that used to be Odeon cinemas, theatres, clubs and pubs, which now house phone shops, or sit empty. Planners need to think about how people could once again use the high street not only for shopping, but as a place for entertainment and leisure again.

Mary Portas, one of the UK’s foremost authorities on retail, agrees. In 2011, she was asked by the Government to conduct an independent review into the state of UK high streets and town centres. Her recommendations firmly stated that; “The new high streets won’t just be about selling goods. The mix will include shops but could also include housing, offices, sport, schools or other social, commercial and cultural enterprises and meeting places. They should become places where we go to engage with other people in our communities, where shopping is just one small part of a rich mix of activities.” 

Sticky streets

But once you have the dream mix of businesses, housing, leisure and entertainment, how do you keep the punters there? Canadian Brent Toderian is an internationally respected urban designer with over 25 years of experience in advanced urbanism, city planning and urban design. He has helped to redesign cities around the world and is in agreement with Portas that there needs to be a mix of things offered in a successful street, where people want to stay and importantly for businesses, spend their money. “A street is sticky,” he says “if, as you move along, you’re constantly enticed to slow down, stop and enjoy the public life around you. Things like patio dining, food carts, attractive seating, street performers or just lively store windows that draw a crowd can contribute to making a street more ‘sticky’.”

Rich mix of activities

The multipurpose café space is one such sticky place where the pedestrian (and cyclist!) is invited in to slow down and enjoy social activities and art exhibitions alongside their cuppa.

Founded in 2010, Look mum no hands! (LMNH!) based at Old Street, London, located in a former post office, combines café, bicycle workshop, bar, and exhibition space, and was one of the first cycle cafés. As well as food and drink, LMNH! also offers a packed programme of exhibitions, film screenings, live cycle sport and even cycle speed dating.

Alexandra Davis of LMNH! tells us about their customers; “We have a lot of regulars! From morning, to lunch and evening we have a great bunch of people who like to come here for their coffee, food and booze. We get a few people on a cycle café pilgrimage coming to see us for the first time, plus a few people exploring London.

“We’ve been here for eight years because we’re still keeping up our excellent offering of skilled mechanics who can fix your bike, great coffee, craft beer and freshly prepared food. They say a good café is like a good pub, full of loads of different types of people and you’ll definitely find that here.” 

Davis describes what she likes most about pedestrianised spaces; “When you’re walking or cycling, it’s much easier to pop into lots of shops, make friends, meet friends, become a regular. It’s cheaper, fun and less polluted. Loads of cyclists bomb past the café to the Old Street roundabout and beyond. We have pumps outside for them and loads of bike parking. It makes the space much more open and welcoming. You see it a lot in Netherlands, whole areas full of plants, beautiful canals and people enjoying things like walking and cycling. You can’t argue with that.” 

In order for our high streets to thrive, maybe we need to take a step back to what cafés such as LMNH! are doing; creating a community space, not just a place to shop. 

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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