The pandemic is changing people’s priorities, says Claire Brady – how can the high street respond and thrive?
I’m going to describe a typical day in my life 10 years from now - in 2030…
I travel to my local high street by electric bike. It’s only 10 minutes’ walk away but I’m feeling lazy and have lots of stuff to carry.
My first stop is at the repair centre, where I’ve left our kettle for a service. I also donate some old tech we no longer need, as the repair café refurbishes tablets and laptops and then redistributes them to local families who need them.
After that I have a browse in a second-hand shop to see if I can buy something for the house (we are renovating our lounge). I also drop off some clothes that my kids have grown out of.
As it’s one of my ‘work from home’ days I’ve got my laptop with me, so I head to the space I’ve booked at the local affordable workspace. This used to be a department store, but now it has some great cafés and an indoor market too.
Upstairs is the sustainable ventures accelerator workspace where local entrepreneurs and purpose-led business start-ups are based. Here they get help to develop their business ideas.
I love working locally as I never know who I might bump into and what conversation might be sparked. One of the requirements of using the workspace is that I have to volunteer 1 hour per month – today I’m using some of that time to mentor a local start-up.
While I’m there I pick up lunch from my favourite independent café. I'll be having an Impossible Burger, which is 100% plant based. I remember when my kids first tasted them, they couldn’t believe they didn’t have any meat in them!
When I finish my work, I’ll borrow a spare kettle from the Library of Things so my family can use it while ours is being serviced, and I’ll pop to the local grocers to pick up some in season fruit and veg.
Finally, before I go home, I meet up with a friend in the local pocket park and wave to some of my neighbours working at the community allotment next door. My friend and I discuss what we’re going to take our children to watch at the pop-up cinema later in the week.
This is all a far cry from the ‘clone’ towns model which dominated so many of the UK’s high streets before the pandemic hit.
Ecological footprinting shows that if everyone in the world consumed as much as the average person in the UK and the rest of western Europe, we’d need three planets to support us.
To try and explain what this means, currently, a staggering 100 million tonnes of resources are flowing into the global economy every year. At current rates this is expected to double by 2050.
Worryingly, most of this is eventually lost as waste, causing lasting damage to the environment and leaving us vulnerable to the ever-worsening effects of the climate crisis.
We cannot continue like this. To tackle the climate and ecological emergency we must find a way to preserve and re-use the resources flowing into our economy and prevent them from being wasted.
For us as individuals, some of our impact is hard for us to change on a day-to-day basis, as it’s tied up in things like buildings and infrastructure.
But a sizeable chunk is much more within our control. Research has shown that up to 50% of our ecological footprint is comprised of the food we eat, the things we buy and how we travel.
The trouble is, most of us don’t know how to work out how much difference it makes to change a behaviour – like eating less meat, or cycling instead of driving to work. Even for sustainability geeks like me, it’s a real struggle to consume in a low-impact way.
Currently, our high streets are just not set up to help us do this.
But as I’ve just described, they could play a vital role in making it easy for us to live, and shop, more sustainably.
You might think this future high street sounds a bit middle-class – but actually, many of the best examples come from low-income areas. They include Barking and Dagenham's We Are Everyone, which has shops that help neighbours spend more time with each other as well as sharing practical and useful things. In fact, this vision only truly works if it is one focused on enabling every single one of us to lead happier, healthier and more sustainable lives – and therefore must respond to the realities of people’s lives
The challenge is, while all the examples I drew on to create my imaginary future life are already happening somewhere in the UK, they are not all happening in the same location.
Just imagine if we could bring them all together into a local, walkable place.
As we come out of the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to rethink the purpose of our high streets so that they promote sustainable, healthy and happy lifestyles for everyone – and end clone towns for good.
Across the UK there are countless examples of great business and organisations that are the building blocks for a new approach to how we live.
The challenge is to:
There are some massive hurdles to overcome. But if we are going to solve the climate and ecological crisis, we have to make it easy for everyone to play their part - and where better to do this than in your local, walkable high street.
So at Bioregional we are really excited to be working with urban design experts Create Streets to help local authorities take swift, practical action to enable your high streets and town centres to recover from the pandemic.
Let’s work towards the vision I outlined earlier and create a step-change in ensuring that high streets work for people, business – and the planet. There’s no time to waste.