How to Save our town centres – exploring change and future possibilities

How to save our town centres“Coffee is probably the ostensible reason for someone to be seated at a sidewalk café, but it is also an excuse to watch city life go by,… in almost all cases staying times are considerably longer than the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. The real activity is recreation, time off and pleasure in a city space” (Gehl, 2010:146).

The above quote from Jans Gehl, the urban design consultant was cited in a recently published book, How to save our town centres, by Julian Dobson which explores how the relationship between people and places is changing and examines the state of high streets in the UK.

He argues that:

“the challenge of town centres is a microcosm of the challenges of 21st century society: how to create an economy that works for all, how to create good places to live in, how we construct our identity in a world in which life is increasingly commoditised. There aren’t any quick and easy solutions, but despite the continued angst over the future of our towns and cities I believe there are many reasons to be hopeful. That hope is found in the places where people have been ready to challenge the assumption that wealth will trickle down to localities from corporate activity, and where they have begun to define the value of places and spaces on their own terms and in response to local needs”. (Dobson ,2015a).

The author, Julian Dobson, director of Urban Pollinators tells the story of what has been happening to high streets in the UK, and more importantly what should take place in the future. He paints a picture of the state of UK town centres drawing on examples from across the country. The book sets out an agenda for long term change needed in our urban centre, and there are many ideas which have the potential for high street reinvigoration. In particular I like his idea of the 5’cs of walkability for communities: connected, convivial, conspicuous, comfortable and convenient – what he identifies as a ‘good rule of thumb for town centres that will work for everyone’ (Dobson, 2014: 197).

Retail provision is one key component for a successful and sustainable high street, and cafés and restaurants are a core part of this centre. The author makes reference to the role of cafés, and they feature in a number of the empirical examples included in the book. In the chapter ‘The space in between’ he makes the point that the importance of making places pedestrian friendly. Using the example of New Road in Brighton which developed a shared space for cars and pedestrians, with restaurants and cafés putting tables and chairs out on the street resulting in a 62% increase in pedestrian traffic – while not all these people were necessarily using the cafés, it is indicative of the influence these types of places can have on high streets, and the communities that use them.

‘One of the best indicators of a good town for people-watching is the proliferation of pavement cafes and restaurants. …What you are buying with your latte or macchiato is a comfortable breathing space, a place to chat, an opportunity to observe others or to take part in the social ritual of meeting colleagues or contact’ (p.176)

Vanilla latte costa

More than just places to people watch cafes act as sites of sociability and much more. These issues are at the heart of the ‘Spaces of Community’ research project I am currently working on. For anyone with a broad interest in experiences of the UK high street, and things to consider for the future, you would benefit from reading this book.

References

Dobson, J. (2015a) Can we save our town centres. Policy Press Blog. 18/02/2015. Available at: https://policypress.wordpress.com/2015/02/18/can-we-save-our-town-centres/

Dobson, J. (2015b) How to save our town centres: A radical agenda for the future of high streets. Bristol: Policy Press.

Gehl, J. (2010) Cities for People. Washington, DC: Island Press.

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