In his introduction to The Story of Scotland’s Towns Naismith notes that the only constant in the evolution of towns is the process of continuous change, which “ultimately calls for the adaptation or recasting of the urban fabric.” This is a useful reference that encourages us to rethink our existing urban settlements in an age when the form and functionality of towns has changed dramatically.
Town centres are a feature of common everyday occurrence, yet their ordinariness is ‘special’. The quality of their experience impacts on everyone who uses them; it can distinguish and set places apart. They deserve attention as their significance and meaning extends beyond the pragmatic.
We need now to rethink the High Street – what it means, and how it retains its role as a focus for community; supporting and promoting people activity. In this context we need to ask whether a primary role of town centres is about retailing, or if there is another way to conceptualise these urban structures?
A defining characteristic of town centres is complexity. It is a structure made up of lots of small elements; a multiplicity of individual units, buildings and details. In small towns these structures are particularly important as they permit local entrepreneurs to set up a viable enterprise at the right scale for them. Opportunities exist to then move or scale up the business as appropriate over time. This helps to keep local services local, and provides opportunities for local income generation. It also fosters local pride, reflected in the appearance, upkeep and maintenance of the street and buildings.
The High Street then is more than just a retail concept; it is about potential and opportunity, local life, meaning and significance. This is important in that the shifts in retailing scale, out of town competition and the dominance of multiples make it hard for local retail to survive. However, if we work with the idea of the town centre as a centre of collective meaning then it could provide opportunities for a variety of activities that include work, cultural, social and community facilities.
The presence of people would enable supporting enterprises. Enhanced footfall would bolster existing and new activities, and strengthen a local economy. The High Street could re-emerge as a strong structure by diversifying its concept beyond retail, but retaining the opportunity for a strong, high quality locally based retail offer. Differentiation and quality are key. The town centre offers a location for experiences that extend beyond, but also include, retailing; it is a central gathering place to engage in life’s experiences – to grow up, congregate, linger, exchange ideas, celebrate, mourn. It is a social place.
Looking to the future, places will continue to evolve and adapt utilising structures which are largely in place already. There is therefore considerable potential in the transformation and retrofitting of existing places. Through enabling multiple small actions, successful places will make the best use of existing assets to grow new value from old. It is therefore important to think about how the urban fabric might adapt or be recast. Re-imagining and strengthening the modern concept of the town centre as a people place for our time will be key to their renaissance.