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High Street regeneration – an architect’s perspective looking forward to a post-COVID-19 world

An exploded axonometric of an ethos project on Clapham highstreet

What is the challenge?

The UK High Street has never been in a more challenging place. We hear “the High Street is dying” in the media all the time. The shift to online shopping, which has been happening for a long time, has rapidly accelerated due to Covid-19.

What can architects do?

Architects are in a unique position to encourage developers, property investors and planners to think about the High Street and retail property in general. We are usually involved at the very beginning of a development or redevelopment project, and so we can influence early decisions. Our creative skills help clients and planners visualise what is possible and this helps make decisions. And we can value-engineer so that project costs and risks are controlled. Here are our suggestions for creative design ideas for High Streets, to keep them living centres of our communities as they evolve from shopping streets to something richer.

1. Maximise the social and economic value and usage of infill developments.

Small, awkward, brownfield sites are often overlooked by developers. But, with clever and creative design and the support of Local Authorities, architects can show the way in making use of these spaces. That doesn’t always mean building out. It could mean introducing ‘urban farming’ spaces – a kind of High Street micro-allotment. It could also mean providing safe, outdoor play areas for children right on the High Street.

2. Design free or low cost, flexible workplaces.

One consequence of COVID-19 is that the number of people working from home, some or all of the time, has increased – and this change may be permanent. Many people who now work from home don’t want to be alone all day. And some don’t have all the facilities an office can provide. Empty, excess retail units could be repurposed to create a hyper-local business hub - focused on the business needs of a very small geographical community or neighbourhood. This would provide the facilities and personal interaction and has the added benefit of bringing people into the area during the day. This generates demand for shops and leisure facilities and support for these workers.

3. Promote intergenerationality in development proposals.

Why do we never see schools on the High Street, or retirement housing? They are both often on the outskirts of a town or in the suburbs of a city. Enabling different generations to use high street spaces for education, for living, for play, socialising and training, will promote social cohesion and generate social value. This would also generate demand for shops and leisure facilities and support for these workers.

4. Champion the inclusion of electric car charging points on High Streets.

Government policy is to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars in 2030. But, charging an electric car is a challenge if you do not have a driveway, a garage or workplace where you can easily plug in. By designing-in electric car charging into the High Street, you encourage people into the area, providing demand for retailers and an incentive for electric car ownership.

5. Encourage experiential retail.

This could simply be the inclusion of event spaces or areas within retail developments for pop-ups. It could also include designing-in space for services and activities as well as traditional retail spaces for stock and point-of-sale. Architects and interior designers should be leading the evolution of future retail environments. Even small elements of this could be incorporated into modest retail development.

What’s needed to make this happen?

1. Swift, more flexible planning

There has already been a recent change to planning legislation to remove the finer grain of use classes within the High Street, which makes it easier to switch from say retail to gastronomy without planning permission. The government’s ‘Planning for the Future’ white paper published in August, does mention the High Street, but does it go far enough? We think it could go further.

2. Better local plans

A Local Plan is a plan for the future development of the local area, drawn up by the Local Planning Authority. It guides decisions on whether or not planning applications can be granted. Local Plans can sometimes be too prescriptive and fail to reflect societal changes.

3. Reforming business rates

The Confederation of British Industry’s recent report, ‘Over-rated’ makes the case for business rates reform. It suggests the rates burden on businesses – particularly retailers and similar High Street businesses – has become unsustainable. We agree. Should rates be linked to turnover or profit?

4. A campaign to minimise the number of empty shops

Excess retail space is a real problem for many High Streets. Empty shops are a very visual indicator of local economic problems and can be a disincentive for new development. Local Authorities, investors and landlords and potential new tenants need to work together.

5. Incentivising commercial landlords to enable change

Owners of empty, excess high street retail units are understandably concerned about a reduction in the value of their assets. Architects can show them how to develop these assets, but government could introduce incentives to ease the transition to other uses. This, alongside planning changes and business rates reform, should speed up decision-making and positive change.

We must look at the High Street as a broader mix of retail and leisure, residential and public amenity. It should offer vibrancy, diversity and purpose in order to sustain it in the long term. This will take leadership, collaboration and integrated decision-making. We, as architects and client advisors, are ready to play our part.

There are many resources and initiatives for High Street regeneration. Here are a few of our favourites:

Future High Streets Fund

The Future High Streets Fund is a government initiative that aims to rejuvenate the UK’s High Streets with £1 billion of government funding. Towns and cities across the UK can apply for funds and get help with training and access face-to-face support. You can find out more by following this link. The government has also recently allocated £255m to 15 High Streets. Retail Gazette has more details.

High Streets Task Force

The High Streets Task Force is an alliance of place-making experts working to redefine the High Street. They provide guidance, tools and skills to help communities, partnerships and local government transform their high streets. You can find out more by following this link.

Institute of Place Management

The Institute of Place Management is the international professional body that supports people committed to developing, managing and making places, better. Visit


The Royal Institute of British Architects has lots of research and programmes looking at how High Streets can be developed. Here is a link to one example.

Retail Week

The trade journal Retail Week has lots of articles on the subject of High Street regeneration. Follow this link for just one example.

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