Back to the High Street | Resonance

Back to the High Street

Insights — 28 May 2023
by Nick Leech

Prominent London shopping districts are banding together to compete against online competition and retail lethargy with cutting-edge technology, unique experiences and the age-old appeal of gathering. Stakeholders from national and local government, business and nonprofits, the design community and the arts are collaborating on once-in-a lifetime projects that represent placemaking at its most collaborative.

The first inkling that something different was happening came when a 10-second countdown appeared, without explanation, on the Piccadilly Lights, Europe’s largest advertising display. As the countdown ended at 5:45 pm on November 12, 2021, more than a million LEDs lit up simultaneously across the streets that form the heart of London’s West End: a constellation of stars appeared above Oxford Street, while Regent Street, Oxford Circus, St. James’s Street and Waterloo Place were suddenly bedecked in 300,000 LED lights handcrafted to form 45 angel-shaped canopies. Bond Street found itself bedazzled in its traditional peacock feathers while South Molton Street, Mayfair, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square were also illuminated as part of the display.

The event made international headlines as the world’s largest Christmas light switch-on, but what was more telling was the unprecedented level of coordination behind the spectacle—each of the streets would normally have been lit according to its own timetable—and the need for such a headline-grabbing gesture in the first place.

COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on bricks-and-mortar retail the world over, but especially on high streets in larger cities such as London, where restrictions associated with the pandemic have succeeded in emptying city centers at an alarming rate. As Covid took hold, international tourists stayed away, workers stayed at home and an increasing number of consumers preferred to shop online, hastening the demise of several department stores, the traditional anchor tenants of the UK’s high streets.

According to the data company Springboard, which measures footfall on high streets, shopping centers and retail parks every week all over the UK—footfall in Central London fell to 80 percent below 2019 levels during the depths of the pandemic, but in the week after the switch-on of the Christmas illuminations, footfall in Central London rose to just 16 per cent below 2019 levels, an improvement of seven per cent on the previous week. Released before the announcement of further Covid-related restrictions, a survey from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry concluded that pandemic-related remote working would keep thousands of commuters out of the West End and City in the weeks before Christmas, while central London retailers forecast that festive spending would hit £1.2 billion, a more than 30 per cent increase on 2020 levels, but still only half of the pre-pandemic expenditure that was recorded in 2019.

Death Of The High Street?

As in so many sectors, Covid has merely served to highlight and accelerate trends that were already well established, and the hollowing-out of UK town centers is no exception. The recent crisis, which has been popularly described as “the death of the high street,” actually reflects the longer-term collapse of a retail-centric model of urban development, function and financing that has held sway in Britain since the 1940s.

According to the British retail expert Bill Grimsey, author of a recent eponymous review into how independent retail, hospitality and services businesses have survived Covid, the fate of much of the UK’s more traditional retailing was sealed before the rise of online shopping by a process of asset-stripping by private equity companies that got underway in the 1990s.

“Everything becomes about making money for private equity investors and nothing to do with improving the proposition from a customer’s point-of-view,” Grimsey explains on his website, Vanishing High Street. “From a pure retail perspective, there was no engineering of an enhanced retail proposition to create value from a trading and pure customer relationship perspective.”

The fate of British town centers has been a matter for public discussion and debate for more than two decades. Thanks to the rise of out-of-town shopping centers, property speculation and escalating rents that forced independent retailers off UK high streets, a form of retailing developed in the early 2000s that left many UK town centers feeling repetitive and lacking in identity.

Civic Pride And Community Connection

Over the past decade, the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government has commissioned a succession of reviews and reports, leading to the appointment of a Minister for High Streets, a 2018 Plan for the High Street, and, most recently, to the Future High Streets Fund, recently expanded from £675 million to £1 billion by the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In 2020, the UK government also created a £95-million fund to revive historic high streets across England. The scheme, which is being run by the public body that looks after England’s historic environment, Historic England, identified 68 high streets that would be revitalized by the cash injection, but focused only on conservation areas.

The need to rethink the “proposition” offered by UK town centers to increase footfall and to provide incentives to visit in ways that move far beyond retail has long informed the thinking of Mary Portas, the businesswoman who was appointed by the UK government in 2011 to spearhead a review into what high streets should look like and the services they should provide.

It’s now a decade since she published her eponymous review and the UK government set up the Portas Towns Project in which twelve UK high streets were awarded Portas Town Status, a £100,000 grant to spend on regeneration and support from the retail guru, who believes that positive steps have been made in the intervening decade. “The pandemic has done away with the identikit shops and chain stores that dominated where and how we shopped in the early 2000s and we’re now starting to create high streets in towns that have a civic pride at the heart of them—that are being recreated by all different stakeholders working together,” Portas told the BBC on the tenth anniversary of her appointment. “So many towns are starting to regenerate because we’ve realized that high streets aren’t just about selling stuff, they’re places where we want to connect, create communities, and have that social infrastructure of security which has been heightened even more during Covid.”

Ironically, nowhere are those lessons being deployed more effectively than where they are most needed, in London’s West End, where stakeholders from national and local government, business and nonprofits, the design community, and the arts are coming together to collaborate on a series of once-in-a-lifetime projects that represent placemaking at its most collaborative.

“If we get it right, if we take this learning on board and we really think creatively about the future, I think we’ve got a huge opportunity to support the journey out of the pandemic,” said Debbie Jackson, Executive Director of Growth, Planning and Housing at Westminster City Council, speaking at the Tomorrow’s West End session, part of the London Real Estate Forum. “This will not take us back to where we were before, but takes us on to an even more creative, innovative and world-beating West End.”

Held in September 2021, the event coincided with New West End Company’s (NWEC’s) announcement of an unprecedented £5 billion of collective capital investment in the West End International Centre over the next five years, spread across 22 existing and new West End developments, 76 percent of which will be mixed use, while more than £220 million is being dedicated to open public space. This investment accompanies Westminster City Council’s £150-million plans for the transformation of the Oxford Street District, and the much-anticipated £18-billion Elizabeth Line, which is due to open in the first half of 2022.

Collaborative Placemaking

“We are repurposing the center of London. The great challenge is to give Londoners a reason to come back into the center and that means a mix of different uses beyond retail that includes entertainment and leisure,” says NWEC’s CEO Jace Tyrrell. “London’s West End has long held a place as one of the globe’s leading commercial hubs, but this unprecedented level of billions in capital investment will cement our spot as the most iconic and diverse consumer district in the world.”

Some of this transformation is already underway and can be seen in a new generation of projects that are emphasizing experiential retail and leisure in a bid to attract footfall and bring people into the city. Foremost among these is the £1-billion Outernet London, the first of a
global network of the world’s most advanced immersive media, entertainment and culture districts, which opened in November 2021 at the eastern end of Oxford Street, on a block between Tottenham Court Road and Denmark Street, which is known as London’s Tin Pan Alley.

Alongside a 2,000-seat concert venue and a recording studio, the centerpiece of the new West End venue is The Now Building, which Outernet London describes as the “world’s most technically advanced building.” This features an immense digital canvas standing four stories high across 2,100 square meters of floor-to-ceiling, 360-degree, 16K screens. The huge LED display space is also flooded with audio to produce a sense of immersion for spectators and visitors. The mixed-use development also includes multiple restaurants, bars and a boutique hotel on the site that contains the apartment where the Sex Pistols lived, complete with graffiti they left on the walls. “This is about entertainment in the broadest sense. It’s a new, immersive platform for communicating around the world,” says Outernet Global’s President and CEO Philip O’Ferrall. A mobile and television veteran and pioneer of digital media with firms such as Viacom International and MTV on his CV, O’Ferrall sees Outernet London as the first site in a global network of entertainment districts that will include near-future sites in New York, Los Angeles and Dubai.

“Ultimately, we want to create amazing districts that bring people in, deliver amazing experiences that are worth sharing, and then create an ecosystem that allows these spaces to prosper,” he continues. “We have to keep innovating and finding new ways to animate the space, whether that’s through entertainment or through food.”

In many ways, Outernet London is the ultimate high-tech, loose-fit entertainment facility, a blank canvas or an empty vessel that has been designed to be able to attract people, brands and businesses for special events, concerts, brand-building exercises, pop-up shops and product launches or to program in any way they can imagine. Advertising, and the delivery of footfall to advertisers, may be an integral part of the development’s business model, but O’Ferrall insists that the area’s cultural history is also a part of Outernet London’s lifeblood and “emotional DNA.”

“You can feel the energy of Adele, Elton John, the Rolling Stones… David Bowie lived on Denmark Street for a while in his van,” he says. “We also have 80-90 percent of Denmark Street, which we lease to local businesses with long-term, preferential leases as they can only ever contain a music-related business.”

Experience Emerges

In many ways, O’Ferrall is absolutely right, but not just about Outernet London’s relationship with Denmark Street but the whole of the West End. Oxford Street and the surrounding areas have always relied on the appeal of experience, from the early bazaars that sold their wares there in the early 1800s to the great 19th-century department stores, which created female-friendly environments described as “Adamless Edens,” the area has always dealt in experiences—and this realization continues to inform its very newest developments.

A month before the West-End’s coordinated Christmas light switch-on, a small group of dignitaries gathered at the recently revamped rear entrance of the Royal Academy of Arts to celebrate a very different form of illumination featuring S.O.S, a site-specific light installation mounted in three telephone kiosks by Max Boyla, a Royal Academy Schools student.

Envisaged as a new, traffic-calmed civic space that is shared by pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike, Burlington Gardens also now acts as a more welcoming and legible east-west pedestrian connection, linking Mayfair to Regent Street and Soho via Bond Street. It is the work of traffic and transport specialists Norman Rourke Pryme (NRP) and Publica Associates, a Central London-based urban design and public realm practice that has produced a whole suite of master plans, place-shaping strategies, public realm proposals and enhancements across East Mayfair, Oxford Street, Marble Arch, Bond Street an Hanover Square.

A distinct urban quarter between Bond Street and Regent Street, the identity of the area now known as East Mayfair has been determined for centuries by the presence of Savile Row, the historic home of British men’s bespoke tailoring, Cork Street, the epicenter of London’s contemporary art market, and Burlington Arcade and Bond Street, which have been synonymous with luxury retail since the early 19th century.

The revitalization of one of London’s most iconic shopping streets followed a nine-month-long audit and analysis of both the street and the wider neighborhood, which considered existing street uses, routes, character, connections, material, architectural and spatial conditions and display windows, lighting and public art. “We looked at each corner and the shop’s amazing corner entrances and how to celebrate those and the wider views and existing trees,” explains Anna Mansfield, a director with Publica Associates’ who has overseen many of the practice’s projects in the West End. “We found that Bond Street is essentially a series of outdoor rooms, each with its own distinct character, but that’s something you only understand through really close observation.”

Publica Associates’ work in the West End began with its re-imagination of one of the West End’s most significant public spaces, Hanover Square, a project that was commissioned by Westminster City Council. The process began in 2010 with an initial public realm study, and a small ceremony was held in September 2021 to mark the reopening of the square’s new central garden to the public. The scheme will only be fully operational, however, when the eastern ticket hall of the new Elizabeth Line Bond Street Station opens in 2022.

More than any other single factor, the construction of the Elizabeth Line, formerly known as Crossrail, has provided the impetus for many of the development and urban changes that are currently occurring across Central London. Running from Reading and London Heathrow in the west, through 42km of new tunnels under Central London to Essex and North Kent in the east, the Elizabeth Line is predicted to carry more than 200 million passengers annually. Increasing rail capacity in Central London by an estimated 10 per cent, the line will deliver an extra 1.5 million people into Central London while halving the journey time between London Heathrow and the West End, effectively turning spaces such as Hanover Square, Bond Street and Oxford Street into London’s newest arrivals halls.

“If you think about those stations, the legibility of the welcome and the space you arrive into—whether you’re a local or a tourist—becomes really important but they should also speak of their place,” insists Publica Associates’ Mansfield. “It should immediately feel like the West End and you should be able to orient yourself in distinctive spaces that look and feel like Mayfair or the Portman Estate.”

Greener Spaces, Broader Vistas

For the landscape architect and London historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, who redesigned Hanover Square in collaboration with Publica Associates and engineers WSP, the success of the new scheme lies in the reinstatement of grand views and dramatic gestures that were originally designed in the 18th century.

One of the first open spaces laid out in Mayfair during the Georgian period, the distinct urban composition of Hanover Square was the product of an unprecedented collaboration between two of 18th-century London’s great landowners, who connected Cavendish Square and Hanover Square on a great vista that created a green corridor that effectively brought the countryside into the city. “To me it seemed like a no-brainer to try to revive this incredibly generous and wonderful historical gesture, which was one of the great, large-scale developments at the time in London but which also has wonderful contemporary residences,” says Longstaffe-Gowan. “It’s all about linking green spaces and opening vistas and trying to improve the urban fabric in order to improve the pedestrian right of way at a time when the West End is really evolving.”

For Mansfield, the revitalization of the wider district stands as an example of placemaking at its best, not because of the quality of the design, the money or the richness of the materials deployed, but because of the quality of thought, collaboration and coordination that’s informing the process of urban design and regeneration. “One of the things we’ve always thought about all of these projects is that they’re public realm in the round. Yes, it’s about designing streets and movement is critically important, but it’s multi-strand and you have to bring everyone in the room together,” the architect explains. “It’s also about culture, lighting, families and children. You can’t just do one bit of it, you have to address all of those things if the project is to work because that’s what great cities do. They get all of those elements working together.”

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