By Carol Maund, Director of Bournemouth Emerging Arts Fringe
Let’s create more sticky streets and bring on the art!” So said Canadian planner Brent Toderian, who masterminded redesigns of some of the world’s great cities – and it may be just what we need. With the demise of the high street, and the current pandemic seeing even more businesses close or go bust, what is the future for the high street?
Many articles have been written on the subject. Gurus such as Mary Portas have concluded that “we need to put the heart back into the centre of our high street, reimagined as destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning”.
Government reports such as Re-imagining Urban Spaces to help Revitalise our High Streets – now nearly 10 years old – captured the essence of how to create love for places made hideous by urban planners with the ‘car is king’ mentality.
As early as the 1960s, the Danish architect and designer Jan Gehl was combining psychology and the built environment to create a different approach to city living. He likened a good high street to a good party – “people stay longer than really necessary” – and was against the architect as god, swooping in with masterplans of tower blocks and plazas; he looked to bring back the pedestrian and the cyclist, to humanise the space.Will Covid-19 start a revolution, causing communities to come together and realise these future spaces?
Now is the time to return to small, independent businesses that are all about the local. They know their customers and the area, and can compete with big businesses that don’t relate to their locality. If we have “sacrificed communities for convenience”, maybe now we should go back to a time when shoppers walked to their local high street, bought local and took their time. It was as much about being part of the party as doing the functional weekly shop.
The arts are also in a state of crisis, with many great institutions on the brink of bankruptcy. The arts have been instrumental in transforming spaces, and if we have a mass of reports on what makes change on high streets possible, a similar amount has been written on the role arts can play in developing them, too.
Some interesting approaches have been voiced on how the arts and arts funding will need to take different approaches, post-pandemic. A recent article by Guardian writer Lyn Gardner argues that it’s all about the small and the local, “understanding that people are their greatest asset, and the reason they exist”. Working groups and master planning strategies often omit representation from the communities they serve; Gardner states that “the involvement of more people from diverse backgrounds will lead to more ingenious solutions”.
The Arts Council England recently produced its 10-year strategy, Let’s Create, taking in the views of more than 5,000 people. It talks about how communities can shape their local places. As venues try to work out how they can reopen and high streets wonder how they can function, it is time to think radically and see how we can adapt to a post-Covid-19 world.
Carol Maund is a freelance arts consultant and Director of Bournemouth Emerging Arts Fringe (www.gotbeaf.co.uk). She is also Director of the co-working space TOSH (The Old School House) providing a hub for creative businesses in Boscombe. Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of FSB.