As our communities have gone through seismic changes due to the pandemic so have our high streets, towns and city centres. But maybe it’s not been all bad? Reduced traffic and stay at home orders in 2020 saw nature and wildlife creep back into our normally busy car and human dominated spaces. This reconnection with the natural world coupled with the impending gravity of the climate crisis and the recent drastic changes to our lives have made many town and city councils rethink how these important spaces should work better for all of us. From Paris to Nottingham, Llanelli to Dumfries and Preston to Amsterdam change is happening and it is exciting and hopeful.
“For UK high streets to become vibrant and successful again, we must reshape them as places we don’t just go to shop, work or dine, but as places we can go to work, live, exercise, play and use health and wellbeing services too”Forbes
Walkable cities are the main concept behind Paris’s Fifteen Minute City and Melbourne’s 20 minute neighbourhood. We will continue to see widespread pedestrianisation and green spaces will replace car parks and empty shops like in Stockton on tees. Authorities are already trying to encourage more active transport with new cycle lanes, bike hubs & ebike hire. Lower pollution and noise levels are just some of the benefits to this.
These new areas could be planted with lots of trees, even minature urban forests and urban food growing areas as seen in Todmorden. Planting any trees will help meet climate targets while fruit trees and urban food schemes similar to Incredible Edible will also help with food poverty and teach us all more about growing our own food to take pressure off stretched food systems. Community gardens and more green spaces can also provide many opportunities for people to come together for exercise, live music and sports.
Instead of rows of shops we may see many turn into spaces for different generations to come together such as community centres, board game cafes or creches. There is already talk of much retail and office space changing use to residential properties which would help to tackle the housing crisis. The Midsteeple Quarter Project gave also citizens in Dumfries a democratic opportunity to buy historic buildings to use for community spaces.
Local economies can be much boosted with the uptake of local currencies as seen with the Bristol pound. There is likely to be an increase in spaces where people want to spend time rather than just money as many of us have reassessed what is important in life. Retail may downsize and become more individualised with smaller boutique style stores and rolling pop up shops to showcase small local businesses. Different ways of working may be enabled by community work hubs, shared studios and skill swap shops. Local people may look to the Preston model of community wealth building by investing and participating in decisions on their own town planning.
Some cities such as Nottingham already have Carbon Neutral city plans which among other features involves municipal (community owned) renewable energy. These are likely to be complimented with rooftop solar schemes wherever they can go, including bus and bike shelter roofs. To meet the UK’s zero carbon targets we should see increased bus routes with electric buses as well as many more electric vehicle charge points on the outskirts of pedestrian areas. These transport changes would hopefully make walking to school more possible for many people and maybe we would even see municipal school buses like those in America for those further afield.
As Amsterdam becomes the first city to use the Doughnut Model to implement a circular economy, (rethinking waste and going low carbon) more cities around the world are taking interest. The sharing & circular economy could be bought to life on our high streets through an assortment of different stores. Hubs that repair all sorts of things including bikes, shoes and even clothes like the Florentia Clothing Village in North London. Places where can hire or loan items such libraries of things and clothing hire shops. Second hand outlets would possibly become more like boutiques and maybe there would be places where you can swap and share things even food or zero waste/food refill shops pwned as as community co-ops.
All these amazing ideas, many of which are already be utilised would strengthen our communities and increase local wealth as our hard earned money would not going to large corporations and off shore tax havens. There would be an increase in well being & social cohesion, a decrease in loneliness, stress related illnesses and obesity. Then there are the added benefits of resilience to climate related disasters, heatwaves, flooding and pandemics, lower pollution and road traffic accidents and an increase in leisure time due to the reduction in commuting. This is why I believe the future lies in localism and community.
I hope these fundamental changes do take place and that this devastating experience can drive some real worthwhile change. We created the NHS and the welfare system after WWII so it’s not impossible, it just needs will power and belief.