Revitalising the Hybrid High Street: digital placemaking for pragmatists


9 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Image shows an empty high street with a digital sign warning the public of coronavirus

On the 23rd of March, the UK was placed on lockdown and overnight our town centres became ghost towns. As I write, people are gradually returning to the high street, but the relationships that were once had have changed, but as yet we don’t know how.

BDO High Street Sales Tracker
Source: BDO

Recent figures from BDO High Streets Sales Tracker show that, understandably,  retailers suffered badly in April with footfall dropping by -80%, in store like-for-like sales deteriorating by -92.8% and cash flow constraints putting a halt to usual trading conditions – with fashion, lifestyle, and homeware stores the worst hit. Similarly painful stats are expected in May.

The pandemic has brought profound challenges to the way we live and work and is putting businesses under massive pressure. At the same time, the sudden turn to digital (e.g. online shopping, socialising through video-conferencing and so forth) may well help lead to the renewal of town centres – as people hanker to dwell in shared physical spaces. How we use these spaces, and how and when we dwell are likely to change and to keep changing. 

As the old saying goes, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone’ (Mitchell, J. Big Yellow Taxi).

“Digital placemaking boosts the social, cultural, environmental and economic value of places by using location-specific digital technology to foster deeper relationships between people and place.”

Originally, I planned to write this article to provide some digital placemaking solutions for our already ailing high streets. However, that was then and this is now. In a few short weeks the world has transformed itself, so I’m writing this in the context of a new Covid-19 world; a dynamic frontier between what was and what might be.  

In an era of uncertainty, we know that digital technologies have helped us to connect to information, to people and to places at a scale not seen before. This change in people’s behaviour will surely impact upon the ways that they wish to, and expect to, experience town centres in the future. Indeed, before lockdown, digital services were already enhancing people’s experiences of places, be they shoppers (e.g., tourists (e.g. City of London Visitor Trail) or residents. So, now the opportunity is ripe, and necessary, to pool our collective imagination and ingenuity to revitalise our ‘hybrid high streets’ the intersection of physical and digital space.

In this article, I want to suggest some of the ways in which we might usefully start thinking about the hybrid high street and digital placemaking  — to help us imagine and act upon our potential futures. 

a black and white image showing people walking in streams of sunlight

Demand Quality 

Even before the lockdown, many high streets and town centres were facing hard times. There are several contributing factors to this situation and the reasons have already been covered extensively; from the rise of online spending, job cuts, high business rates and changing consumer behaviour. Add to this a lack of coherence and a lack of quality – quality of thought, quality of vision and quality of deed.

Quality of digitally enabled public engagement

I have heard swathes of architects, councillors, developers and estate managers admit that public engagement and consultation in planning is often artificial – it ticks a box or is an exercise in PR. A shoddy or reluctant encounter between those hosting an evening event in a community hall and those coming to look at boards on a wall isn’t going to bring about positive change.

There are many examples of good or great public consultation practice, some of which I have highlighted in a previous article about supporting citizens to shape public spaces. Digital technologies can provide a raft of ways for people to express themselves, get a sense of a proposed place through immersive visualisations, collaborate in meaningful ways with designers and planners – there are all sorts of opportunities for participation and agency.

A woman writes on a chalkboard stand outside, in the dusk at Idescape: Porth Teigr, with festoon lights in the background

Engaging communities and allowing them a say in shaping their local environment is integral to building towns where every individual can feel that they have a genuine voice in affecting change. I loved leading the research for Calvium’s Ideascape project with developers, Igloo, at Cardiff Bay. Ideascape shows how effective digital placemaking can be when employed thoughtfully and creatively. It would be amazing to see stakeholders with responsibility for revitalising town centres and high streets undertake an Ideascape engagement to really build firm creative foundations for a prosperous future.

Good practice, good communication and empathy with local concerns should always lie at the heart of any planning consultation, with digital technology enabling and not directing the discussion.

Quality of inclusive design

We know that our town centres and high streets have become no-go areas for many people, and this situation happened pre-Covid-19. Now that people’s relationships with the public realm have changed and we will have to design new ways for people to experience public spaces, let’s grab the opportunity to do so equitably. As an outcome of this crisis, which may be a one-off or we may be wise to anticipate a recurrence or a seasonal coronavirus outbreak, all place managers and stakeholders should think, design and implement inclusively.

Let’s not see people designed out of high street and town centres, either deliberately or indirectly, let’s seek to ‘design in’ and use digital technologies to help us. What do I mean by being ‘designed out?’ Here are a few examples:

  • Our high streets are often full of ‘hostile architecture’. These are city designs that actively seek to keep people away like the Camden bench, anti-homeless spikes, and the controversial Mosquito Alarm.
  • Policies, planning, products or services can exclude people, such as mobility infrastructure (e.g. cutting bus routes massively over the past 10 years), closing down public toilets and not providing accessible toilets.
  • Poorly executed policies, such as some of those concerned with shared spaces for travel that see pedestrians and cyclists using the same ground. A perfect example of this is in the centre of Bristol – see the images below of a pedestrian lane that ends at the corner of a building, forcing pedestrians to walk into the cycle lane! When plans are poorly designed or implemented, at best confusion is the result and at worst people can be harmed or stay away entirely through concern for being harmed. 
shows the pedestrian lane ending on a high street
Pedestrian lane suddenly comes to a stop at a corner, forcing pedestrians into the cycle lane

We know that people are choosing to stay away from public spaces that they have every right to be in, because of badly imagined and/or executed designs.

How might digital placemaking support people to understand and navigate the public realm in ways that boost their confidence and support accessibility? A perfect example is NavSta, a project that was researched and designed inclusively, and as such showed itself to be a mobile wayfinding system that can help people with situational, temporary or permanent impairments. Neurodiverse people informed the project from concept and design to delivery; the digital platform has proven its value and is ready to be scaled-up.

People in a train station. Three people in orange hi-vis jackets are walking behind a person holding a phone.
An observation activity from the final NavSta user testing day, at Canada Water, London.

The Future(s) of the Hybrid High Street

I can’t see a single future for the high street and at this stage it would be risky to imagine one vision. In the current environment the approach we need to take should be flexible, incremental and experimental and attend to the multiple dimensions of our town centres. We need to reimagine the experience of connecting with town centres, digitally and physically – that’s clear. And that’s good, because we can do so.

Some of the social themes that have emerged during lockdown are trust, mutuality, localism and community. Many of these themes have been present in successful high streets already, but are often absent from the more generic and lacklustre centres. Now is the time to ramp up what these themes could mean in practice for your own places. For instance, again to digital placemaking, Calvium is working with CityID and Bristol City Council on a research project called PopMap. The project is rooted in localism, mutuality and community. PopMap offers a real-time map of personalised events and activities in the centre, curated by and for the people of Bristol – as opposed to a selection of global mapping services. PopMap also presents the city from a human rather than a car perspective, making it incredibly useful for pedestrians and cyclists. 

Image of CityID maps and the base for PopMap

Another example of a digital platform that is built upon and enabling the aforementioned themes is PPE Hive – a platform to support the local manufacture and distribution of PPE.

PPE Hive enables supply chains to form quickly and smoothes internal communications. The platform connects people: who need PPE; who can make PPE; who have the necessary materials for manufacture and who can provide transport. This platform was created rapidly, as a direct response to a dire shortage of personal protective equipment, and shows how digital solutions can unlock opportunities quickly. This example demonstrates to place management teams how responsive and valuable digital solutions can be, whether a service, product or experience.

User interface of PPE Hive app
PPE Hive user interface

So many shops and eateries across the country, who were previously solely bricks and mortar concerns, have harnessed digital tech to change their operations in a matter of weeks. Many of their new practices will remain, similarly, customers have used tech to connect and exchange. They, too, will have had their behaviours, experiences and expectations shifted. Hence, we need to embrace a ‘hybrid high street’ approach when rebuilding our future town centre experiences.

Next steps…

Former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, recently wrote that “people’s economic narratives will change” and that “value will change in the post-Covid world” for “traditional drivers of value have been shaken, new ones will gain prominence, and there’s a possibility that the gulf between what markets value and what people value will close”. As discussed in this article, we have seen a real return to the local and and a simultaneous turn to the digital. I’ve also shown how the values of trust, mutuality, localism and community can be harnessed as part of a digital placemaking approach. 

This concludes my article about digital placemaking for pragmatists… but I shall write again soon on this subject!

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