High Streets: Creativity-led Regeneration

The Internet has and is changing the world. We can’t go back, nor would most of us want to. When you fancy watching a film and that sofa is feeling lovely under your backside then a trip to what’s left of Blockbuster or the like may not be that enticing. Even when your old telly starts to go on the blink and it’s time to invest in one of those new fangled HD, 3D, LED models, reading recommendations from Amazon reviewers can quickly inform you which brands and products are cutting the mustard and where the best value can be found. This is progress. We as consumers are more in control than we have ever been. 

The Internet, through the likes of Facebook and Instagram is also emphasising what social creatures we are – we enjoy chatting (which may start online) and meeting fellow humans. The paradox however is that despite the march of social media, humans continue to demonstrate that they enjoy the company of other humans and the benefits to life offered by living in close proximity to other humans. Since 2008 more people worldwide live in towns and cities than in rural areas, and by 2030 this is predicted to be 6 out of 10, rising to 7 in 10 by 2050 (WHO, 2013).

There is nothing surprising about this. The Roman Forum was a marketplace, but also a place for political exchange, public speaking, procession and commercial affairs – operating as the hub of Roman public life. This was a place where the public would flock to enjoy architecture and art, to discuss new thinking or to size up a potential lover – a place of social and cultural exchange as well as monetary and goods exchange . Herein lies the clue to the future of our high streets, suburban and town centres. They do not have to be thought of as just places to buy goods, but rather as social places where we can celebrate everything that is great about human interaction – from celebrating our ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness, to our desire for friendship and discussion. 

Most of us love people watching; we get a buzz from other human beings. I don’t believe we want to spend most of our non-working lives online, especially as we are already spending more and more of our working lives in front of a screen. Design can play a significant role here. We need cafés, bars and restaurants to interact with the streets (we only have to look at Parisian streets and the way that cafés allow their customers to watch the world go by to see how simple this is). We need streets and districts with sufficient serendipity to encourage people to explore what is round the next corner, taking inspiration from the principles and outcomes of New York City’s “Fit and Active Cities” report that looked at encouraging people to explore their local environs in a bid to build fitness into an everyday routine (City of New York, 2010).

We need streets that are pleasing on the eye, where road signs, traffic lights and barriers don’t dehumanize, and where shop fronts and shop signs are attractive, high quality, cohesive, yet unique. We need forward thinking, design savvy, entrepreneurs who understand modern marketing and branding and who understand the value of taking pride in the way shop premises and their content can lift the spirit of the whole neighbourhood. We need the civic generosity that has so excited the public with the Ping! London table tennis tables in the streets initiative, and the Sing London Street Pianos Project. And we need street furniture and lighting that encourages us to linger longer.

Over the past few years “arts-led regeneration” or “culture-led regeneration” have become buzz concepts internationally. Most of the parts of cities that I find exciting were once down-at-heel and have since been made exciting by an effective combination of creative and resourceful thinking rather than just having money thrown at them.

In the 1980s, when we manufactured some of our Red or Dead products just off of Brick Lane in East London, my partner Gerardine and I marveled at those stunning old merchants’ houses that we coveted. And we were not surprised when intrepid artists, designers and musicians were started moving into the area (well it was very cheap!) to establish their studios and start to work and sleep there leading to the “Rise of the East“. Whilst not everyone is a fan of these changes to areas and some use the term “gentrification” in a disparaging way, there can no doubt the increase in takings for the Bengali restaurateurs and the increase in employment opportunities for the community. London has a wonderful history of design-led uplifts – from Soho and Notting Hill to Kensal Rise and Shoreditch – and this should be celebrated.

On our trips to New York over the past 30 years we have seen the same happen to Soho, the Meat Packing District, the Lower East Side, Williamsburg and now once described by some media as “no-go”, Harlem. All of these have been brought back to life by, dare I say it, becoming cool. And it is the creative section of society, who by having opened enticing cafés and delis or turning unloved spaces into mini urban farms, have led the reassessment and regeneration of these parts of the city, helping them to become the successes and “must visit” places that they are today.

Vancouver is one of the cities that in my opinon gets it right. Rather than relying on its natural beauty for livability, its commitment to the “green” agenda and its mix of independent cafés, second-hand vinyl record stores and vintage clothes stores right next to the big brands gives the city an ambience British cities have lost due to real estate speculation, and big-bang regeneration efforts amongst other factors. Copenhagen is also an interesting example of a city that has mainatained a vibrant mix of town centre uses. There are streets full of quirky start-up businesses next to chain stores. Urban designers such as Jan Gehl have ensured the city is a joy to walk around and cars are relegated to fourth place behind walking, cylcing and public transport. 

Closer to home and on a smaller scale, it is creativity that is encouraging struggling seaside towns like Margate to dream. There the new art gallery, Turner Contemporary is helping to give confidence to local designers, makers and independent retailers and encouraging them to bring the lovely buildings of the Old Town back to vibrant life.

Not everywhere can benefit from the constant input of a creative community and this is where good planning comes in. If we want workable new-style high streets, ones that don’t just rely on us all filling our wardrobes and homes with things we probably don’t need, we need good town centre planning. The cornerstone of this is common sense. Most of us want places that give us everything we need to fulfill our lives. Our high streets, and suburban or town centres have to be places that include or are adjacent to decent affordable homes and places we can walk, cycle or take easy public transport to employment. 

The reason why Hackney is rising is because it is increasingly offering choice. The kebab shops now sit along side serendipitous cafés and retailers that offer individuality and craft. And long-term maybe the local retailers and artists and designers can link up and together ensure that their high streets and centres can have a vibrant future. 

The Design Council and others are proving the value of creative input into business and with the creative industries being worth almost £50 billion to the UK economy, making it the second largest driver of the UK economy (Design Council, 2007; DCMS, 2011) then perhaps projects like the New Windows on Willesden Green, where artists and designers worked with independent retailers to create some stunning window displays points towards the future (See Case Study Section).


City of New York (2010) Active Design Guidelines. Promoting physical activity and health in design. New York: City of New York.

Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) (2011) Creative industries economic estimates, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/creative-industries-economic-estimates.

Design Council (2007) The Value of Design Factfinder Report, http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/publications/value-of-design-factfinder/.

World Health Orgnasation (WHO) (2013) Urban population growth, http://www.who.int/gho/urban_health/situation_trends/urban_population_growth_text/en/index.html.

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