City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Illustrations from ‘High Street’, by JM Richards and Eric Ravilious (1938)

The original version of an essay supporting the Mayor of London’s guidance for London’s high streets, but with questions, and suggestions, for cities elsewhere.

(Ed. I’m one of the Mayor of London’s Design Advocates, a group of 50 designers and architects picked to advise the Greater London Authority as part of the Mayor’s Good Growth by Design strategy. I haven’t had much to do with London since moving to Stockholm though, so it was good of Fiona Scott, of Gort Scott Architects—another Design Advocate— to ask me to write a short essay supporting their research for the GLA on London’s high streets. It gave me a chance to locate and unpack some earlier thoughts about potential trajectories for urban mobility, futures for retail, the difficulty of planning versus a nod to the different design practices required to facilitate these complex questions, including new innovation practices like mission-oriented innovation; in short, many things of interest, to be updated and pointed at London’s high streets. This text is the original from which my submission was derived, and is written in a more exploratory mode, essentially without my MDA hat on. (There is no MDA hat.)

The outcome of the work is guidance called High Streets — Adaptive Strategies, as part of the Mayor of London’s Good Growth by Design programme, and has been a collaborative piece of work between a number of London’s boroughs and partners across the capital, external experts and the Mayor’s Design Advocates. You can find out more here. The guidance is great, benefiting from Gort Scott, We Made That and Hatch Regeneris working closely with the GLA and many London boroughs, and supported by external advisors, of which I was one. Congratulations to all concerned. Its potential, given the wide-ranging issues noted above, reaches far outside of London. A modified version of my essay features in the guidance, but again, the original below is simply my own perspective on high streets.)

Mayor of London guidance for ‘High Streets & Town Centres: Adaptive Strategies’ Good Growth by Design
Download the guidance report, and find out more about the project here

Cars as the new horses, high streets as the new high streets: Reinventing London’s High Streets in the age of Amazon

London, as it is now, is a city designed for horse traffic, casually and spasmodically and partially adapted to accommodate the new traffic.
—Edward Carter, ‘The Future of London’, 1962

London is layer upon layer of communications infrastructure. For most of the city’s existence, this manifested itself as physical transport, shaping the city as a river carves stone. London, “as it is now”, 60 years after Edward Carter’s book, is deep-down still a city designed for horse traffic — those kerbs were deployed for a particular externality of horses, after all. Six decades on, London is now also more or less fully adapted for what Carter foresaw as the ‘new’ communications infrastructure of cars, trucks and buses, with their own more problematic externalities.

But the city seems unsure of itself once again, now it is facing a new wave of communications infrastructure, in the form of Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, WeWork and others, just as it was when Carter described it facing the ‘Big Tech’ of his London, the car. And the place they play out most obviously is also the main stage of London life, the high street.

As with the car, these technologies fundamentally transform what the high street does, what it is. And just as with the car, city government is largely playing catch-up, as is architecture and planning. But the change is clear nonetheless: the high street in Britain, if not London so much yet, is described as being “in crisis”.

But let’s not waste a good crisis.

Illustrations from ‘High Street’, by JM Richards and Eric Ravilious (1930)

One can endlessly debate the London high street and its destiny. And the reason we debate is that London is the high street. This city is its streets more than its buildings. The street is the basic unit of city, all over the world, but perhaps more so in London than most. That is not the same elsewhere. Formally, the likes of Stockholm, Berlin, and Copenhagen are not defined by streets but rather by courtyard blocks. Central Amsterdam is obviously canals, and then bricky green residential veins laced in-between. Italian cities are piazza, churches and courtyards, with colonnades the most distinctive contribution to a street-like forms — and urban motorways elsewhere. And whilst it’s not as if Paris and Tokyo are without meaningful streets, those cities come alive most clearly at street corners, where life spills out onto the cross-section defined by shared pedestrian space, in a way that’s highly rare in car-dominated London.

A few standalone built gems aside, London’s delight is in its variations on the street. London is the high street, right across its huge sprawl, north, south, east and west, Regent Street, Highgate, Camberwell Church Street, Kingsland Road, King’s Road.

And most of these are largely organic, unplanned delights. There are American-style malls in London, of course, but few to challenge the sheer distributed mass of high streets. Occasionally a carefully planned street significantly shapes London: Ian Nairn describes Regent Street as “the tube of space which is still Nash’s, dividing Soho from the West End smoothly, firmly and with complete understanding.” But few London planners are Nash, and few streets are Regent Street.

Most of London is messy, complex and unkempt, and gloriously so, as it is the sheer out-of-control vibrancy and diversity of the London high street that makes it work. Stepping out of the tube at Barking, say, is to be immediately be plunged into a “bath of multitude”, as Baudelaire would have it if he had ever got the District Line out east. It is a churning, unruly tangle of mobile phone shops, bus stops, vape shops, butchers of meat of various hues, newsagents crossed with 7-Elevens, flats leaning into the street above the shops, signs in all languages simultaneously.

The challenge ahead of us is that many of these elements are under threat: the shops from e-commerce; the bus stops from Uber; the newsagents and cheap flats from gentrification; and even the butchers, from an increasingly climate and health conscious community. Some of these are movements which would fall under the Mayor of London’s ‘Good Growth’ ambitions; others are clearly not. But they all play out on the high street.

Part of the reason that Britain’s high streets are the subject of constant hand-wringing is that, whilst defined around shopping, we must recall Napoleon’s jibe about Britain being “a nation of shopkeepers”. Britain is good at shops, and shopping, for better or worse (probably worse, we admit, with a guilty smile.)

Yet if shopping is what London does, and so high streets are London, we must increasingly recognise that Amazon is now shopping. So whilst some of those Barking butchers will be fine, only far fewer, and the bus stops will remain likewise, as no ‘mobility as a service’ provider can shift a population at the scale of London’s as effectively as the bus and tube, the real challenge here is e-commerce.

Amazon may now be the world’s most powerful company, effectively moving as physical infrastructure as much as digital service and product, and it has already transformed London. Not through building much yet, as previous waves of infrastructure have, but by running new applications on the same old hardware, in effect.

Without active intervention, this kind of shopping manifests itself on the one hand as thousands and thousands of vans — overly large for the context, yet largely full of air — crawling backwards and forwards over the city at huge cost to climate, health and community, and on the other hand as empty shopfronts in high streets. The latter will be a handy reduction in carbon footprint, perhaps, but deliver little else of value. Hence, Paris is considering a tax on this activity, given that 250,000 packages a day are now being delivered in the French capital; in New York, the number is 1.5 million packages per day.

The redistribution after Amazon will be unclear and unequal, without a steering hand from active design-led governance. Nash’s “great tube” of Regent Street will take care of itself, as a well-located, beautifully-executed array of high-end experiences will always be in demand, just as with the Ginza and Fifth Avenue. But these other streets, Barking and Kingsland Road? It’s not so clear.

A street not defined by parking and queues of traffic but instead by vibrant life, whether biodiverse green and blue infrastructure or kids playing football, a far more social space, as if an elongated piazza rather than the constricted motorway it is now.

There is a positive vision here, in which e-commerce is deployed for things that e-commerce is good for, with more coherent shared logistics, working in coordinated fleets of active transport and emission-free small vehicles, reducing individual car traffic as a result, creating space on road and street for more meaningful generative activities than shopping. Shops remain present, if less in volume, for the transactions and experiences that shops are good for, whether a grocer’s laden with local fruit, a high-service experience like a guitar shop, or a crafty packet of cigarettes and a pint of milk at 11pm.

Other challenges proved by new technology, such as autonomous mobility, will also play out on the high street. Again, we have options: shared mobility, autonomous or otherwise, could reduce the number of cars required by 80%, revealing a street not defined by parking and queues of traffic but instead by vibrant life, whether biodiverse green and blue infrastructure or kids playing football, a far more social space, as if an elongated piazza rather than the constricted motorway it is now.

Illustrations from ‘High Street’, by JM Richards and Eric Ravilious (1930)

If Amazon poses an end to what we can call ‘Big Retail’, this is a chance to rethink not just what retail is, but also the high street itself. Big Retail is the undifferentiated, mainstream and homogenous high street offer that had spread like a rash up and down the country: chains and franchises, each leaching value from the local economy whilst ensuring that local difference was eradicated, and reducing the diversity of the high street.

An old London high street like Highgate’s, for example — tight, close, scaled well for people, framed by complex layers of centuries of building — is now essentially defined by two things: first, endless lines of traffic, angry, snarling and dangerously edgy as too many are channeled into too small a space, and second, by undifferentiated franchises of Costas and Caffé Neros and Café Rouges.

Where the former destroys the local environment, the latter shreds the local economy. Uncontrolled high street franchises — often global, never mind national — leave little meaningful value in the local economy.

Now, however, the increasingly rapid collapse of this retail pattern is combining with new options in terms of mobility and logistics (and associated infrastructures.) This latter is innovating fast: e-bikes and cargo bikes; drones and autonomous shuttles; shared vehicles rather than privately-owned vehicles; or simply just good buses and trams well-used, now taking advantage of 25 years of professional user experience design driven by, well, folks like Amazon.

The high street can be the crucible for the forging of new spaces to think, make, sell, play, live and move around, at once familiar, and yet enabled by emerging technologies and contemporary cultures.

Taken together, a physical/digital retrofit of the high street becomes possible, and can be supercharged by other initiatives: new forms of local engagement, participation, ownership, and governance; different forms of working spaces and studios, unlocked easily via digital services ensuring high utilisation; policies to encourage local and distinct independent retail, cultural venues, fabrication and production, supported by slower and quieter active transport logistics, yet with global presence digitally; a variety of housing including cooperative-led as well as private and social housing; unlocking the ecosystem services latent within a different urban landscape; enabling the street to escape from its ‘coffin’ of traffic engineering in order to stimulate a richer diversity of social, cultural and civic activities; all set within a newly fluid, open, adaptive public realm, woven with the ‘daylighted’ green and blue of reinvented London marsh.

(Ed. My colleagues and I are leading work here at the Swedish government’s innovation agency and with numerous partners, from across the board, developing projects, processes and cultures to retrofit all the streets in Sweden, along these lines. Stay tuned.)

To some extent, these new initiatives enable a return to a more diverse high street model, which, without romanticising, could be glimpsed in an early 20th century London (and captured in the beautiful prints of Eric Ravilious which I’ve chosen to illustrate this piece). Equally familiar are locally produced goods, made and sold locally.

The high street can be the crucible for the forging of new spaces to think, make, sell, play, live and move around, at once familiar, and yet enabled by emerging technologies and contemporary cultures.

Illustrations from ‘High Street’, by JM Richards and Eric Ravilious (1930)

But how do we approach this complex brief? One thing is clear: we cannot use the old tools to address an entirely new challenge.

Another killer line from Carter in 1962:

British planning is a graveyard of lovely corpses, each marked by the headstone of a superb volume of architects’ and planners’ schemes, futurist epitaphs to excite desires and not action.
 — Edward Carter, ’The Future of London’, 1962

Traditional architecture, planning and urban design cannot move at the speed of Amazon, AI, or autonomous shuttles — or Extinction Rebellion, for that matter. We need to find new modes of engagement and a richer array of toolkits and practices in order to address the complexity of the high street on its own terms: prototypes, actions, acupunctures, all framed by an ongoing inquisitive reflection on “what the high street is for”.

If traditional planning is not agile enough, a hands-off approach will not work either. Only an engaged and adaptive strategy ensures these acupunctures and interventions can be carefully stimulated, curated and managed. Each generates multiple kinds of value, requiring a more complex form of value statement to guide trajectories for places, as well as more diverse perspectives and practices than are usually found in local planning offices in the UK. For these are not simply spatial strategies, but require holistic approaches across everything from environment to employment, experience to engineering, economics to ethics, led by truly multidisciplinary teams, working to a form of mission-oriented innovation.

The street binds the two cultures of art and science together, and so deserves a rich palette of approaches. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “The magic of the street is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany.” It is a place for protest, performance and promenade, the natural mis-en-scéne of the flaneur, and also the place where the milkman drops off the milk.

So if the street is simply engineering-led, or equally, framed through narrow anachronistic economics, as both those 1960s transformations were, and today’s smart cities agenda is, it will be a disaster. In fact, the smart cities rhetoric is a lazy rehash of that 1960s thinking, all-round. It will simply reproduce the same problems, just with upgraded tech. Given the complex balancing act of ‘errand and epiphany’, the question of who is responsible for the street—its design, delivery and ongoing governance—is fundamental.

As I’ve written elsewhere, if you let traffic engineers run the street you get traffic; if you let gardeners run it, you’d get gardens. In reality, we need a multiplicity of disciplines addressing the street, but the last thing we need right now is a re-run of the technocratic, engineering thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.

Illustrations from ‘High Street’, by JM Richards and Eric Ravilious (1930)

All of today’s concerns can be found in Carter’s 1962 book:

  • the decreasing speed;
  • the clogging congestion;
  • the cost to health, and the economy;
  • the inability to systemically calibrate the numbers of private motor cars in circulation;
  • the lobbying by the automobile and petroleum industries at the cost of places we literally live in;
  • the inability to foresee or react appropriately to newly disruptive mobility (then cars, now tech);
  • the inability to correctly value and fund public transport;
  • the dominance of land value and property development over civic value, public space and shared societal outcomes.

This list of issues is straight from Carter, and it’s more than a little depressing that they haven’t been truly addressed and resolved, some 60 years later. This clearly suggests we need to change the models and practices with which we approach the challenge, not simply use a rebadged version of the old planning toolkit.

It’s not that change was not enacted, or driven, no pun intended. When Carter suggests 1962 London was still designed for horses, we know it was subsequently hacked apart for the car, truck and bus. It was just done incredibly poorly.

Ironically enough, it may be that cars now become like horses again — something that rich people do at the weekends, in the countryside, but clearly an absurd way to get around a city en masse. Once the primary mode for urban mobility, horses were swiftly replaced with a decade or so, once something more appealing came along. They still exist, of course, and for various forms of mobility, but not for urban utility. Similarly, there is now a clear opportunity to just have cars drift away, as their form of mainstream ‘one size fits all’ urban mobility has quickly become clearly less attractive, objectively and subjectively, than the alternatives.

Through digitally-enabled service design and strategic design, those alternatives can increasingly be articulated as an S-M-L-XL-style range of mobility options, each tuned to particular needs, of the high street and otherwise. In the past that would have looked like a mess of options; now it’s possible to imagine a coherent service, with more diversity of choice whilst the overall volume of vehicles is reduced. If the ownership issue is addressed head-on, reinforcing civic, municipal, and environmental value as well as individual, the side-effect can be a high street that breathes again.

Horses subjected London to a lot of crap, literally. The car did likewise. Excising that actor presents a huge opportunity. But how to build enough motivation to grasp the nettle?

If the high street is the stage, the players have been allowed to write their own script unchallenged for too long. London’s laissez-faire culture enables a form of generalised resilience — the city is big enough to ensure that the high street always has something happening, for now at least, but is this ‘something’ “good growth”? Not so much.

And we now need to bend ideas and activity in certain directions, facing a series of interlinked existential crises: climate, health, and social justice. These wicked problems will take a more active hand on the tiller, a different kind of steering to the engineering-led infrastructure builders or hands-off free marketeers with their simplistic 20th century economic models built on ‘growth, and then pay for externalities through tax receipts’.

London’s carbon reduction targets are currently low compared to other European cities, noting that London is not exactly other cities. And very few of those more advanced European cities are where we actually need to be, either. London’s approach to health is not strategic — planning generates health problems that a creaking NHS has to pick up. 30,000 people die early each year in the UK due to air pollution, often at or near high streets, and in London, 2 million people live in areas with toxic air. And London’s record on social justice reveals widening inequality, year after year. For all the endless value in this great city, these challenges provide the ‘north stars’ that Mariana Mazzucato and others suggest we must tilt the playing field towards, here as much as anywhere.

The stakes are high. This concerns not just Carter’s metaphorical “lovely corpses” of failed plans, but rather very real unlovely corpses.

Redirecting the disruptive power of Amazon et al as if with a judo move, we might substantially remove the two aspects that diminish today’s high streets — banal franchise retail, banks and betting shops on the one hand, and dirty, dumb 20th century mobility on the other.

The question of what fills those spaces and activities is not clear, yet it is fascinating and urgent, and London is a city more than creative enough to figure out. But the question needs to be asked, and asked well.


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