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Bringing the High Street home – a boost for wellbeing and urban design

By Nick Durham

The impact of Covid-19 and the local, national and international response has had a dramatic effect on all of our lives and will continue to do so long into the future.  But the seismic shift in the way we work has also brought about many positives. Vast numbers of us have continued to work from home since March, in line with government advice.  As a result we are all spending much more time and money in our local community.

And even when restrictions do lift, the trend towards home working looks set to stay. Already this month the Institute of Directors reported that three quarters of business owners will be retaining homeworking after coronavirus. Meanwhile the Welsh government recently announced it is aiming for 30% of the country's workforce to continue working at or near home in the long-term. Staff themselves seem keen on it too with a study from Cardiff University suggesting nine out of 10 people who had worked from home during the lockdown would like it to continue in some form.

This change has obviously been incredibly tough for city centres with latest figures for Cardiff showing a 30.9% decrease in footfall. But what it has also signalled is a reinvention of the local high street. Suddenly all those people who have traditionally been in city centre offices Monday to Friday are now living and working in their local community. They are popping out to local shops and cafes during the week and using local facilities and businesses. Together they are contributing to a revival and resurgence of the hyper-local high street.

Hyperlocal_main2.jpg

This can already be seen in the way shopping and food hubs in residential areas are changing. Take Cardiff’s bustling Wellfield Road which has recently been transformed to make it more people focused with wider footpaths and the removal of parking allowing the local shops and cafes to spill out onto the street.

The popularity of independents and local provenance have skyrocketed in the last five years. The success of Cardiff’s very own Cocorico Patisserie, of Bake Off fame, has really helped draw people into the Whitchurch Road area where there changes are due to be introduced to enhance the environment for pedestrians and improve active travel infrastructure.  And most recently, plans have been announced to make Cowbridge Road much more pedestrian friendly with everything from wider walkways and new street furniture to rain gardens and flowering perennials. It is likely we will see this repeated throughout our cities and towns in coming years.

At BDP we’ve been looking at the impact of all this on the health and wellbeing of our people and communities. As local authorities adapt and improve the high streets of today, we must also plan the communities of the future, and we believe hyper-local is here to stay – and will be about much more than shopping and coffee. Our predictions include the decentralisation of services and the creation of local healthcare and wellbeing hubs. Our modelling (see image) envisages transport infrastructure which focuses on active and public transport, with an increasing focus on connections with nature, appreciated now like never before, such as community gardens, which can also bring food production closer to home.

The worlds of home and work are merging as are the role, purpose and offer of the local high street. Right now, as shops have adapted to social distancing measures, often restricting numbers in store with customers waiting outside, a different kind of hyper-local economy may emerge.  An important feature of a successful hyper-local high street is the adaptive use of existing ‘slack spaces’.  Put simply this means allowing communities to inhabit and repurpose underused areas of their local high street in response to social, cultural and economic opportunities, all of which will help broaden the appeal of the high street

The good news is the Welsh government is already indicating support for such initiatives.  Combining our new-found interest in our local communities with an expanded network of community-based working hubs, along with improved transport infrastructure, will offer choices beyond a simple home/office split.

As we all adapt to this new normal falling back in love with our local high street, though not quite as we know it, will be one hugely positive impact from an incredibly challenging time.

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