Future of the High Street: sharing our findings and reflections

The 7th and final in our blog series about project ‘Future of the High Street’ — which have openly shared the evolving project and process, our learnings and findings. This month — as we wrap up the project, we share summary resources and outputs — including Public Life Studies for Gorgie-Dalry and Dalkeith, an overall project report, and personal reflections direct from project team members. We also reveal our summary film about the project, by project film-maker Megan Miller:

Project summary film by Megan Miller — project film-maker

Project ‘Future of the High Street’ combined citizen engagement, collaboration and co-design with rapid prototyping, urban data and research. The aim? To better understand key high street challenges and opportunities, and pilot two small-scale ‘tweaks’ with potential to support the high street as a successful, vibrant and liveable place as we emerge from Covid-19.

The project was led by the Edinburgh Futures Institute at the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with New Practice, Edinburgh Living Lab and the Data-Driven Innovation initiative.

Over the course of the project, we used a data and design approach with collaboration at its core, while also sharing learnings through monthly blogs and short films about the project process.

Now, as the main project activity draws to a close, and project partners New Practice continue to work with local organisations including City of Edinburgh Council and One Dalkeith community development trust to finalise project legacy outputs (including a number of permanent benches along Gorgie-Dalry high street, and a Tactical Urbanism Kit in Dalkeith), we wanted to share some of the resources and outputs that have come out of this 6 month project process.

In addition to the summary film about the project above, there are a number of other resources we hope may be of interest or helpful to other interested professionals and high street stakeholders. These are:

A booklet of 6 ideas for High Street Tweaks addressing common high street challenges and opportunities

The Toolkit of 6 Prototype Ideas for High Street Tweaks — small-scale ideas that can deliver meaningful change for our high streets, and was developed with high street businesses, residents and organisations through this project.

Illustration by Katie Chappell of project webinar 21 July 2021

On 21 July 2021, Jenny Elliott (Project Lead at EFI) and Duncan Bain (New Practice) shared their summaries and reflections on the project and its findings via a webinar chaired by Prof Chris Speed and live illustrated by Illustrator Katie Chappell. The full recording is available here.

View the final report compiled by the Edinburgh Futures Institute.

The final summary report includes more detailed information about our methods, approach and findings about challenges, opportunities and pilots for the high street, and their ongoing legacy. It includes a number of standalone pages and sections that may be of particular interest to different people or organisations. For example:

Timeline of key questions and our methods used to address these.

A breakdown of the key questions the project team considered in each of the 6 months of the project and the methods and outputs we used to address these.

Backward flow diagram of key project decision-making. Illustration: Victoria Rose Ball

A ‘backward flow diagram’ communicating the different insights, perspectives and project activities that fed into decision-making throughout the project, including how engagement discussions fed into the ‘6 Ideas for High Street Tweaks’ and which two pilots were chosen from these to go ahead (or not) to be prototyped on the two high streets, and the reasons why.

A Public Life Study for Dalkeith — viewable as a standalone document here.

Baseline Public Life Studies were completed for both Dalkeith and Gorgie-Dalry. These included direct observation studies of pedestrian flow, stationary activity, dwell time, footfall, demographic studies, place quality assessment and user and business interviews. These were created as a standalone resource for both locations which we hope may be helpful to local organisations, whilst also providing valuable data for comparison whilst project pilots were in situ in June allowing us to understand pilot impact.

A Public Life Study for Gorgie-Dalry, Edinburgh — viewable as a standalone document here.

In addition the report includes more detail about the two pilots tested on site in Gorgie-Dalry and Dalkeith high streets. This includes information about pilot impact, including findings that showed the use of temporary seating, live window illustration in high street business windows (Gorgie-Dalry) and Tactical Urbanism Kit components and activity (Dalkeith) increased both dwell time and public life in the localised high street areas these were situated. For example, at Dalry Gait (Dalry) where a bench seat was located during the pilot, average dwell time increased from less than 1 minute, to up to 5 minutes, and there was a 100% in stationary activity in this section of high street.

Prototype bench seating was positioned in three locations along Gorgie-Dalry Road, and window illustration in three businesses’ windows.
Use of a prototype Tactical Urbanism Kit was piloted in Dalkeith

The report also includes reflections on wider lessons learnt, future perspectives and other findings from the project. These range from our learnings from the testing out of a range of digital tools for community engagement, to reflections on the co-design process and overall summary findings on challenges, opportunities and future demand for the high street based on the wide range of insights and perspectives gathered from the two project locations.

In addition to these reports, the previous 6 blogs and short films are available online, and share more detailed insights into 6 topics core to this project — from digital engagement during a pandemic, to our approach to ‘collaborative evaluation’ — and are available on our Medium.

The project team would like to thank all those who have been involved in this project, for their support, time and sharing their perspectives on this topic.

Direct from the project team: our thoughts and diaries reflecting on the project process — July 2021.

Each month we have shared insights direct from the project team. As the main activity wraps up, this month the project team focusses on their reflections on this project process.

Jenny Elliott (Project Lead, EFI):

Leading the Future of the High Street project has been a really rewarding and exciting experience. There has been a huge amount of hard work behind the scenes from all involved, and I feel lucky to have been working with a fantastic team — both within EFI and with key project partners New Practice, as well as local high street stakeholders and an incredible advisory board of experts and professionals who have been so generous with their time and sharing their knowledge on this topic. This collaboration and interdisciplinary approach has been hugely beneficial for the project — bringing different perspectives, professional understandings and lived experiences that have enriched the project and its outputs.

Having originally developed the project funding proposal based on principles of co-design, testing new digital tools, openly sharing findings and being responsive to genuine high street challenges to try to deliver meaningful impact, it has been a hugely valuable experience for me to reflect on how the original project idea — based on this framework of key deliverables and principles with a suggested approach, but with flexibility built in so that approaches, pilots and outcomes could adapt along the way to deliver the best outcomes — has evolved and been shaped and realised as we delivered it in practice. It has been fantastic working with the team at New Practice and within EFI who have embraced this adaptive approach to the project, enabling the project to genuinely respond to learnings and initial findings about key high street challenges and opportunities, and then feed these into a co-design process that led to the ideas for 6 ‘high street tweaks’, two pilots and project outputs. I’ve also learnt a lot from leading the Public Life Studies for this project — building on my previous experience delivering these types of study to work with a brilliant small team of researchers to adapt the methods used and test out new ways to integrate digital and technological approaches.

Throughout the project, we have aimed to openly share our findings and learnings as we went, and I hope these blogs have been of interest and helpful to others working in this area. I would like to thank all those who have been involved in this project — whether on the project team, advisory board or local high street business, resident or organisation— for their time and input.

Duncan Bain (Associate, New Practice):

Future of the High Street has been a unique opportunity, and a challenge, for New Practice. To work so closely with a team of academic researchers and be supported by such a diverse group of professionals through the advisory board has been unlike any other project we have worked on in the past. It is rare when working in the built environment to have such comprehensive support to inform how to go about shaping a project and developing meaningful outcomes.

One of the most exciting parts of the process has been having such a robust analytical and evaluative framework to help us to test our assumptions and design approaches. Production in the built environment is far from an exact science. Places are a patchwork of intentional and unintentional decision making, vision and contingency. The pandemic has presented local authorities, built environment professionals, and local communities with a critical moment to rethink many of our familiar places. In some cases this has been an opportunity to experiment with new ways to foster outdoor use of space, from cycling to socialising. Having Public Life Street Assessments and other forms of spatial and social evaluation is a huge benefit to the Future of the High Street project, helping to ground decisions on legacy and permanent infrastructure in rich and robust evidence.

The project has also created the sort of genuine openness and space required to foster the opportunity for co-creative experiences with local stakeholders. So often, this sort of well-meaning aspiration on the part of clients is limited by short project durations that do not offer the time required to build meaningful relationships with participants. Similarly, it is very rare to enter in to a project with such an openness to a wide variety of outcomes, and not limit participants ability to shape those through pre-supposing briefs. The project has really helped to shape our understanding of what elements are required to attempt to foster meaningful co-creative opportunities. We’ve started to adopt elements of the evaluative framework embedded in this project in to our work with more traditional clients, using Public Life Street Assessment approaches to help us better understand places. We are excited to take a huge wealth of learning developed across the overall project team, and reflect this in our place shaping work in the future.

Shawn Bodden (Project Officer — EFI):

For me the project was a valuable opportunity and rewarding challenge to develop ways for connecting the kinds of social theory I usually work with in Human Geography with the practical work of delivering a co-design project. I feel like I leave the project with both a deeper appreciation of the methodological and conceptual approaches of academic fields like ethnomethodology, and a host of ideas about how to use it to contribute to design and community-engagement work in future projects. I’ve learned so much from the other members of the project team as well as the community stakeholders who took part in the project in some way — this project has created a space of exciting debate and exchange, and I’m glad to have been able to take part!

Megan Miller (Project Film-maker — EFI):

Working on this project helped me to challenge my own preconceptions about how a film ‘should’ be made and consumed. The limitations we faced from Covid forced us to expand, be resourceful, and ultimately become more creative. I think these limitations actually benefited the project outcome. Its success came from both addressing the high street challenges and opportunities, but also achieving this through an unconventional process. I feel lucky to have been part of a project that listened to the needs of its community and ensured they were realised.

The Future of the High Street project has been part of The University of Edinburgh’s ‘Data and Design Lab’ — funded by the Scottish Funding Council. It has acted as a demonstrator project for how a data-and-design approach can be used to address key contemporary challenges and deliver positive impact. The project follows on from the Edinburgh Futures Institute Smart Places series in collaboration with the Edinburgh Living Lab and Data Driven Innovation programme. Find out more here.

Blog written by Jenny Elliott, Project Lead for Future of the High Street, Edinburgh Futures Institute.

We bring people together to solve problems using data and design.