Introducing the ‘Future of the High Street’ — a collaborative project involving digital engagement, placemaking and rapid prototyping on two Edinburgh region high streets, to test ideas addressing local business and built environment challenges.

Dalry Road high street, Edinburgh (illustration: Jenny Elliott)

The first in our blog series about project ‘Future of the High Street’ — openly sharing the project and process, our learnings and findings.

The high street is the heart of many communities. Not just a local centre of economic activity and hustle and bustle, it is also a social connector, a local landmark and often vibrant destination, both a movement route and place we spend time, meet friends, pop to the shop, or bump into neighbours. With a recent increased focus on the ’20 minute neighbourhood’ — having all the services you need within a 20 minute walk of your house — and with the high street providing many of these services to residents nearby, its role is also especially important just now given the more local way we are living our lives.

But there are challenges for the high street. Some of these are long-standing — such as changes in consumer behaviour, market demand and the move to online. Some of these are more recent — such as the impact of Covid, requiring social distancing on narrow pavements, maximum customer capacity in shops and hospitality, reduced operating hours or services and even required temporary closures that have transformed active shopfronts to dormant dark windows. These challenges are particularly pressing as we enter the third national lockdown in a year, most notably for local independent businesses, but also in the way our everyday built environments adapt.

This leads to two crucial questions.

  1. How can we identify and understand what the most pressing short and long-term challenges for the high street as a place and for its businesses are?
  2. How can we work together to explore and quickly test possible solutions, adaptations or tweaks to the high street’s physical built environment and public realm, its business models and services or digital offer, to create opportunities out of these challenges, or at least mitigate them in some way? Are there ways to work together with people from diverse different perspectives and experiences of these challenges to rapidly prototype ideas and deliver some much needed immediate positive impact whilst also sharing learnings more broadly or setting the scene for longer-term change?

From a professional built environment and placemaking perspective, if we view the high street as a place or system that brings together different stakeholders — local businesses, residents, and organisations — how can we answer these questions about challenges and opportunities in a participatory way that recognises lived experience and local expertise, so that we really understand the problems and possibilities? What design tools, approaches and digital techniques can we use to genuinely work together with these diverse stakeholders to deliver the most impact and value, whilst also being required to ‘stay at home’ during lockdown periods, adhere to social distancing and other factors than traditional in-person methods?

These are questions being faced by many working in placemaking, design and planning professions just now, and which were highlighted — along with the challenges facing the high street and public realm spaces — through the Edinburgh Futures Institute and Edinburgh Living Lab’s Smart Places’ series of events, discussions and work during 2020. You can read the summary booklet or more about the Smart Places series here.

The Smart Places series of articles, events and discussion.

It is these questions that our Future of the High Street project will aim to address. This 6-month project to July 2021 will use a data-and-design approach — combining citizen engagement and co-design with data and technology — to address key challenges for high streets and the public realm emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic. The project is funded by the Scottish Funding Council, and delivered by the Edinburgh Futures Institute and Edinburgh Living Lab in collaboration with the Data-Driven Innovation programme and New Practice architects. The project builds on Edinburgh Living Lab’s work on integrating data-driven innovation and human-centred design to improve places for people, and will be a demonstrator project for the Data and Design Lab, a new initiative under the University of Edinburgh’s ‘Covid Beacon’ programme.

The ‘Future of the High Street’ project will take a deliberately collaborative approach, working closely with local businesses and stakeholders on two Edinburgh city region high streets — Gorgie/Dalry Road and Dalkeith town centre. Through this active listening, participatory and increasingly collaborative approach — we will identify key current and ongoing real impacts and challenges for local businesses and the high street as a place in the short-term due to Covid-19, as well as longer-term for the future of the high street.

The project will use a co-design process including digital engagement, design and modelling workshops and rapid prototyping to together explore, design, and define a shareable toolkit of at least 6 small-scale ideas that could help address these challenges in the short term. Two of these ideas will be prototyped and have project budget for piloting ‘in real life’ in collaboration with businesses on site on Gorgie/Dalry Road and Dalkeith high streets during June 2021 to deliver some immediate small-scale real positive impact in the short-term.

All project resources, including the toolkit of 6 co-produced ideas, visual documentation and robust evaluation and research data about the pilots, and summary of professional lessons learned will be shared on project completion in July 2021.

In the meantime, follow us here on Medium or via Twitter for monthly blogs by the project team.

Article by: Jenny Elliott, Project Lead

Jenny Elliott is Project Lead for ‘The Future of the High Street’, and Smart Places Lead at Edinburgh Futures Institute. A Chartered Landscape Architect and Urban Designer, Jenny is passionate about using design and data-driven processes to improve places and the built environment for the people that experience it.

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