The Future of the High Street: Challenges, Opportunities and Ideas. Featuring our Toolkit of 6 Ideas for ‘High Street Tweaks’

Film by Megan Miller — project film-maker

Direct from the project team: our thoughts and diaries from inside the project process — May 2021.

The last month has been a really fascinating and busy stage of the project. I’ve been preparing our Public Life Studies researcher materials ready to train the team so we can together start this research about public life on the high street next month. I’ve led 9 of these Public Life Studies previously — based on a methodology adapted from that developed by urbanist Jan Gehl — but this time we are going to be doing something different. Testing out how use of digital graphics software Procreate for iPad might lend itself to this direct observation research of how people are moving around and using the high street. I have a plan for how we can test out this alternative method to traditional pen-and-paper that might both improve and streamline the process and reveal more insightful findings. More on this in next month’s blog!

We’ve also been working hard as a wider team to reflect on the conversations that have been happening via the project’s collaborative engagement process with high street residents, businesses and organisations as well as practical and budgetry considerations to start to design and refine the pilots to go ahead in June. To help this process, we have finalised our ‘indicators of success’ based on a collaborative evaluation model (that synthesises what ‘success’ means for the pilots and project from the perspectives and statements of all those involved in the project in various ways). I’m really excited to share more about this, and the pilots with you next month!

April has been the most critical month of the project — a pivot point where work to bring local people into deliberative creative processes reaches its most decisive — and the practical challenges of making tangible some of the fantastic ideas that have been explored so far really starts.
One of the key internal conversations that I’ve had with Jenny, Shawn and the wider project team is around how we weigh up and assess the huge number of variables across the potential projects that have emerged so far. How do many of the practical challenges we are used to dealing with in production of the built environment (negotiating planning permissions, finding the right manufacturer) work to rein in some of the more imaginative ideas that have emerged. How do we balance the risks and opportunities of bold new ideas which might not have their anticipated impact versus tried-and-trusted approaches which might not tell us anything new about how design can improve experiences of the High Street.
Any creative project involves a great deal of intuitive decision making. Ideas are generated, iterated, discarded, or progressed all the time — often within a single stroke of a pen or quick chat with a colleague. How we capture both the ideas that proceed and those that fall by the wayside is really critical to understanding the journey of how we got to this point. In a more typical project for a local authority or private client, this story of incremental iteration and moments of assessment and decision can easily be lost in the drive to meet a brief in a tight timescale.
In this project, these moments are really critical to communicating to the wide range of local people and stakeholders why some ideas have progressed and some have not. They also offer a chance to understand how the specifics of place help to shape aspiration and imagination into a concrete project that has the best chance to succeed.

Over the past month I have been helping to develop our approach to engagement, particularly with young people. In early April, I helped to facilitate the first round of Digital Co-Creation Workshops. The workshop I joined was with residents of Gorgie Dalry, who provided a fascinating insight into their local area. I enjoyed recording their conversations, which focussed on a range of themes, including Gorgie Dalry’s heritage and character, routes, and creating an environment to sustain local business. Though the number of sign-ups for the session was lower than we originally hoped, it seemed that having a smaller group made for thoughtful discussions, which provided all participants with a chance to speak. Last week I developed the youth surveys, which we will embed in Google Earth to create an interactive tool, to engage young people in both locations. I have enjoyed considering the project from a young person’s perspective, and hope we can use the responses to deliver something meaningful for a demographic that has been so badly affected by the pandemic. This week, I will be working with Abigail to prepare for an engagement event taking place in Dalkeith next week. With volunteers from a local art club, we plan to interview the general public, and through this, and through this continue to generate ideas to shape the ‘tweak’.

Wow, hold on — where did April go? I think I may have gotten lost inside a spreadsheet there for a few weeks: this month, I’ve been doing a lot of work with the feedback and ‘visions of success’ shared with us by the Advisory Board and, excitingly, the community members who took part in New Practice’s first set of workshops. By grouping comments that resonate with one another, I’ve been developing key indicators for a ‘shared’ sense of project success — priorities that participants from local communities, practitioners on the Advisory Board and members of the Project Team have emphasised in our conversations so far. Here’s what we’ve got: Collaboration; Impact; Knowledge; Community Participation; Critical Reflection.

The thing is, listed like that, they just sound like buzzwords! (Looking at you, ‘impact’.) That’s why I haven’t deleted all these other columns of comments, concerns, criteria, notes, quotes, ideas and lessons-learned, though. Rather than seeing the evaluation criteria and key indicators as a finalised-and-flawless checklist of ideals, we’re keen to treat them as part of an ongoing, interactive process — and one that doesn’t simply end with the conclusion of this project. Jenny and I have been talking a lot lately about the project’s final report: what should be in it, and how it can be useful for others. We want our evaluation criteria — but also New Practice’s designs, Megan’s films, the Advisory Board’s recommendations, the workshop participants’ insights and the other contents of the report — not simply to reflect our project’s accomplishments, but also to contribute forward to other projects and efforts to reimagine local high streets and support their communities.

Just now, for instance, I’m drafting a map of the project — what I’ve taken to calling its ‘project ecology’ — and it’s made me realise just how important that final (and perhaps least buzzword-y?) key indicator is for our project. We want the final report to encourage critical reflection, for others to review, adapt, modify, (tweak!), critique and respond to our efforts: we want our project to help create more pleasant and equitable public spaces as part of a much larger, ongoing dialogue and collaboration between local communities, businesses, government and practitioners.

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