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

The fifth in our blog series about project ‘Future of the High Street’ — openly sharing the evolving project and process, our learnings and findings. This month — we launch our ‘High Street Tweak’ toolkit of 6 small-scale ideas for creating more liveable and successful high streets. We also share the common challenges and opportunities for the high street emerging from our ongoing project work. Or scroll down for this month’s insights direct from the project team members.

Film by Megan Miller — project film-maker

What have we been up to this month?

It’s been all go on the project this month! From 4 more digital co-design workshops with local high street stakeholders and youth engagement using interactive Google Earth walk-throughs, to developing our approach to ‘collaborative evaluation’ for the project, and reaching a turning point of now refining pilots ready to be built and go on-site in June, it’s been a busy few weeks!

In the spirit of openly sharing our project process, scroll down for some insights and diary highlights direct from the project team, as well as a summary of the key challenges and opportunities for the high street that are emerging from our project findings.

But first, we also have something exciting to share with you…

Available now! A toolkit of 6 ideas for small-scale ‘High Street Tweaks’ that could deliver big positive impact for the high street — based on insights from our co-design process with high street businesses, residents and organisations.

The toolkit includes 6 small-scale ideas — and a practical how-to guide to prototyping and achieving them — as a direct output from the Future of the High Street project’s co-design process with local high street businesses, residents and organisations. Through surveys, workshops, activities and conversations, over the last few months we have been listening to the lived experiences of high street stakeholders to design these 6 ideas that respond to key high street challenges and opportunities.

Core to our project approach is a desire to openly share our learnings and findings as we go, in the hope these might help others working in this field or on similar projects. While each of these ideas were generated in response to the particular challenges and opportunities of two distinct places — Gorgie Dalry and Dalkeith— the hope is that this resource might be helpful to inform decision-making for high streets in new locations too. We hope you will find this toolkit a helpful resource — perhaps to share with colleagues or others wanting to make a positive change in their high street too.

Challenges and opportunities for the high street: our findings so far

A core part of the Future of the High Street project is about understanding what current challenges for the high street are, and where there might be opportunities to make the high street a more liveable, accessible, vibrant and successful place.

We’ve summarised these below, based on our findings from conversations and listening to businesses, organisations and residents local to an urban linear high street (Gorgie-Dalry Road in Edinburgh) and Dalkeith town centre — a more consolidated high street in a town to the South-East of Edinburgh — over the last 4 months. We’ve also included more general insights on challenges and opportunities for the high street based on these discussions as well as thoughts from our project advisory board. A full breakdown of the specific opportunities and challenges for Gorgie/Dalry and Dalkeith will be included in our project report in July. Below we share some common themes, as well as insights about market demand.

In June we will be rapidly prototyping and testing in real life 2 of the small-scale ‘high street tweaks’ from the toolkit shared above. These are tailored and are in response to the specific challenges and opportunities presented by the two specific project locations — Gorgie-Dalry and Dalkeith. These light-touch high street ‘tweaks’ are about small but worthwhile changes that are easily achievable on short timescales through collaboration with local stakeholders, rather than a more resource-intensive larger transformation of the high street’s built environment. More on these next month!

Common challenges:

So, what have we found to be some common challenges for the high street?

  • Uncertainty due to Covid restrictions, social distancing and consumer behaviour changes relating to the pandemic making it hard for some businesses to remain viable, adapt and/or to plan for the future.
  • Poor place qualities of the public realm built environment itself making the high street less of an attractive, inclusive accessible and vibrant destination or place to spend time. Specifically, challenges relating to litter, maintenance, heavy/noisy traffic, a poor pedestrian environment and a lack of vegetation.

Opportunities:

Opportunities for the high street as a more resilient, successful and liveable place where both communities and businesses thrive include:

  • Improving the attractiveness of the high street as a destination and public place in its own right e.g. through more greenery, public seating to enhance accessibility and social meeting, aesthetic improvements.
  • Improving active travel (pedestrian and cyclist priority and infrastructure) to support access to the high street businesses, including bike parking and improved cycle lanes.
  • Alternative business models, community and flexible spaces
  • Building on and strengthening local identity, supporting local makers and independent businesses, and making these more visible.

Market demand insights

  • People come to the high street for experiences, services or products they can’t get online. This behaviour has been consolidated during Covid lockdowns, during which only essential shops and services have been open.
  • During lockdown there has been an increase in the high street’s function as a place to collect takeaway goods and food. This has required businesses to pivot and create alternative customer experiences / channels for supplying their goods and services. Whilst this trend was particularly apparent in the ways residents reported using the high street during lockdown, hybrid models of takeaway/sit-in hospitality where this was previously sit-in only, goods-collection services, and shops operating online/offline purchasing and local delivery models may be set to continue.

Future market demand was expressed for:

  • More diverse variety of high street shops, services, and experiences, including more varied and independent shops, cafes and restaurants, flexible spaces that could function for community, co-working or multiple business uses, cultural venues including the arts and theatre.
  • A focus on experiences that can’t be found online.
  • More attractive and inclusive pedestrian spaces on the high street that facilitate spending more time outside on the high street. For example, outdoor public seating, more planting and ‘greenery’, and less car traffic (and its associated visual and auditory pollution).
  • A recognition that the high street is a key social connecting place. Demand for social and seating spaces within the public realm that support connection and community.

Something that has been apparent through these conversations about the high street over the last few months, has been the importance of ‘the high street’ as more than just retail.

The high street is often the social and economic heart of a neighbourhood or community — and its health depends on creating and maintaining a place that is liveable, vibrant, successful, accessible and desirable as a destination and place to go to, move through or spend time — both as a public space place, and the activities and businesses that occupy its frontages and adjacent buildings.

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

Each month we share insights direct from the project team. This month focuses on what the project team has been working on as the stakeholder engagement activities and co-design process moves toward refining and selecting pilots, and we further define our collaborative evaluation approach.

Jenny Elliott (Project Lead, EFI)

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!

Duncan Bain (New Practice):

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.

Juliet Welshman (New Practice — Junior Designer):

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’.

Shawn Bodden (Project Officer — EFI):

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.

The Future of the High Street project is part of The University of Edinburgh’s ‘Data and Design Lab’ — funded by the Scottish Funding Council. It will act 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.

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