Would the High Street maintain significance without shops?
The High Street, which used to function as the core for neighbourhoods, cities and smaller towns, has been struggling in the past decade due to increasing digitalisation and online shopping. This has aggravated under the pandemic, with many high streets witnessing closures of shops and disruption to the continuity of the shopping experience, impacting local economies. Charity shops, cafes and restaurants have increased, replacing closing shops, and there is a substantial debate about what activities can take over, placing live-work spaces, housing, pop-ups, workshops and culture high on the agenda. There are still those who believe in the future of the High Street, and I would suggest many still love the physical shopping experience with all that it embraces of engagement with shop windows, direct experience of products, passively meeting or watching other people, street events etc. - a 'flâneur' experience, as Charles Baudelaire called it. Such an experience may make an important element of many people's social lives, including those who may feel lonely. A shopping experience requires a certain mass that has now been interrupted by the closure of shops and not simple to re-establish. The symbolic role of these spaces as a centre for the community and as a kind of 'heart', drives us to think of how the symbolism of the High Street has been shaped over the years and how it would better represent their communities in the future and contribute to their integration, wellbeing and progress. We should understand the role of each High Street in its local area and the broader context, the economic, social and urban qualities it embraces, the challenges it faces, its uniqueness and opportunities for diverse 24 hours users.
Photo R. Alkhani: Deptford High Street, London