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We must look to integrate advancing technology into our design thinking

Planning portal: High streets must provide a credible foil to the soullessness of e-commerce, writes Tessa O’Neill

Seven years ago I wrote a study on the future of shopping places for the British Council of Shopping Centres (BCSC). e message then was that diverse and polarised fortunes await our towns and cities; the quality of place is paramount, and many towns will have to rely on more than just retail to survive. Investment was seen as critical to ensure their futures. But since then the world has changed dramatically -not least due to the impact of the global financial crisis, the retail and property industry going into freefall, household names going bust and, most especially, the ability to carry a small computer in your pocket which doubles as a phone, camera, stereo and mobile shopping device. Soare the messages the same for our towns and cities seven years on?

Unfortunately, investment has all but dried up in that time. e Homes and Communities Agency concentrated on the impoverished housing sector to kickstart the economy, and developers shut up shop. Meanwhile, our towns and high streets suff ered with no investment and too many vacant shops, and high streets have literally closed for business. The polarisation in the fortunes of many towns is probably worse than feared.

At BDP we have been looking at other ways to help improve high streets and town centres, with limited investment in many cases but providing a boost to the town. Parts of Catford in south London have been transformed not just through architectural inclusions or grand schemes, but by creating quality places with new streets, squares, upgraded markets and a lively cultural events programme. Customer dwell time is not only increased, but the experience of that place and sense of belonging to that community are greatly enhanced. As designers, we need to consider everything in our toolbox, and not just revert to the idea that more shops and housing will be the panacea.

What no one could predict seven years ago is the speed of the growth in technology and the powerful impact of e-commerce on the very structure and core of our cities and towns. A recent Ofcom study found Britons spend far more online than any other nation, and in today’s pressurised society, where consumers’ time is limited, this will only increase. However, our towns and cities must provide a credible foil to the soullessness of the internet. They need to be places that off er convenience and value for money too, but with the added benefits of social interaction, with diverse activities in an attractive environment.

Masterplanners must ensure our towns and cities provide this point of diff erence, but we must look increasingly to integrate advancing technology into our design thinking to capitalise on the opportunities it allows, rather than succumbing to it as a threat. The government is beginning to consider ways of tackling the decline of the high streets and seek technology solutions to boost them: a competition run by theTechnology Strategy Board called ‘Re-imagining the High Street’ has just closed for entries. is is a start, but we need to ensure it happens.

The debate about the future of our towns and high streets is arguably more important now than it was seven years ago, but despite radical changes in how we communicate, shop and enjoy our spare time, what people want has not changed. We still want value for money, choice, convenience, great service and an enjoyable experience.

As masterplanners and designers we have an important role to play in this, and we need to constantly re-imagine and innovate so our towns and high streets can survive. Investment is now more critical than it hasever been.

Tessa O’Neill is town planning director at BDP

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