It’s 2021, we’re quickly coming to the end of the first quarter of the 21st century and our high streets are going through an evolution. Throughout the media industry we hear alarm bells ringing about the demise, desolation and disappearance of our high streets. “Save our high streets!”, “Stop the decline!”, “Support local business!”, are the cries of the many as we slip inevitably towards empty barren pedestrian zones that were once a hive of bustling activity. What’s to be done, and are high streets actually “declining”?
Why the supposed decline?
Humanity is all about convenience and habit. Everything we do is designed to make our lives more convenient. It’s only recently, with the general uptake of online selling, that the high street has started to suffer. We’ve learned that the things we want can now be brought directly to us, so it’s inconvenient to have to go somewhere to get them. We see it almost as a waste of time.
If we live right next to a high street it’s not so much of a problem, but having to travel to one just to get what we need is not necessarily the most convenient way any more, so we don’t.
If it’s getting more and more difficult to bring the people to the high street, let’s bring the high street to the people.
Are high streets actually just evolving?
We think so. It’s natural to think that if something isn’t the same as it was before that it’s declining, but that’s how evolution works, and evolution doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Change is always a little bit scary because it moves us towards an unknown, but that can bring so many positive opportunities to make something better.
Now what the end result of this evolution is going to look like we’re not sure, although we have a few ideas. One of the things we would love to see is more of a focus on activities rather than shopping. There has always been a strong desire amongst people to try their hand at different sorts of activities to keep themselves interested and find their passions.
What is a micro high street?
Micro high streets are a scaled down version of a high street. They are made up of perhaps 4 or 5 permanent kiosk-style outlets that we put as a group in key locations throughout our community. They act as micro focal points for the immediate neighbourhood and provide opportunities for peripheral communities to interact with each other in a different type of social atmosphere.
The kiosks are rented out by the day at low cost to businesses and other non-commercial organisations. Local businesses are able to relocate on a daily basis if they want to, to test their products in different parts of the conurbation.
We locate them directly within our residential neighbourhoods. They can be attached to parks, along popular walking routes, or on small brownfield sites that aren’t suitable for other uses.
Socialising the high street
Are our high streets actually social places? We seem to limit our opportunities to socialise our high streets, and that might be due to the amount of space we devote to them. They’re actually quite tight spaces considering what they’re supposed to provide for us.
There’s generally no substantial public seating on our high streets. Cafes and restaurants can put out seating for customers, but it’s restricted to their own customers. If you buy from this cafe you sit here, if you buy from that cafe you sit there. It’s actually a form of segregation, which is more anti-social than social.
With a micro high street we can have some temporary public seating put out if there are food vendors on a particular day. They should act as mini food courts. It gives people the opportunity to interact and socialise and discuss the different foods they’re eating in a communal way.
Night time activities
One of the biggest problems with our high streets is how early the majority of the businesses on them have closed in the past. Night shopping and night markets are very prominent in other countries and cultures, but for some reason it’s not very common here. It’s not that we don’t like to do it, it’s just that we don’t do it.
When we “go out” in the evenings, it’s often about a sit down meal at a restaurant, or drinks at a bar. Yet, when Bournemouth Christmas Market goes up every year we love the experience. Micro high streets can bring that experience directly into our neighbourhoods on a constant basis.
Variety is the spice of life
One of aspects that really limits a high street traditionally is that the offerings almost never change. We designed them essentially to be storage outlets for specific things. We know what’s there, there’s no surprise.
The concept of the micro high street turns this on its head completely. The kiosks are rented by different local businesses on a day-to-day basis, so as customers we never know what we’re going to find there.
We’re not going to these places in a robotic process with a fixed list of items. We’re going for the opportunity to spontaneously indulge our curiosity. We have no idea what we might find there today, and tomorrow could be completely different.
Micro high streets provide us with constant variation that keeps things interesting, even though the locations don’t change. They encourage people to experiment and try new things without having to travel too far to achieve it.
Helping businesses to be more flexible and agile
For a lot of businesses, being forced into a fixed location is actually counter-productive for them. Flexibility and agility for a business is crucial to their survival.
If a business has a fixed bricks-and-mortar location and for some reason or another cannot be open they still have costs. Some businesses can soak up these costs, but many cannot because their business model can’t easily account for them.
The micro high street concept utilises the pay-as-you-go method, not the fixed long-term contract. It is a much more sustainable way for local businesses to run.
Reducing market research costs
Starting a new business can be expensive, especially if you’re planning to rent a bricks-and-mortar location. It’s very much a sink or swim situation, and can cause people to lose all of their savings or pick up big debts. We know that it doesn’t matter how much research we do for a business, we’ll never really know its chances until we put it into action, and by that time it could already be too late.
Giving budding entrepreneurs the opportunity to essentially dip their toes into their potential business to test the water can give them valuable analytics about the plausibility of the business without breaking the bank. It serves as a much more sustainable way of encouraging new businesses to exist and grow.
Providing opportunities for alternative organisations
It doesn’t all have to be about selling products in a micro high street. If you’ve been to the Royal Arcade in Boscombe you may have seen the science shop in action. They often do experiments outside the shop to engage parents and their children as they pass by. It’s educational and fun.
Whether it’s education, art, music or any other form of cultural pursuit, there is a place for them in micro high streets too. As micro focal points within neighbourhoods, they can serve as fantastic places for families to visit and engage with in the evenings in a safe and friendly atmosphere. The children will enjoy the experience just as much as the parents.
Micro high streets are the future of our communities. There are times when we want to feel like we live in a city, and there are others when we want it to feel like a village. Micro high streets give that city-living vibe on a village scale and benefit absolutely everyone.