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Entering the experience economy era

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Lecturer and architect Jan Kattein explains why we need to reshape our understanding of the UK high street.

Entering the experience economy era

2–20 Central Road, Worcester Park town centre regeneration project, Sutton Council.

Credit: Jan Kattein Architects

Is the UK high street as we know it dead? Between 2008 and 2015, overall retail floorspace in England and Wales shrunk by almost 28%. Years of low-wage growth, the rise of e-commerce and public spending cuts, have resulted in physical decline, leaving many high streets caught in a vicious cycle: falling footfall and retail takings, a lack of investment and further physical decline.

Yet the recent crisis at mega-retailer ASOS (its shares crashed 38% in November 2018 after an unexpected profit warning) is a reminder that the story is more complex than shoppers simply drifting online. Moreover, it suggests that tying the fate of high streets only to retail may be a mistake.

Our work acts as a catalyst, bringing about further private investment, and as an impetus for retailers to think harder about how they can remain competitive.

Jan Kattein

Lecturer and architect at The Bartlett School of Architecture Jan Kattein has worked for years on projects – mostly in London – to reverse the decline of high streets. Crucial to this is a shift in perception about what such spaces could be: “There is a lot of nostalgia around high streets, which is not helpful,” Kattein says.

Instead, he explains, we need to reshape our understanding of high streets, as places that incorporate a range of uses – retail that embraces the existence of online trade, but also spaces for work, play, learning, dining, entertainment, community activities and services. “The so-called experience economy is growing at twice the rate of the retail sector in the UK,” he says.

In contrast to the grand ambitions – and the connotations of gentrification and cultural displacement – that the word “regeneration” has come to suggest, the interventions Kattein’s practice implements are targeted, specific and sensitive, he says, bearing in mind the uniqueness of each locality and that transformation should create opportunities for all.

For example, after realising that the decline of the high street in Morden, south London, was the result of fragmented ownership, the practice brought owners together to realise a programme of works on a landmark building at the gateway to the town centre. In nearby Peckham, it responded to the local community’s campaigns for the preservation of local heritage with conservation works on buildings in the town centre. In Nunhead Village, it designed pop-up shops in vacant shop units on the high street.

Entering the experience economy era

Nunhead Village town centre regeneration project, Southwark Council.

Credit: Jan Kattein Architects

It’s hard to quantify the short-term benefits of such work, but Kattein says he has already seen the effects. The practice’s project in Leyton was dubbed the “Notting Hill of the East” by a local newspaper, while the now-thriving Francis Road nearby – where the practice worked with 100 primary school children on re-linking the community to their high street – is now referred to as “Leyton Village”. The section of Worcester Park, where it invested in a large neon sign to emphasise that the high street has a vibrant night-time offer, is now referred to locally as “Little Times Square”.

Rebranding aside, he says there have been more tangible changes: “We know that there has been a reduction in retail space vacancies and that building owners have invested in bringing vacant upper stories back into use. Our work also acts as a catalyst, bringing about further private investment, and as an impetus for retailers to think harder about how they can remain competitive.”

These successes make Kattein optimistic about the future of the high street. “They are deeply embedded in people’s psyche and I don’t think that many people are prepared to see them disappear,” he says. Ultimately, however, he observes that the architect’s ability to revive high streets alone is limited – collaboration and communication with local communities it vital, as is the role of public policy.

“A major problem today is that globalisation and technology have created an unequal playing field skewed in favour of multinational corporations and online retailers,” he says. “If we want to keep high streets alive as the civic hearts of our towns and cities, we need to change how we tax and regulate multinationals and support the businesses that are the backbone of their existence.”

The School of Architecture is internationally renowned for innovative research and teaching that is academically rigorous, critically informed, design-led and interdisciplinary. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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