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Comment: The pride of place that can save our high streets

Danny Crump, director of Urbanism at architecture firm Broadway Malyan, which has worked projects including Lefo Mall in Suzhou, China, and Fan in Mallorca, explains how social spaces can reinvigorate the UK’s town centres.

Retail has reached a critical point in its life and the headwinds against traditional ideas are beginning to blow a gale. Stalwarts across the sector are closing stores and questioning whether their existing model has a long-term future. The brutal truth laid bare by the second Grimsey report is that it does not.

The reality is that retailers doing what they have always done is no longer viable. The customer has moved on as we have entered into an experience economy. People will always need things, retail will always exist, but with myriad purchasing channels available to the consumer, large-scale physical retail now needs to be much more than just buying possessions.

Physical retail will not die but it must reinvent itself. It has an unbeatable advantage over online and that is human contact – and it is this seemingly obvious truism that will underpin the future of the sector.

At the heart of future retail will be the transformation of commercial centres in to social spaces, anchored not by any specific customer offer but by placemaking.

In Manchester, the Northern Quarter is booming because every street and store is different and a successful future for retail will rely on the creation of these kinds of soulful spaces, environments that are adaptable, incorporating shops and restaurants, cinemas and markets – they must have the flexibility to accommodate a multitude of uses and to become anything they want.

Retail environments should be decluttered, accessible to all, walkable and pedestrian first – and how these spaces connect to transport links is also fundamental to the overall experience. It must be painless and enjoyable, while also encouraging active travel through walking and cycling.

Urban and retail environments will continue to evolve to create completely new scenarios – some which we recognise from the natural progression of current trends and others that reflect the influence of greater social issues, such as population growth and climate change.

The winds of change will continue to blow, buffeting the sector along the way, but the importance of placemaking will undoubtedly stay the course.

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