As lockdown begins to ease, our towns and cities begin to put in place measures in anticipation of the return of our workforce, schemes such as the pedestrianisation on a large part of the London and dedicated cycle/walking lane. Putting the political argument of safety aside, it is a welcome news for all of us as we look forward to getting back to some form of normality, such as walking through our favourite cafe/restaurants/high street, in the near future.
The world where we get back to will be very different to the one we left behind a couple months ago. Social distancing will be the buzzword that will apply to our parks, workplace, schools, bars and restaurants. One thing is for sure, our ‘new normal’ economy, in short/medium term, is going to be tough for everyone.
Getting used to the New Normal
One of the main casualties as a result of the lockdown is our beloved high street, while the government had been trying to save as many jobs as it can with the furlough scheme, the simple fact is, the lockdown/pandemic has caused a massive amount of damage to our retail/hospitality/restaurants businesses.
Travel between countries will be limited initially, tourism will be significantly down, but above all, people will generally be weary of going out and businesses will need to comply with all social distancing measure to ensure our health and safety.
The looming economic impact will be nothing we have seen before; I am sure there will be many shop closures as a result of this crisis. However, as we overcome the initial shock, how do we ensure the recovery of our high streets?
Is the High Street over-rated?
Should we be pessimistic, we will take the view that the high street is doom for failure even before the pandemic. The rise of online shopping, together with changing habit of retail, where people are more likely to spend money on experience than a physical object, this crisis will be the final nail in the coffin.
However, as we have experienced during this pandemic, human beings are social animals; no amount of Zoom meetings will replace physical interaction and social gathering will always be part of our human traits. How many of us are longing to go to our favourite pubs/restaurants/shops/theatre so we can have the company of friends/family and strangers?
Be water, my friend
Unlike past economic downturn, we do seem to have something unique, in the form of increased footfall by the workforce walking and cycling to work as a result of pavement widening scheme across the country. This surely is unique and an opportunity for the revival of our High Street?
While economy recovery is a complex issue that involves many different factors beyond buildings, landuse or architecture, previous recessions also taught us places with small units and cheap rent are most likely to get new economic activities – business owners, first time entrepreneurs will take a punt with a new business venture. It has always been the one-off bespoke businesses that kick-start the economy, generating income/employment and make places interesting. Think of Camden Town back in the 80s, Hoxton in the 90s and Shoreditch after the last recession. These are the places which offered cheap rent in small units, where it ended up with a collections of small independent shop and their own individual identity – a cafe with make shift furniture but with good quality coffee, a quirky shop that sell something you cannot buy from the department store or a small cosy restaurant that offer a small menu but with hearty meals, cooked by a young talented chef. These are the conditions and opportunities that we need to create, encourage and foster.
“Be formless, shapeless, like water… Be water, my friend” Bruce Lee, martial artist/actor
Some of the businesses will succeed and no doubt many will fail in the process, but the beauty of having small units are they offer flexibility for change in short notice. As demonstrated by the pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong, where their philosophy of “Be water”, in dealing with the police, is taken from the late martial artist, Bruce Lee.
Essentially, the protest movement is adaptable and flexible, where you change with the changing environment. There are no central figureheads in charge of the protest, rather, all the activities are organised with a bottom-up collective approach using mobile phone apps to inform the individual groups.
In essence, there is no point waiting for the central government, who are likely talking to the big businesses, to make their first moves, which will have a bigger lead in time. It will be quicker and more adaptable if the right economic conditions have been set, letting individual owners as a collective to take ownership/responsibilities for the regeneration of our high streets across the country.
As we all imagine a post COVID19 world that will be different to the one we leave behind, wouldn’t we want to be surrounded by distinctive shops with individuality during our daily walking, cycling route to work?