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The high street is something we are all familiar with – for me, it is something I work on daily in practice as well as part of my daily millings around Camden Town, where our practice, Wright & Wright Architects, is based in the space of a former piano-making workshop – one of Camden’s historic industries.

As a consumer, I am aware of the number of empty units and the rise in pound stores and charity shops due to the move away from in-person shopping. These changes were, and continue to be, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. As a designer invested in the future of our built environment, I am interested in the strategic and aesthetic choices available to us, and how these options can have an impact on the places in which we live.

There has been a natural shift in the way we shop: moving towards online and now increasingly mobile retail has left many businesses without the need for a real presence on the high street. Research into the future of the high street shows that it is those functions which cannot happen online which should be populating our city, town and village centres – bars, salons, barbers, gyms and other ‘experiential’ retail types. Coincidentally, these seem to all have a focus on socialising or wellbeing rather than traditional commercial enterprise.

Another key trend following the pandemic is the emphasis on localism – it is unclear how long this will last but there has been a demonstrable shift towards people shopping on their local high streets rather than in town centres or out-of-town. This also links to a growing concern for people to understand the provenance of goods, which small, independent businesses can provide far better than large, international retailers.

Our high streets have evolved over centuries, showcasing buildings from different time periods that come together to create a diverse and vibrant urban environment. By preserving the existing facades, we can maintain this charm. Efforts for preservation must be met with a commitment to enhancement. There are still chances to improve the street-level experience by redesigning shops and storefronts to create better and more cohesive urban fabric.

Clare Wright often cites her former mentor Isi Metzstein when talking about our high streets. He noted that the height of a shopfront is directly proportional to the quality of the shop itself, and we stand by that rule when it comes to our projects. Where shopfronts have been consistently lowered over the years and covered with a smattering of discordant signage, lighting, cameras and wayfinding, we seek to reinstate the grandeur of the historic frontage while working for a modern audience.

In general terms, the recovery of Britain’s high streets will be slow. Real estate is cumbersome and complicated to repurpose, and progress will be patchy with some places moving more quickly and successfully than others as time and capital allows. Yet, the high street still has an important role to play in an era where the balance between working and domestic life may have shifted permanently. There is exciting potential for a new kind of future for our public centres of daily life, one increasingly focused on small, independent traders operating in the middle of a much more diverse town centre.

High Streets, by their nature, are the central nodes of our urban fabric and there are few people who don’t want to see an improvement in their local areas. By making deliberate and thoughtful decisions about the revitalization of these spaces to entice potential tenants, we can guarantee the enduring significance of the streets which sustain our cities, towns and villages.