The future of the high street

Like many around the world,  my local high street is apparently in trouble. A pub has just closed. A well-known café has gone out of business. There are vacant shops.  We know retail is under threat. My high street needs a burst of community spirit and creativity to make us care again about our local shops.

People have been weighing in with their ideas as to what is going wrong. High rent is one culprit. One person estimated that the café was paying something like $18,000 a month. Another is a lack of local parking – even though there are hundreds of free parks close by. Another is on-line retail and our changing habits. All of these points are valid. (Even if there are loads of car parking spaces, a perception issue might put people off).

I love living here because I walk to the shops. I like being a few hundred metres from visible life. I reflect on my own experience with the businesses that recently closed. I loved the look of the pub from the outside. I’d tried it out a few times for meals. But I couldn’t find a space that appealed to me in it, it just didn’t feel right. It meant I only visited twice in the last few years. I didn’t love it or recommend it.

As for the café / restaurant I’d been there twice too. It wasn’t relaxed or cheap enough to be a casual café. It didn’t have the vibe or quality of food to be a destination café/restaurant. I didn’t love it or recommend it.

I really wanted to. I’d love a casual Italian café that wasn’t charging $25 for a plate of pasta, that felt relaxed and fun.  I’d love a pub that felt open and light and relaxed – like so many are in London. Strangely, few pubs in Adelaide are enticing.

There is a lot of competition. A vey good Italian restaurant is around the corner – though I’d never go there by myself. I spend too much time at a local coffee shop but I don’t feel connected to it. There is a very good café a few blocks away from intense traffic which is friendly but I never relax into my time there.

My local high street is actually buzzing in certain locations and empty in others. But all of the businesses face the same challenge.

We are not the same people we were ten years ago. Our habits have changed. We don’t need to visit the high street anymore. We go there if we want to.

Yet we need to be around people. Our species is social. Many of us live alone. Many of us work at home. We are bored. We want to feel inspired.   We want to connect with our local community. We want great ‘meanwhile’ spaces where we can work and feel a part of life.

How many businesses try to inspire us? How many have an interesting point of view? How many try to forge the most basic personal relationship with us? These are the ones that are memorable. We care about them.

People complain about Sydney but staying with a friend in Glebe I was amazed at how a coffee shop on Glebe Point Road remembered my order after just one visit. How friendly, casual conversation took place in every shop and how it felt like a connected community.

We need the high street. It just needs to understand us as we are now. It needs to care about us, particularly its locals.

Businesses have to see themselves as creating experiences. They have to understand what they are selling. These days it’s experiences and connection.

I love the bookshop down the road but I don’t go there to buy books for myself. I buy books as gifts for other people. I buy the ‘look on the face’ of the person I have the gift for. So the creation, packaging, design of the wrapping is as important as the book.

I’d love to go to book related events there – meet authors, attend readings, take part in classes on writing or pitching. But I’ve never seen any advertised.

The same goes for the local florist – I love that it’s there but it’s too expensive for me to buy the flowers or plants for myself. Every so often I might buy a gift there for others. So making that gift memorable is what matters to me. Could it offer flowers that are cheaper, or offer subscriptions I couldn’t say no to? Could it collaborate with the bookshop to offer a gift package? Or teach me about flower arranging? Or arrange a ‘guerrilla flower safari’ around local streets?

My local café could teach me to make coffee or have tasting sessions. It could create ‘conversation spaces’ for people who’d like to talk with strangers rather than stare at their phones. It could host classes and events. It could ask me my name. It could remember me and make me feel welcome given I’ve been there hundreds of times. It could offer two flavours in the smallest gelato cup.

Local traders could hold an annual street party where the main street is closed for half a day.

They could petition the Council to allow seats and activities on the newly grassed area that is awaiting development. They could collaborate on tasting sessions or jointly create great meal packages that people make at home. They could collaborate on ‘weekly specials’.

In winter they could have open nights with wine where we are invited to check out businesses we haven’t visited yet.

The Council owned heritage buildings could offer cultural experiences – an outpost of our cultural institutions in the city, galleries or theatre. To be fair they have been using the ‘development site’ for school holiday events – but there are many more ways to create it as a destination.

I walked the length of the street last week. I was surprised that there weren’t as many empty shops as I expected. But it also gave me the chance to notice the gems. The optometrist’s window display was gorgeous.  The Japanese restaurant feels like a special place even if you have to duck under a flag to enter. Our art deco cinema has such potential. I discovered a clothes shop I hadn’t seen before. A wine bar I hadn’t thought of. There are about four Thai restaurants.

Yet the street doesn’t normally entice me to meander along it.  It could be a much better place to wander. It needs to inspire our curiosity about what we might discover.

Empty shops need to be occupied by something that adds to street quality. Renew Adelaide is our friend here. Could the local library  support a co-working space on the street? Could we get a friendly government office pop-up to help us with day to day problems? Could bank branches offer classes and talks on the financial system? Could maker spaces and repair cafes help you learn practical skills? WEA classes don’t need to be run in institutional buildings. TAFE pop ups might only need a space and some chairs. People could be invited to offer their own classes on things they know about.

Rents may be too high. Parking may be seen as an impediment. Our era is tough as assumptions are continually challenged.  People need to  experiment with things that feel distinctive and special.

My local high street is not doomed. It is just stuck in another era.  It needs to loosen up and become a community itself, open its imagination and inspire ours.

 

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