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Store closures, decline and dwindling footfall; the current COVID-19 crisis is driving an acceleration of pre-existing trends which are causing potentially irreparable damage to our high streets and town centres. Yet with town centres increasingly recognised as a community asset requiring public support and intervention, the impetus for Local Authorities to lead their reinvention will undoubtedly continue. As such, it will be critical that engagement with communities is high on the priority list to enable delivery of truly liveable places that put people at their heart.
Community engagement is hard
Many of us will have varied experience of community engagement. The most positive is multi-forum, engaged and open, with diverse groups taking part. Sadly, this can sometimes feel all too rare. Too often engagement is limited, lacks diversity and seems to narrow to pre-existing agendas for groups or individuals who have the time and reason to engage, rather than for the community as a whole.
Consultation can be draining and difficult. It requires effort and investment to do well, and this can often be challenging in the face of competing priorities. In many communities, engagement means breaking down barriers to previously distant groups of people, who feel distrustful of the motives behind consultation. In many instances they feel that consultation simply is a means of presenting ‘a done deal’, not an opportunity for them to contribute and influence. In the case of their high streets, people often question who the proposals are really designed to benefit.
But communities make places
As we highlighted in our recent Liveable Places report, community is one of the most critical elements of placemaking. This is particularly true when it comes to the high street. Successful high streets serve the needs of their whole community, from the businesses that operate on them, to the people that use them for leisure, and those who rely on the services they provide. High streets must also include public realm provision; spaces for people to meet and amenities that people actively use. This helps to increase footfall and dwell time - the objective measures of the ‘buzz’ that successful places have.
In our work with Westminster City Council to support the regeneration of Church Street, we listened to residents to assess a range of different options for the site. The overarching aim of the project was to bring about long-term physical, economic and social regeneration by creating a high quality, mixed-use neighbourhood, but most importantly it had to be attractive to residents and respond to their needs.
Where our high streets and town centres do this well, they are successful vibrant places with a distinct identity. In these places the local community plays an active role in footfall and expenditure. Often, local people also provide voluntary support, maintaining the environment and engaging in partnerships with local stakeholders. In creating plans for reinvention, it is therefore crucial that community needs, wants and desires are at the heart of proposals. The only way to understand this fully is to engage with local people from the very outset.
Breadth is important, but don’t forget depth
Communities are diverse – they include people from specific spatial areas, but also communities of interest. From school children – such as those we recently engaged with around the regeneration of the Perry Barr area in north Birmingham, which will form part of the Athletes’ Village for the 2022 Commonwealth Games - to the retired and elderly, it is absolutely critical that engagement takes a broad, yet tailored approach to understand and meet the needs of a whole community.
In doing this, we need to understand that a range of different approaches and techniques are likely to be necessary, in order to truly understand the views of specific sections of the community. This means appealing to those who can be tempted by a cup of tea and a chat in person, as well as those who have only five minutes to spare to quickly respond in an online forum.
Whilst hearing only from people who are already motivated to engage is flawed, so too is inadvertently cutting them out of the process through a desire to reach others. These are the very people who often have the energy to mobilise and engage whole communities and help make places successful and vibrant for the long term, long after an initial capital investment or series of events have been and gone.
Is COVID-19 a positive for engagement?
In amongst the doom and gloom of the current crisis I actually think we can find some real positives for community engagement. We are all being forced to think harder and invest more in how we communicate, to use new and innovative digital tools for engagement and to think about the many different ways we can collect people’s views.
At Arcadis the development of our virtual engagement platform has accelerated as a result of the lockdown, and will ultimately enhance the opportunities for engagement at all stages of projects. It incorporates the potential for virtual exhibitions – essential to enable people to view and provide feedback on plans and proposals from the comfort of their home computer and in an interactive and flexible way.
These exciting innovations, coupled with a likely increase in digital skills and a willingness to engage digitally within communities, can only be positive. Now is also a great time to engage with communities about their high streets and town centres. Many people have more time on their hands and are thinking about the things they really miss whilst stuck at home. Now is the time to find out what they really want more of in their local area going forward.
What should places do?
Reflecting on this, there are some things that all places can do as they plan for the future.
Invest in quality
Focus on diversity
Local communities are more focused now than ever on the future of their town centres and high streets. Engaging people now and for the long term is crucial to the success of these places. Using a variety of approaches to involve people – some tried and tested methods, others rapidly emerging digital approaches – will be key to understanding the breadth and depth of people’s views.
Success will be evident in whether or not the reinvention of high streets and town centres results in them once again becoming the beating hearts of our places.