This is something I’ve been thinking about a little bit recently and today it was reported in the Evening Post that 20% of shop units in Bristol are currently empty so it seemed like a good time to question whether the high street is still a relevant space.
As I’ve tried to shop a bit more ethically (whatever that means) over the last year or so, I’ve noticed that by far the majority of my spending now takes place online. Like the average yuppie male that I am, a fair percentage of my spending is on books, music, films and electricals. These are pretty much always cheaper on Amazon or eBay than on the high street (eBay is great for 2nd hand books btw).
I spend money on clothes which I always resisted buying online due to wanting to try things on but as I’m trying to be more ethical in that, the high street is less helpful there too – Oxfam’s online shop, eBay and small ethical brands have been the solution there. I’m probably in a minority here but even shoppers who do buy clothes in person (off-line) increasingly want to do it in a dedicated area with convenient parking, minimal distance between shops and a food court like Cribbs or Cabot Circus rather than pound the high street.
For the other major regular expense – food – it’s now much more convenient to go to an “out-of-town” supermarket where you can park your car for free or increasingly convenient to do it online and have it delivered to your door.
What, then, is the high street for if it’s no longer the most convenient place to buy clothes, food or anything Amazon sells?
Well I would say we can already see the future to some extent in Bristol – the success of Cabot (97% occupancy since opening) and the minor revival of the wider Broadmead that this and a monstrous Primark have brought has seen our more linear high streets (Whiteladies, Park Street, Gloucester Road, etc) increasingly filling in the gaps with yet more coffee shops and mini-supermarkets.
This is not in itself a problem (unless you don’t have a car or a computer) but presumably with our consumption habits moving away from the high street, we are inevitably going to find that there are just too many commercial units to fill profitably. This raises a couple of questions – How many coffee shops can one high street support? and, assuming that not all units on a high street will be filled with coffee shops and restaurants, what do we do with the remaining units?
As we have seen to some extent in Stokes Croft, empty shop units can be seen as an opportunity for the community to reclaim them and use them productively if not profitably (though this requires landlords to be cooperative). With all of us increasingly disconnected from our neighbours is there a way we can sustainably turn these empty units into spaces that foster communities? Or is that just another coffee shop?