Moving streets ahead

Plans for souless pedestrian precincts have been placed in the architectural archives, making way for more thoughtful town planning. The quality of high street retailers, too, has improved. Janice Kirkpatrick applauds post-recessionary changes to our town

Continuing forays down town convince me beyond doubt that the UK’s high streets are at last changing for the better. Well, they could hardly deteriorate further after the worst retail recession our “nation of shopkeepers” has ever known.

This recent economic disaster was compounded by declining investment in our town centres and the growth of suburbia and home-ownership in the Eighties. Not to mention the myriad thoughtless pedestrianisation schemes which sought to homogenise and Victorianise once distinctive and authentic market towns, rendering them bland and filthy Mad Max-like playgrounds in the traffic-free world after dark.

I trundled out of my front door the other morning to find Caithness stone slabs and granite steps being laid as part of an effort to prevent people disappearing down potholes. I live in the city centre – along with a growing number of pioneers on a mission to raise awareness of inner city problems among suburban-dwelling council officials.

Glasgow has twice unsuccessfully pedestrianised itself, at vast monetary and social cost, and is slowly getting it right, using materials which appear to cost a fortune but which will last longer than all of us and be regularly maintained by a specially trained troupe of artisans. No more patched roads for us. I only hope the City Fathers see the sense in commissioning contextually appropriate street furniture instead of that scary village-heritage stuff that’s randomly selected from a catalogue by some disenfranchised “creative professional”.

It’s also healthy to see a trend away from home-ownership and the possibility of a British population with more cash to invest in decent furniture and domestic products, just like our European counterparts. So maybe we won’t get rich quick, but we’re a horrible lot anyway, betting on the National Lottery and gambling honest peoples’ lives away on the stock exchange, when what we should really be doing is embarrassing our leaders into investing in design-led product industries which promote economic health and create new jobs.

It seems that we do enjoy using better quality products and I’m not convinced that it’s only because they don’t wear out. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that we actually like nicely designed things, and therefore shop keepers continue to stock them.

In recent times Habitat has changed beyond recognition and belief. (I declare an interest here as my consultancy, Graven Images, was involved in the redesign of various Habitat outlets.) Sure, it costs more to shop there now but the products are improving all the time. The bedding department is excellent and the other departments are getting there with surprisingly high design aspirations and speed. Where else can you buy Cappellini furniture in Norwich, for goodness sake?

I think the renaissance of our town centres and high streets is long overdue. It’s time we saw the gap between high street multiples and our design-led independent stores narrow and the desire for good, durable products at a reasonable price grow. I’m pleased that the punters are at least buying better when it’s on offer. This is, after all, the aesthetic evolution we seek. Conran in London, Arkansas in Manchester and Nice House in Glasgow will doubtless refocus their activities to bring even more exotic consumer durables to the check-out. They may even manufacture their own ranges locally, as some of them presently do, and should be supported by the Government to do so through local tax breaks.

Over half of Habitat’s products are now being made in the UK. Alessi now appears regularly in House of Fraser. Its partnership with Philips has seen the growth of a super-elite range of household goods available even further down the retail chain. I can’t wait to see what will happen next, especially if they’re made here.

It seems that it took the worst retail recession in living memory to wake the UK up to quality. If this is manifested in a culture of long-term planningand investment, the economic significance of design- led product industries, the social value of a decent day’s work and the awakening of personal political power in the consumer, then that’s okay by me.

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