Even before the pandemic, more people were shopping online and fewer were visiting the high street. Over the last year this trend has accelerated, compounded by the fact that fewer people are commuting into town-centre offices and spending money while they’re there. With the high street in trouble, major chains such as Debenhams have collapsed leaving large empty spaces in town centres across the country. Now the question is: “How do we as a society respond to this?”
In a time of climate crisis…it’s time to reuse what we already have
As built environment professionals, in a time of climate crisis we are all too aware of the carbon impact of construction. So, our starting point is to ask how we can reuse what we already have, how town-centre buildings can be adapted for new purposes. This is the approach advocated by the London Energy Transition Initiative (LETI). It enables you to get additional design life from a building for a fraction of the carbon emissions involved in demolishing it and starting again.
But what should empty retail space be transformed into? Housing, leisure, office, hospitality and even education are all potential uses because we need to attract people back to town centres – not just to shop but to live, work and play. With skilful design guided by appropriate quality and space standards you can deliver the 15-minute town concept where everything residents need – employment, leisure, green space and more – is within a quarter of an hour’s travel on foot.
Sometimes buildings we perceive to be part of the problem can become part of the solution
Whatever happens, we mustn’t repeat the mistakes of the 1960s and 70s: blocking key pedestrian routes and sight lines with buildings in the wrong places; filling public spaces with vehicles; constructing ring roads that choke the life out of a town. However, sometimes buildings we perceive to be part of the problem can become part of the solution. Many towns have a 1960s or 70s brutalist office block or retail mall, and these often have surprising potential to be retrofitted for a new lease of life.
WSP’s planning consultancy has been involved in repurposing the old Bristol United Press Building, now known as One Temple Way, into a mixed-use development. Working with AHMM architects and our client Bankfoot Group (on a site owned by the Harmsworth Property Pension Fund), the proposal includes transforming the faceless sides of the building to include windows and doors. By adding glazed areas and new entrances, we are able to bring new life to the building to make it appear friendlier, more inviting and ultimately generate more use. The transformation includes a positive visual interplay between the building’s interior and new public spaces, including a new ‘pocket park’ that reconnects pedestrian desire lines.