Selling a new kind of future for our High Streets

Over the past year or so there have been a series of funding initiatives set up by the government that signal a shift in approach to area development. This shift will hopefully put more pressure on commercial developers and contractors to find more innovative ways of engaging with communities. Most importantly, these funds and their aims and objectives indicate recognition from government (finally) that the process of regeneration (social, economical and area based) is in need of reform. 

Here at AKOU we have been breathing a very small, slightly hesitant, sigh of relief. It seems the government is beginning to show acknowledgment that diversity and cohesion within our communities during planning is paramount. Our relief is small and slightly hesitant at the moment, as we will have to wait and see what kind of effect it will truly have on development culture in the UK.

Having been at a number of industry events and expos over the last year, it is clear that many agencies involved in development do support this shift. There is a lot of talk about aligning better with local life rather than disrupting it. However very few agencies know how to truly implement such strategies from the ground up. Amongst these new funding initiatives from government is the Future High Streets Fund, this fund aims to give struggling High Streets a major community themed makeover and has sparked much excitement amongst placemakers of all kinds. 

If retail outlets continue to fall on their knees (as more people choose to either shop online or simply realise they have enough stuff already and go on a vegan style shopping diet) there is hope perhaps that these once bustling epicentres now hold a new potential. There is a glimer of hope that high streets may support a new type of value exchange – a social one, rather than simply providing a place to consume. We do hope so.

Inspiring resourcefulness

I recently attended The London Society’s discussion about the future of our high streets and their ‘Resilience and Resourcefulness’. The panel, which included Jamie Dean, Mark Brearley and Stacey Adamiec put forward a selection of unique and passionate presentations of how they see the future of High Streets unfolding. They stressed, with vibrancy, what they felt the key ingredients are in order to transform our high streets successfully.

Panelist Stacey Adamiec, who had come all the way from Wales to put forward her vision, discussed the importance of capturing the invisible. Much to our delighted surprise. Stacey has had an impressive career in community development. She started out as a dancer who wanted a space in her home town to not only dance in herself, but to dance in with her community. So she set about her mission in making that happen. She did such a great job that she has become a worthwhile spaces consultant, with a mission to help others to create spaces that have meaning, purpose and social impact.

“Living in London when I was a resident dancer at Pineapple Studios I was inspired by the buildings, spaces and happenings all around me and how they compared to the community centres that were closing down in my local village. I watched places like Pineapple Studios draw people from everywhere and was determined to pinpoint exactly what their pull was and how I could package this to take home to engage and add value to my own community. The attention I paid to these micro details over the long term has helped me to develop my expertise in creating destination spaces and businesses.”

Super Glue for communities

Adamiec’s proposal to the audience at the high streets event was that those in search of a new town centre utopia must come together and devise a system to identify key community connectors. Community connectors are often the people who create network tapestries that function and support diverse and cohesive communities, they make things happen and get things moving. Adamiec adequately called these connectors the “super glue” that supports local connectedness. What resonated most with me at the time of hearing her passionate speech, was how she named the ‘invisible acts’ that have so much influence on a place, yet are rarely named and never measured.

Stacey Adamiec speaking at The London Society’s discussion on high streets

“Key connectors bring entrepreneurial vision with a practical approach to making things happen. In my experience community connection happens naturally as a result of the valued work people are doing because of their authentic purpose. They generally want to add value to the lives of those in their community. One of the key traits of a good community connector is the high level of noticing things that others wouldn’t normally take the time to think about. This is where they add the invisible glue that brings things together. They often use their micro expertise to support and mentor people around them. Helping others to realise their ideas and solve problems for others that they have almost always come across themselves. They are usually advocates of productivity techniques and growth mindset, often without even knowing it.”

Helping communities to value and utilise connectors

Since first starting out five years ago we have been running projects and creating digital tools that measure all of the unmeasured acts that build community connection. It is in these acts that progressive generosity of time, thought and passion are exchanged between people, and together they create the social fabric that wraps itself around a place and gives it a ‘vibe’ – a feeling. Yet this crucial work is rarely counted and quantified when it comes to the big decisions around spending and development. It meant a lot to hear Adamiec talk about the importance of the invisible that night, as our mission has always been to make the invisible visible.

Having worked in a number of different communities, towns and parts of London we are yet to find a place that is without its key local connectors. They are always carrying out proactive and invaluable activities in their local area, they know people from a variety of groups, segments and sections of the community. They cross-pollinate ideas, spread the news and are generally the eyes and ears of their neighbourhood. Not the nosey, neighbourhood watching, curtain twitching, standing over the garden fence passing on Chinese whispers type. This is a new bread. These are roll up their sleeves, get stuck in, throw a street party, welcome the neighbourhood, start a hub, start a club, share knowledge, insights and connections to make things happen – because they care – types. They care deeply about their area and the people that live within it. And they believe. They believe in their area and their community, like a proud parent standing at the sidelines cheering on their offspring.

We need to need to start valuing and promoting these people more than ever right now, as these people could offer the key links to helping rebuild many of the fractured communities across our country.