Skip to main content
Close Menu Open Menu

Our high streets: The life and soul of town?

Jim Fox, MRTPI, CPD Trainer for the RTPI Masterclass 'highstreet regeneration and growth'

“A good city is like a good party. People stay longer than really necessary because they are enjoying themselves.” Jan Gehl, Danish architect and urban designer, captures the essence of successful high streets. They are not just bricks, mortar and an amalgamation of land uses, they’re also about people and interaction. At their very best they are the life and soul of our places and communities.

What makes for great town centres and how can we help them evolve? The High Streets Task Force (HSTF) highlights 25 priorities from activity to innovation. Triggered by my recent CPD training content development work for the RTPI, I have been digging into my regen back catalogue (from Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter to the north Yorkshire market town of Northallerton). Here are some personal thoughts on three recurring themes for joined-up thinking and action – diversifying, animating and nurturing.


Mainstream retail has been struggling – what is filling the vacuum? Good practice demonstrates that independents are locating alongside cultural uses in the form of vibrant, characterful urban quarters and use clusters. The public sector is using land ownerships and land assembly to bring together ‘community hubs’ with the third sector including health, learning and heritage. Partnerships with investors are developing town centre living,  engendering a loyal local catchment for their high street. Collaborative distinctive visioning is providing the framework for the joined-up thinking necessary to guide comprehensive change.


We have been relaying paving along our high streets every decade – but isn’t that often mere fashion? Public realm with purpose is reaping rewards where it not only looks great but supports the animation of our cherished streets and spaces – supporting a local market, circulating footfall and encouraging ‘dwell-time’. Flagship town squares are complemented by ‘tactical’ public realm – testing new ideas and showcasing locally inspired action. Yes, some parking spaces may be lost, but case studies consistently show that medium term benefits outweigh this – when we evidence the case and take people with us.

Northallerton Heritage Hub – for people and place (source: North Yorkshire Council)


The Institute of Place Management highlights that 40% of places the HSTF has been working with have no effective partnerships. How can high streets successfully manage – and importantly sustain – change? Bespoke governance structures focused on genuine cross-sector partnerships are bringing together the best of town boards, Business Improvement Districts and civic collaborations, with effective local leadership. Genuine partnerships build on a culture of review and devolution. Of course, this all requires smart resourcing and capacity building – case studies are showing the way here.

This year’s training based around the above is focused on town planners and the tools at their disposal to influence change. The challenge – for all of us across our disciplines – is a much greater one. Should we be thinking, even more than usual, beyond our immediate interests to join the dots and look to the longer term – to making regeneration stick, to towns that complement each other and to sustainable high streets? The life and soul of town.  

We are inviting experienced planners for our next new Online CPD masterclass in 2024 I will lead 'Highstreet Regeneration and Growth'. This advanced training builds on your planning experience, so it is not suitable for newcomers just joining the planning profession. Please search the Online CPD Masterclass Calendar for the next available date.

Back to top