The struggles of traditional high street retailers keep making the headlines, but are modern consumer trends solely to blame?

There's a big debate happening about what we can do to support the treasured British High Street, with many people suggesting cuts to business rates or a 'Digital Tax' to discourage online shopping in favour of shops with physical shop fronts. But few people seem to be talking about the High Street as a place, and what we can do to encourage people to go there and stay there long enough to spend their money.

Could it be that the attractiveness of the High Street as a place is the problem, rather than the price and range of goods and services on offer? If so, perhaps we should start looking at improving the overall user experience and shaping high streets around the needs of people, whether that is the very practical needs of high street shoppers, businesses and workers or the emotional needs of people that we want to spend time and money in the high street environment.

To find out what people want and need from the High Street, deep and widespread engagement with shoppers, retailers, landowners, workers and patrons is key.

Traditionally, public consultations on urban design frameworks and placemaking strategies tend to attract a narrow cross-section of the community, particularly those with more time and motivation to get involved. This means that they often turn into a debate over how to protect the single-interests of landowners, utility providers, heritage groups and transport operators, for example, rather than champion the wider interests of people that live, work, play and do business there.

Thankfully, modern technology means that we are better equipped than ever to find out what everyday high street users like, dislike and want to change about the public realm, not just those with deeply entrenched interests. Modern engagement tools, like Participatr, give shoppers, workers and busy business proprietors the power to quickly and easily highlight ideas, issues and aspirations for streets and public spaces, without having to spend vast amounts of time and energy engaging in complex, time-consuming and top-down consultation processes.

They provide an opportunity for agents of change to gather insight at the front-end, before proposals are formulated, which can then be used by urban designers, developers and placemakers to inform the design of public spaces, making them more in tune with what people want and, in turn, attracting more people to use them.

If we want the High Street to survive, we therefore need transform the way we engage with high street users and give them the power to shape public spaces into places that they want to be.

Written by Paul Erskine-Fox - Founder and Product Manager, Participatr

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