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Forum in Groningen
Photograph: Peter Wiersema

The revamped high streets carving out a post-shopping future

City planners worldwide could learn a lot from these pioneering new-look town centres

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Written by
Huw Oliver
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Things weren’t great for high streets before the pandemic. And now life is returning to semi-normal, things are even worse. The shift from bricks-and-mortar browsing to online shopping is not new. But now, especially in town centres that rely on foot traffic, that change has accelerated. Shops are disappearing fast.

For independent store owners, that’s obviously terrible, but it doesn’t have to be bad news for everyone else.

Take the Forum in the Dutch city of Groningen. Smack-bang in the centre, overlooking the historic market square, this ten-story complex looks like a swish department store. In fact, it sells very little at all. The new ‘multi-space’ aims to revitalise Groningen’s hollowed-out centre by providing a huge gathering place, combining library, cinema, science museum, auditorium, exhibition space and – okay – a rooftop market square. It’s a mall without (most of) the goods.

In the UK, meanwhile, Bournemouth has just unveiled a similar project. Its Debenhams wasn’t cut out for the age of online consumption, so the town authorities have revived its legendary predecessor, department store Bobby’s, and filled it with a modern art gallery, workshop areas and loads more artist-run space. Admittedly, it’s not entirely consumer-free, as there’s a beauty hall (stocking mostly local brands) and also Drool: the world’s first food hall for dogs. But this seaside town is definitely doing ‘high street’ differently.

Neither of these has anything on the plans to reinvent Stockton-on-Tees, in the north-east of England. Here the council has bought up the vast shopping centre that dominates the high street. Its next step? Knock the thing down and replace it with a huge park that will host festivals and other big events. Further down the road, another department store has been purchased and turned into Enterprise Arcade: a new kind of mall that lets local businesses pay nominal rent to help them get off the ground.

So, why aren’t all cities doing this stuff? With hybrid working making many feel quite empty right now – and hundreds of shopfronts boarded up – it seems there’s a lot we could take away from all these community-focused projects. And no, not ‘build a giant mound’.

More cool city plans:

Five genius urban projects helping us think long term

Famous streets all over the world are going car-free

Tokyo is showing other cities how to cool the eff down

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