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Sustainable high streets: reimagining the future of our towns and cities

Posted on 5 April 2022

Written by:

Elly Mead

On Wednesday 30 March, we delivered our final event in this year’s WEdesign series ‘Local Places, Global Issues’ in partnership with undergraduate students and tutors from the Sheffield School of Architecture and Live Works. We welcomed participants both in-person at the Arts Tower in Sheffield and online through Zoom. Our event brought together a range of diverse voices from across the UK to discuss how we can collectively design more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable high streets .

The in-person Education group getting creative

Using a similar approach to our previous events in this WEdesign series, we split the online and in-person participants into groups covering practice, policy, education and community. We tasked each group with co-designing ideas and propositions for more sustainable high streets through the lens of each of these themes, together with our students, who worked in pairs to facilitate the discussion spaces. Our online groups tackled education, practice and policy, capturing their conversations and collaging ideas on Miro boards, whilst the in-person groups explored education and community, using post-it notes, pens, coloured paper and pipe cleaners to collectively capture their conversations. We then brought all the groups back together to share their key points from each discussion, finding common ideas and themes from the evening.


The Practice group’s Miro board

The Practice group discussed how to get people more involved in high streets, highlighting the need to engage with those who still visit and use the amenities along them whilst ensuring the conversation included intergenerational voices. They also discussed the tension between the high street being perceived as a public space whilst often in actuality it is predominantly privately owned. This stimulated questions of how this could be challenged through simple interventions and meanwhile uses of both internal and external  spaces. 

This group highlighted the need to challenge and change current thinking about high streets, moving from considering them as purely economic retail spaces to instead recognising them as a form of social infrastructure, able to provide social value beyond economic profit. Considering this from a post-covid lens, it was felt that high streets need to evolve to support a greater diversity of needs and services that truly reflect the wants and desires of people who occupy the high street, such as spaces for activity and connection, as well as practical amenities such as public toilets.

The Practice group’s student facilitators


The Policy group were keen to shake off the idea that the high street is dead, and instead felt that what we are seeing in this moment is an evolution, heavily influenced by the effect of covid. They highlighted that pre-covid policy is now outdated, and questioned whether policymakers are representative of those who will actually be using high streets in years to come. To bridge the gap between policymakers and all those who use the high street, genuine community engagement is key, and there is a need to inject inter-generational perspectives into these conversations. Similarly to other groups, the Policy group felt that the exclusive retail focus of high streets should shift to accommodate a diverse, rich range of uses, and to support this, both policy and policymakers need to be more visible and accessible to the public.


Our online Education group felt that a move away from the term ‘education’ to ‘learning’ would help remove the association with learning being a school-age activity, and instead open up a wider conversation around high streets where everyone is invited to learn. Acknowledging that many have a defined idea of what high streets are, and therefore what can happen on them, they proposed creating spaces for ‘unlearning’ where these preconceived notions can be explored, challenged and reconsidered. By championing the idea of unlearning as a starting point for the evolution of the high street, there is then room to consider the high street beyond retail. We can then engage personal and collective agency in how under-utilised or disused spaces along high streets could be reimagined and repurposed. They also spoke of the need to think beyond the physical boundaries of the high street, considering routes to and from it, as well as adjacent areas, to ensure that our towns and cities are being designed holistically as complete places.

Our in-person Education group felt that the transactional and retail nature of current high streets isolates younger people, who often are unable to ‘buy into’ much of what is offered. They considered the idea of relocating schools and nurseries to high streets, to not only help foster inter-generational opportunities but to also expand the idea of what education is and offers beyond the four walls of schools, integrating life experience into the curriculum. By expanding ideas around education, can we move towards the high street being used as a platform for community learning? 

This group also spoke about potential barriers to education, identifying formal, civic facilities as potentially off-putting spaces which can be intimidating for some. By utilising the high street as a democratic space for communities, which is familiar, accessible and welcoming for all, could we redefine learning opportunities and spaces to be more multi-generational and multicultural, and integrate learning at every stage of our lives?


The in-person Community group also explored ideas around the accessibility of high streets, but through the lens of transport as a means of bringing people together on high streets. They felt that to build community, we need to bring people from all walks of life into our high street spaces and in order to achieve this, transport needs to be convenient, affordable and accessible. They spoke about the ideal situation of removing cars from high streets and town centres, but acknowledged that instead of an outright ban, which would create challenges for those with limited mobility, making it more inconvenient to use cars whilst increasing the convenience of public transport would be a more appropriate solution. 

The Community group talking through some key points using post-it notes and pipe cleaners

Expanding this idea of transport as the physical route to building community, they also proposed extending existing transport lines and adding more stops, to encourage people to visit other parts of their towns and cities, allowing a deeper connection to suburbs, inviting people to stray from their regular commuter routes, as well as providing more bike lanes to encourage sustainable travel.

Challenging the status quo

Our final event proved to be as inspiring and thought-provoking as the others in this WEdesign series, bringing together student work, ideas and creativity with a diverse range of participants from across the UK to explore how we can design more sustainable high streets. There were several key themes and propositions that emerged from the groups’ discussions, which included:

We would like to extend our thanks to all those who took part in this event, and so generously shared your time, knowledge and ideas. We would also like to thank the staff and students at Sheffield School of Architecture, who welcomed us into their studio space and facilitated the fantastic discussions during the evening.

We will be producing a short publication in the coming weeks which captures an overview of this year’s WEdesign series, so keep an eye on our resources page or sign up for our newsletter through our website to keep up-to-date with this development. 

We are pleased to announce that the Ove Arup Foundation is supporting a new dedicated role at The Glass-House to lead and further develop our WEdesgn programme. We are currently recruiting for a WEdesign Programme Manager to join our team. Find out more and apply for the role by following the link here.